Whenever a public figure comes out publicly to answer a scandalous accusation or exposé against them, I instinctively measure their performance against the big-time examples of denial and defense, which are safely memorialized in the annals of history.
I think of these now as I ponder the nightmare that Senator Leila De Lima must be living through, and her desperate quest for an availing strategy or tactic to surmount the devastating attack fired against her by President Duterte on Wednesday.
She must simultaneously fend off (1) a charge that she is an adulterer, and kept a lover who was both an employee of the Department of Justice and an agent of the illegal drugs trade; and (2) that she received drug lord payoffs to fund her campaign for the Senate in the May elections.
You cannot wipe away the shame and stain by a simple denial; you need a well- crafted strategy of putting your response into words and into an action plan. Hence, I say it’s instructive to study how the big scalawags in history wiggled out of their predicaments.
1. Bill Clinton: I did not have sex with that woman.
First on my ‘wall of shame’ defenses is
Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman.”
On August 17, 1998, in a television address to the nation from the White House, President Clinton acknowledged that he had an inappropriate relationship with onetime intern Monica S. Lewinsky and deceived the American people about it, but he defiantly challenged independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr to stop “prying into private lives.”
Clinton dropped the defense he used seven months earlier, of saying he did not have sex with “that woman” and of making a distinction between getting head and having intercourse.
“I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate,” he said: “ I know that my public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression,” he added, although he did not say directly that he had sex with Lewinsky. “I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that.”
The Washington Post reported: “The president’s tone during his five-minute statement was flavored with as much anger as remorse as he lashed out at [special prosecutor]Kenneth Starr and declared: “I intend to reclaim my family life for my family,” he said. “It’s nobody’s business but ours. Even presidents have private lives. It is time to stop the pursuit of personal destruction and the prying into private lives and get on with our national life.”
2. Richard Nixon: “I am not a crook”
My second specimen of scandal defense is Richard Nixon’s five-word classic: “I am not a crook.”
On November 17, 1973, at a press conference in Orlando, Florida, President Nixon addressed media stories of crooked dealings by the President.
He said: “I want to say this to the television audience. I made my mistakes. But in all of my years of public life, I have never profited – never profited from public service. I’ve earned every cent. And in all of my years of public life, I have never obstructed justice … because people have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook. I’ve earned everything I’ve got.”
Nixon was elected to the US presidency in 1968, and reelected in 1972. But he was forced to resign his office in 1973 because of the Watergate scandal.
De Lima’s defense
How does Senator de Lima’s response to Duterte’s accusations measure against these classic cases of shame defense?
Alas, not well at all. Where Clinton and Nixon surmounted their ordeal, de Lima could sink deeper in the quicksand of scandal and embarrassment. Duterte may have more bombs to explode.
I listened to de Lima’s press conference statement diligently, but I looked in vain for a coherent strategy that could get her off the hook.
Surprisingly, Leila desisted from denying the truth of any of Duterte’s allegations.
She opted, instead, for an underdog strategy of:
1. Harping on the mismatch between the awesome powers of the President, and her limited powers as a senator.
2. Alleging the abuse and misuse of executive power by President Duterte;
3. Playing on public sympathy because she is a woman whose honor has been trampled on; and
4. Declaring that the President’s attacks were brought on by her decision to lead the Senate inquiry next week into the administration’s war on drugs, and the extrajudicial killings.
In the absence of her denial of an adulterous affair, most Filipinos have concluded that she is, indeed, having an affair with her driver and subordinate, and that she gave him two houses in Pangasinan.
The affair is said to be an open secret at the justice department and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI). There’s even an alleged sex video that has been making the rounds on social media; and many dread the prospect of watching it. Yet, she does not categorically deny the allegations.
A problem of credibility
De Lima’s big problem is her lack of credibility, in comparison with President Duterte’s high trust and approval rating.
People remember her as President BS Aquino’s hatchet girl for the persecution of his political enemies, like former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and former chief justice Renato Corona. They remember how she even defied a Supreme Court order allowing Arroyo to travel abroad.
For six years, De Lima was head of two critical pillars of our criminal justice system – the pro section arm and the correctional arm. Under her, the country’s prisons system became a tool for the drug trade. And prosecutions focused mainly on jailing and harassing political opponents.
Filipinos are great believers in karma or gaba – retribution for the bad things that people do in life. Many believe that de Lima is now reaping the karmic destiny that she has sown.
Liberal Party is no help
If a poll were taken today on where Filipinos side in this face-off between de Lima and Duterte, it is highly likely that more than 80 percent will side with the President. Meanwhile, the senator would be lucky to get 10 percent of public support.
Even de Lima’s colleagues in the Liberal Party are not convinced she’s free of the blame.
The day after the Duterte blast, the party released a supposedly official statement calling on Senate President Aquilino Pimentel 3rd to stand by de Lima for Senate independence.
It was hardly a ringing endorsement for the lady senator. No Liberal senator or Liberal leader was mentioned in the release.
Miraculously, the press release was carried all over the media, despite the lack of attribution.
The Liberal Party, scared to become the political opposition, is not only missing from our politics today; it is even missing from its own press releases.