‘Whatever else shall pass away, this must remain’
THIS is the standard that I privately apply to the inaugural addresses of Presidents and Prime Ministers, in this country or elsewhere. Oftentimes, the speeches just perish on the page or on the computer monitor. But a few remain and grab mind and heart, eliciting occasional recollection and quotation.
The magnificent line “whatever else shall pass away” was uttered by the arch-villain in Peter Schaffer’s play, Amadeus, after hearing The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart.
So I await with bated breath the inaugural address at high noon today of our 16th President, Rodrigo Duterte.
Will he shock or rouse the nation to action?
Or will he inaugurate the start of a new era in this country?
Yanks borrow from Filipinos
It’s not usual for American politicians to borrow ideas and lines from the speeches of Filipino Presidents. Usually it’s our politicians who do the cribbing.
But I can point to two clear instances where the Yankees have borrowed from the words of our better Presidents.
Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican Party nominee for President in the US elections in November, was evidently captivated by a line—“this nation can be great again”—from Ferdinand Marcos’s inaugural address on Dec. 30, 1965. He liked it so much he has made it the rallying cry for his presidential campaign.
The exact words of Marcos were: “This nation can be great again. It is my article of faith, and Divine Providence has willed that you and I can now translate this faith into deeds.”
Barack Obama, usually eloquent in his speechmaking, has borrowed the phrase and idea “winning the future” from the inaugural speech of President Fidel V. Ramos, on June 30, 1992.
Ramos said: “This nation will endure, this nation will prevail and this nation will prosper again—if we hold together.
“With God’s blessing for all just causes, let us make common cause to win the future.”
Ramos’s line was also borrowed by former US Speaker and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. He liked it so much he used it as the title for a book. But the indefatigable FVR beat him to the bookmaking part; he used it earlier as the title for a collection of his speeches, To Win the Future.
Cory had no inaugural address
Surprisingly, considering that she used American and British speechwriters, Corazon Aquino has not been cribbed from at all. One reason is that she never bothered to deliver an inaugural address.
She was sworn into office on Feb. 25, 1986 at Club Filipino, as the climax of the EDSA people power revolt.
In some accounts, it is recorded in photograph and caption that she took her oath before “Chief Justice Claudio Teehankee.” This is inaccurate. Teehankee was an associate justice at the time; he would not become chief justice until April 2,1986, after Aquino had proclaimed a revolutionary government and abolished the national assembly and reorganized the Supreme Court. The real chief justice at the time of Cory’s accession to office was Ramon Aquino, who curiously sported her own surname.
In the records, there is an interesting account from the BBC of what took place on Feb 25,1986:
“The new Philippines President Corazon Aquino is sworn in today, bringing to an end years of dictatorship under Ferdinand Marcos.
Mr. Marcos was threatening to go ahead with his own swearing-in ceremony today at his heavily-guarded palace.
However, the United States, which has supported him in office since he was first elected in 1965, finally withdrew its backing three days ago.
In her first news conference, Mrs. Aquino announced that she would not be living in the presidential palace, as it was not fitting for the leader of such an impoverished nation.
She also urged the people to be patient, saying the problems inflicted by 20 years of Marcos’s corrupt rule could not be remedied overnight.
Cory’s son, Benigno BS Aquino III, had his own inauguration at the Quirino Grandstand, in Rizal Park, on June 30, 2010. He delivered his inaugural address in Filipino.
Judging by the press accounts of the inauguration, the line that resonated in Aquino’s address was “Kayo ang boss ko (You are the boss so I cannot ignore your orders. You are the ones who brought me here).”
Who would ever think of stealing this banality?
Gravitas larger than the inductee
The inauguration of a Filipino President has a gravitas that is larger than the inductee.
Some incoming Presidents are awed by the traditional ceremony, they do not want to take their oath under the shadow of Jose Rizal. President Estrada took his inauguration to Malolos, Bulacan, site of the first Philippine Congress.
President Duterte will take the inaugural indoors to Malacañang. He wants to keep the ceremony simple and small.
Why the speech matters
The magnitude of a presidential speech, especially an inaugural address, is captured vividly by Peggy Noonan (speechwriter to Ronald Reagan and, later, to George H.W. Bush), in her memoir, What I saw at the Revolution (Random House, 1990).
“A speech is a soliloquy—one man on a bare stage. He will tell us who he is and what he wants and how he will get it, and what it means that he wants it and what it will mean when he does or does not get it.”
Going more technical about the art of speechwriting, she went on: “A speech is part theater and part political declaration; it is a personal communication between a leader and his people; it is art, and all art is a paradox, being at once a thing of great power and great delicacy.”
The irony of modern speeches is that as our ability to disseminate them has exploded, their quality has declined. Some blame the decline on the contemporary obsession with soundbites—the short 20-second takeaways that broadcast networks hurry to get from an event.
The fact is, the really great soundbites—“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”; “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself”; “Ask what you can do for your country”; “Tear down this wall”—were not just snippets from a speech but reflected the essence of speeches that were profound.
The words abide with us, long after the speakers of them have passed away.