No one can accuse Carlos P. Romulo, the journalist-soldier turned statesman, of not taking public speaking seriously. His speeches, written in the distant pre-computer past, are laboriously typed on onion-skin paper, corrected by hand, and revised several times before delivery. Evidently, he was a firm believer in tightly scripted public speaking.
The archives of the United Nations in New York, where I was researching last year, has preserved copies of the speech Romulo delivered at the inaugural conference of the United Nations that was held in San Francisco in the spring of 1945. There are ‘advance’ copies, ‘reserve’ copies and ‘draft’ copies. Each copy attests to the fine sifting that went on before the finished version was achieved. One of these typescripts was scribbled all over with numerous changes and deletions: there are word substitutions, sentences are amended, with the new insertions handwritten in black ink; entire sentences are scored through, bracketed, crossed out and shifted around as indicated by arrows and asterisks. Clearly he thought hard about his words, about how he said them, the cadence of his voice, the felicity of his expression, knowing that these fortified the credibility of his argument. He aimed for maximum effect. The points where he felt he should pause, slow down, become emphatic, or wait for applause, are all marked up in pencil. And he liked a dramatic beginning: “Let us make this floor the last battlefield” was his opening salvo to the UN delegates.
Romulo had been appointed chair of the Philippine delegation to the Conference and he represented the pre-independent Philippines as Resident Commissioner to the United States in Washington. It’s not hard to imagine him speaking with aplomb, bidding his vocal muscle to perform and project his ego. He was no critic, however. Much like himself, his speeches were smoothly ingratiating in tone and anodyne in substance, the mark of a skilled political operator.
Claro M. Recto, in contrast, bristled. I have not seen the original draft texts of Recto’s speeches, but reading some of them reveals a rhetorical style marked by intellectual depth as well as polish. It is likely he disdained Romulo’s sort of grandiloquence. If Jose ‘Pepe’ Diokno was the country’s most inspiring speaker of the late 20th century, Recto, active a generation or so earlier, was arguably his oratorical predecessor.
Elected to the Senate in 1951 and a lawyer by training, Recto infuriated the Presidential administrations of Ramon Magsaysay and Elpidio Quirino. His combative stance on their domestic, but most especially foreign policies, was faultlessly authoritative, intellectually imposing, and ire-inducing. He excoriated both administrations for their mendicancy, devotion to, and trust in the United States, a trust he argued was seriously misplaced. These two Presidents, he thought, were under the delusion that the US was “driven by some strange predilection for our [Filipino] people.” The attitude, in his view, brought shame on the country. Such deference reduced the status of the Philippines to that of “a banana republic in the Caribbean,” he said contemptuously.
“Though we may feel the deepest admiration and respect for the American people, for their sense of fairness … their love of liberty and justice … their patriotic pride … their deep and constant concern for their world destiny, still we should not believe, and think it is wrong for us to believe and to act as if we believed, that American policy can ever have any objective other than the security, welfare, and interest of the American people.”
Recto died 56 years ago, on Oct. 2, 1960. I mourn the passing of his brand of intelligent articulacy in the realm of Philippine politics. Rebellious words dispensed with elegance and erudition are all too rare, and our political discourse is the poorer for it.
Rodrigo Duterte recently voiced his own anti-American sentiments. His speech was a garble of aggressive words whose force principally resided in blistering vulgar profanity. Nevertheless, his words receive our approval because in our semi-literate sound bite age, we have come to respect what is trying to be said, rather than what is said. We are enthralled by glibness and put-downs delivered with a sledgehammer. Should US President Barack Obama have dared to lecture him on human rights, Duterte would not have hesitated to “kick him in front of everybody,” or so he promised. “Son of a whore, I’ll curse you in that forum,” he threatened Obama. His words are applauded for their defiance and for being seemingly stripped of artifice. Mistaking crude hyperbole for honesty is the least of the problems with this kind of dangerous talk.
The left-wing British historian Tony Judt, in the last years of his life, reflected on the importance of words and the need to maintain their integrity. For him, “poor expression belied poor thought.” Confused words suggested confused ideas or dissimulation. Judt suffered from a debilitating neurological disorder that eventually paralyzed his ability to talk. For someone who lived by words and cherished them, his illness was catastrophic. “I appreciate more than ever how vital communication is to the republic: not just the means by which we live together but part of what living together means. If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have.”