What do these three leaders have in common? Why did I unceremoniously lump them together, after just two days of the new year?
1. Nero, emperor of Rome from 54-68 A.D., Nero played his harp while Rome was burning in 64 A.D.
2. Barack Obama, president of the United States of America (from 2008 to the present), played golf weekly while forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) rampaged in the Middle East killing and beheading combatants, civilians and journalists and reducing towns and cities to rubble.
3. Benigno Aquino 3rd, president of the Republic of the Philippines (from 2010 to the present), went to the movies and attended an ostentatious show-business (real not make-believe) wedding, while thousands of the Filipino people and countless communities were drowning from torrential floods and mudslides.
The common thread linking all three in this column is the theme: How did they behave and act in the crucible of crisis and leadership during difficult periods in their respective nations’ histories?
Nero and the burning of Rome
For six days and seven nights the citizens of ancient Rome watched helplessly as their city burned. The great fire that consumed Rome in A.D. 64 spread quickly and savagely. After it was over, 70 percent of the city had been destroyed. “Of Rome’s 14 districts, only four remained intact. Three were leveled to the ground. The other seven were reduced to a few scorched and mangled ruins,” wrote the contemporary Roman historian Tacitus. Of Rome’s one million population, half were rendered homeless by the fire.
As is usual in such mass tragedies, rumors were rife in the immediate aftermath. Reports emerged that some men were seen fanning the flames while the fires were raging. the Roman people, feeling the effects of paranoia, looked for someone who might be responsible for the fire. They blamed their emperor — Nero.
The most interesting and persistent rumor that emerged from the great fire was the tale that Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned.
In the face of such charges, Nero searched for a scapegoat for the fire. He chose the Christians and persecuted them ruthlessly, torturing and executing them in hideous ways. But the fiddling tale persisted and survives to this day.
The idea that Nero fiddled while Rome burned is, in fact, a myth. A mad tyrant who preferred to play music rather than offer succor to his people is not believable, although Nero was unquestionably cruel. The story is a myth because the violin wasn’t invented until 1,500 years later.
But it is historically known that Nero actually considered himself a serious musician. He did play another stringed instrument, the harp-like cithara, for which he had a real passion. In conquered lands, Nero coordinated festivals that featured musical competitions and he competed in them all with predictable success.
Obama, the golfer and anti-president
President Obama has played so much golf since his election to the US presidency that journalists and media organizations compete in counting and reporting the number of times he has been on the golf course.
During more than half of the weeks he’s been president, mostly on weekends, President Obama has gone golfing. He’s hit the links so many times that the US press is comparing him to the last presidential hyper-golfer, Dwight Eisenhower. That has led reporters to coin a new phrase for the weekend golf pool coverage: “Eisenhower duty.”
The cost on presidential performance is huge. According to Mort Zuckerman, editor of US news and World Report, Obama has had over 195 golf outings, in addition to over 130 vacation days. “It seems like he spends as little time as humanly possible doing his job as president. Governing seems to be secondary to being a celebrity.”
Meanwhile, his administration has faltered badly in the conduct of foreign policy. While crisis has stalked Ukraine and the Middle East, Obama has been missing in providing leadership.
In a devastating analysis, Zuckerman calls Obama “the anti-president.” He wrote: “He sometimes acts in manners at odds with the framers of the Constitution. Obama is responsible for the long painful slide from hope and change to partisan gridlock. He turns out to be the odd case of a pragmatist who can’t learn from his mistakes. He has failed to fill the leadership void. He doesn’t lead, and he doesn’t understand why we [Americans] don’t feel led.”
Aquino, the show-biz president
The social media website “Showbiz Government” (on Facebook) hit the bull’s-eye when it suggested that we Filipinos are living today under a show-business government. It’s so popular and naughty that one daily (not the Times) made the mistake of copying one Showbiz Gov mock photo of President Aquino and run it on its front page.
During the recent holidays, in the run-up to Christmas and the New Year, President Aquino confirmed vividly and emphatically that he’s a true believer in show business, or showbiz for short. Kris Aquino is not the only show-biz fanatic in the family left behind by Cory and Ninoy Aquino.
In the short span of just a little over a week, while the Philippine South was being battered by Typhoon Seniang, the President squeezed the following show-biz activities into the presidential calendar:
1.Aquino sat through screenings of movies entered in the Metro Manila Film Festival, in particular the film featuring Kris’ son Bimby, “Praybet Benjamin,” and the film starring and produced by Kris Aquino, “Feng Shui 2.” The other sisters and their families dutifully joined in the special screenings.
Aquino did not review the films, but it was plainly hoped that the special screening would boost the films’ performance at the box office. 2. Aquino attended the highly publicized show-biz wedding of Dingdong Dantes and Marian Rivera, serving as witness-of-honor.
Everyone who is anyone in show-biz was there. And the event was predictably covered end-to-end by the TV networks.
The wedding has been criticized heavily for its thoughtless extravagance at a time of distress in the land.
The cake and the bridal gown were the most expensive ever invented in this country.
3. Aquino granted a one-on-one interview with comedian Vice Ganda for the latter’s program “Ganda Gabi Vice” to be aired by ABS-CBN tomorrow, January 4.
This was a direct slap against the regular press covering Malacanang. Aquino makes no bones about his disdain for all media that report and criticize the shortcomings of the administration.
The presidential choices would not have generated so much controversy if not for the glaring reality of Typhoon Seniang.
Seniang, which everyone expected to be comparatively tame and mild, turned out to be more destructive and deadly than the earlier and highly feared Typhoon Ruby. It caught the administration and most responders by surprise. The administration was again caught with its pants down.
By the time Seniang receded, the toll was grim: 54 dead, hundreds injured and missing, millions of damage to public works and property.
DILG Secretary Mar Roxas, the usual disaster troubleshooter of the government, was nowhere to be found this time around.