First, a disclosure and digression from my intended subject: a tribute to Sen. Miriam Defensor–Santiago, who died in her sleep on Thursday morning.
1. Disclosure – I was the sneaky journalist-columnist, who, back in 1988 dubbed Miriam Defensor Santiago, “the mouth that roared” on the pages of the Philippine Daily Globe.
The comment, which appeared in the “Good Morning” front-page column of the paper, took off from a Peter Sellers movie entitled “The Mouse that Roared,” which was released in 1959.
I imagined that the funny film was the sort that Miriam, with her sense of humor, would have seen and enjoyed. And I meant my piece to be more appreciative than critical of her public career.
2. Digression – Mouse was the unknown Peter Sellers’ first starring role in a feature film. Its plot revolves around how a country can prosper by losing a war to the United States. As the fictitious smallest country in the world, the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, located in the French Alps and founded by an English nobleman (making it the only European country where English is spoken), goes bankrupt because it has lost its only export, its wine, as a California company put out a cheaper imitation and stole its American market. The prime minister proposes that they declare war on the United States and quickly surrender to receive aid under the Marshall Plan.
The 20-man Fenwick army, armed with bows and arrows, sails into New York to surrender, but finds the city deserted due to an air-raid drill. Instead, Fenwick’s armed men accidentally end up possessing the
experimental, most powerful weapon in the world, the Q-Bomb (which has the capacity of 100 hydrogen bombs), as they take hostage its atomic scientist inventor. Back in Fenwick, the surprised victors find the United States suing for peace and the entire world backing them in the hopes of getting their hands on the bomb while also fearing their new power.
The film’s funniest bit comes as a visual gag in the opening credits involving the Columbia Pictures statue of liberty logo. It has Lady Liberty hiking up her skirt and running off the podium, frightened by a mouse.
Quarreling with the US as a DU30 strategy
The Peter Sellers film is oddly appropriate to recall at this time, because some of us think that President Duterte’s strategy today of picking a quarrel with the US is a half-baked policy designed to secure advantages in the world for his government and for the country.
By taking on Barack Obama, the United Nations and the European Union in one long-running tirade, DU30 has drawn a lot of international publicity to himself. He has gotten the attention of Russia and China, and, good heavens, North Korea.
Bigger than the offices she served
So now back to Miriam.
Many people will remember most her witticisms, jokes, wisecracks, and epigrammatic sayings. But she was much, much bigger than these.
She was much bigger than all the offices she served—immigration commissioner, secretary of agrarian reform, and senator – and she rose above all of them and her contemporaries to claim a unique and special place in our public life.
She was much bigger than her failed bids for the presidency – first in 1992 (an election which many believe she won), next in 1998, and finally in 2016.
But short of the highest office of the land, she made an indelible mark in our politics and public life.
She was an authentic conviction politician, who made principles and values the guiding light in her political career.
As immigration commissioner, she got my attention not with remarks that “she ate death threats for breakfast,” but with her campaign to fight the culture of corruption that was gnawing away at the vitals of our republic.
When President Cory moved her to the post of secretary of agrarian reform, the Commission of Appointments refused to confirm her unless she was removed from the Cabinet.
Her appointment was quietly rescinded, some said because she opposed the Aquino scheme to keep Hacienda Luisita from the farmers through a stock distribution formula.
When she ran for a seat in the Senate, soon after her failed presidential bid, she won handily and got elected to three terms. In the senate, she quickly established her reputation as a quick-witted and able lawmaker in parliamentary debate, in the writing of legislation, and in the conduct of committee hearings.
A moral force in national life
She figured prominently in the impeachment trial of former Chief Justice Renato Corona, which President BS Aquino made a priority of his presidency.
When the hour of decision came, Miriam stood with two other senators (Senators Joker Arroyo and Bongbong Marcos) to acquit Corona, while the others voted to convict.
When the smoke cleared, the sordidness of the entire affair came to light. The senators who voted to convict him were said to have been given by Aquino between P50 million and P100 million each for their votes. The three who dissented got nothing.
In inveighing repeatedly against corruption and the plunder of public funds, Miriam became a moral force in national life. She was ineluctably a statesman, and she had gravitas, which was strangely combined with grandiloquence.
Her career should have ended with her appointment to the International Criminal Court at the Hague, but the crushing handicap of cancer prevented her from taking the post.
Poignant and rending final days
Her final days were poignant and rending, as she struggled to appear in the campaign, and repeatedly had to go to hospital for her cancer treatment. Many hoped desperately that her claim of recovery from the dreaded illness was true.
The truth was sadder than we knew.
In closing, I am proud to say again that I voted for Miriam in the 2016 election, because I thought she was the most worthy of our highest office, by reason of her record, her intellect, and her unswerving patriotism.
In a revealing passage in her book, Stupid is Forever, Senator Santiago said:
“No one will remember me if I suddenly drop dead tomorrow. But generations after you and me would be able to put behind them the culture of corruption, and build a new shining nation with leaders who are neither dazzled by the material world, nor confused about their purpose in life.”
A giant has left our midst. Let us not make the mistake of thinking that only dwarfs remain in the Senate now. Rather, let us spur those who man its ramparts to exert themselves as energetically, as wittily, and as wisely as Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago did.