I wrote this hours before President Rodrigo Roa Duterte delivered his first state-of-the-nation address to Congress. So I had nothing to report on what he said or the agenda of government that he presented to the nation yesterday.
I discuss here mainly the tradition and some historical tidbits behind the SONA (and its counterpart in the United States—the state-of-the-union message). And I have one aside about Lincoln.
Both the Philippine and American Constitutions mandate the President to report on the state of national life and the presidential agenda during the opening session of Congress. Both are expected in their report to present their legislative agenda and the goals and priorities of their administration.
New officers of Congress
If events transpired according to plan yesterday, Rep. Pantaleon Alvarez of Davao del Norte was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Sen. Aquilino Pimentel 3rd was elected Senate President by majorities in their respective Houses.
Both Pimentel and Alvarez hail from Mindanao, a circumstance that is designed to synchronize with Duterte’s election to the presidency. We now have an all-Mindanao leadership of the executive and legislative branches of government.
The imperialism of Metro Manila has ended, emphatically.
SONA’s lackluster tradition
By force of custom and practice, the SONA in the Philippines has come to be seen by the media and the public as an accomplishment report of the sitting President. He recites perforce the achievements, real or imaginary, of his administration. He, therefore, packs the gallery at the Batasang Pambansa with as many supporters as the place can bear, and they then dutifully burst into applause at designated points of the address. The objective every time is to establish a new record for the most applauses recorded in Philippine political history.
Mainly because of the decadence that has marked the opening of the Philippine Congress in recent years and recent administrations, the Filipino media and public no longer expect significant oratory during the SONA.
In previous times, people were not as jaded about the opening of Congress and the SONA, which were packed with excitement and expectation.
It was in Jan. 1970, after the opening of Congress and the SONA of President Marcos (who was coming off his victorious reelection campaign in Nov. 1969) that the Filipino left launched their famous First Quarter Storm, in a major bid to grab power and launch their hoped-for revolution.
The FQS was one of the factors that led Marcos to declare Martial Law, in Sept. 1972.
Since that time, the annual SONA and opening of Congress have consistently been an automatic raison d’être for the left to stage heavy- breathing demonstrations against the government. The road to the Batasan has been annually converted by the police into an obstacle course for demonstrators to prevent a repeat of another storm.
Lincoln’s civil war message
It may be said that in America also the President’s annual message to Congress is not associated with great oratory—with one significant exception, the second annual message to Congress of Abraham Lincoln.
The address is rated as one of the greatest in US history. Lincoln delivered his second annual message to Congress on Dec. 1,1862, at a time when America was in the crucible of civil war.
At the climax of the address, Lincoln said:
“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We, of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us.
“The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.
“In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.”
The passage is unbelievable for sheer expressiveness and eloquence.
The forces of the Union would go on to win the war under Lincoln’s steely leadership. But at the height of his triumph, he was assassinated by John Wilkes Boothe on April 15,1865.
His voice was stilled forever—but not his words.
The war on drugs
It should be said that when Duterte addressed Congress yesterday, his country is also in a state of war—a war on drugs.
We should not expect eloquence to emerge from the drugs war. But there was some promise of reward for those who watched the SONA yesterday.
Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said that the President’s speech would awaken the patriotism of Filipinos. He declared that on reading a draft of the address, he was moved to tears.
The President wrote it all himself. It went through 10 revisions. And he found the process “enjoyable.”
The interesting part is the revelation that Duterte wrote the speech himself. Filipino Presidents have not written their own speeches for a long, long time.
This was the case with Lincoln also. He wrote all his speeches himself.
If Duterte achieved anything close to Lincoln’s eloquence in his SONA, and if he wins the war on drugs, we are looking, ladies and gentlemen, at a historic presidency.