“Any man who does not know how to be President on his first day of office will never learn till the end of his term.”
– Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State
He looks like an ordinary Joe, but he is not. He was once upon a time a Speaker of the House of Representatives, Congress of the Philippines – very influential and looking like a would-be President of the Philippines.
He behaved like a President of the Republic because he towered above all of them—from Corazon Aquino to Benigno PNoy Aquino III- in intelligence, in training and experience in the lower House, his incisive stabs into analysis and dissection of Philippine foreign affairs, and his vision of the country.
I had not met Joe de Venecia until Fidel V. Ramos became President of the Philippines. I had heard and read about the man in highly creditable terms. He impressed quite a number of people in the country. He has displayed a kind of charisma that charmed so many people. I viewed him as a man with a promise – with a strong probability of scaling the heights of power in the country.
It was already in the declining years of President Ferdinand E. Marcos when I almost met Joe de Venecia. Our youngest lawyer in the family, my brother Reino, told me in one occasion that I was invited to the wedding of his niece to Dale Cabrera. I told Reino that he should represent me in the wedding reception as I would be leaving for Washington, DC, USA, at about the time of the scheduled wedding. I was quite surprised why I got invited to the wedding when I had not yet met Joe personally.
When I returned to Manila from my trip to the United States, I asked Reino whether he attended the wedding of the niece of Joe de Venecia. He said he did attend the wedding. So I asked him any special reason why Joe invited me. My brother told me the reason why Joe invited me to the reception was for the primary purpose of Joe wanting to talk with me to convince me to run for President against Marcos.
It was a titillating idea but I was determined to give way to my elders like Senator Salvador Laurel, who was then the leading light of the Nacionalista Party. There were convincing reasons why I should give way to my elders like Doy Laurel. In the case of Doy, he had more resources; he was more known in the country; and he came from the legendary Laurel family of Batangas that produced a President of the Philippines, a Speaker of the House of Representatives and a leading member of the Philippine Senate. So I dismissed the idea of Joe de Venecia as conveyed to me by my brother Reino. But the de Venecia temptation lingered for quite a while in my mind.
Fates had a way of my meeting Joe de Venecia again when he was already a Speaker of the House of Representatives during the time of President Fidel Ramos. It was a friend of mine and law partner who had me met Speaker de Venecia.
Again for historical accuracy, I am quoting that encounter with Joe de Venecia in my book, Ideas, Principles and Lost Opportunities.
In 1994, two years after the assumption of Ramos as President, Speaker de Venecia and Congressman Edelmiro Amante talked with me in the Speaker’s Office at the Batasan. It was de Venecia who started the conversation, saying: “Bono, why don’t you work with us?’
“As what?” I countered with a question.
“You have a choice of three positions,” De Venecia answered.
“What positions?” I asked.
“There are two immediate positions you can choose from. If you wish to take your oath today, we can immediately proceed to Malacañang to take your oath as Solicitor General because the President wants to replace Raul Goco,” De Venecia explained.
“I can’t accept Solicitor General as your administration has losing cases,” I replied.
“Bono, the position does not make any difference. With your ability, you will always shine in any position you occupy. Besides, even if you lose all your cases, you will surely become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, just like Roman Ozaeta,” said de Venecia, in his usual engaging self, out to compliment anyone he wants to do something for him.
“No, Mr. Speaker, I am not that kind of a lawyer,” I stopped him dead in his tracks.
“Dodoy, the Speaker is right, the position does not really make any difference,” Amante joined in the conversation.
“It does,” I replied.
“What about being Chairman of the Comelec? But in the coming elections, you must be kind to us,” De Venecia made another offer, hinting, however, that as Chairman, I must behave like the others, who cheated for the party who placed them in office.
“No, Mr. Speaker, I will not accept the job under that condition. I’d rather we remain friends than become enemies. If I become Chairman, I will give this country clean and honest elections. It’s not difficult to do that, if you know how,” I again dismissed the idea of accepting the job.
“What about being Secretary of Justice?” Amante butted in.
“The position I will accept subject to certain conditions. First, the President must observe a policy of non-interference in the performance of my duties. Second, I will only stay for a year to build a justice system worthy of our people. Why a year? Because if I can’t do it for a year, nobody else can, and that’s that,” I insisted.
Joe de Venecia’s job overtures came to nought
Nothing happened to Joe de Venecia’s job overtures. For the job of Secretary of Justice, the objections were insurmountable coming from Senator Letty Shahani because I was one of two lead counsels for Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago during the national canvassing in the presidential elections of 1992. The others were about five members of the cabinet who complained to President Ramos that I am too independent-minded and not a team player.
Despite Speaker de Venecia’s persuasive ability, the objections of the sister of the President and five members of the Cabinet were too much to overcome. Like an old brilliant warrior, Speaker de Venecia knew that in this instance he could not win.
What do these moments show? They demonstrate the sterling qualities of a President who never was. Looking unto the history of the United States of America you will find parallels of the qualities of Speaker de Venecia in brilliant Presidents of the United States of America like the only four-term President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and the youngest President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK).
The qualities you find in FDR and JFK, you could also find in Speaker de Venecia. First, he is quite articulate and persuasive. Second, he knows how to spot the right people to do the job for him. Third, he has a plan of action on what to do in the House and in the country.
Fourth, he knows how the country moves and the forces that handle the control mechanisms. Fifth, he is quite knowledgeable about the country and the world. Sixth, he knows how to be President.
In the course of my law practice, I met Speaker de Venecia once again when I represented Congressman Antonio Diaz of Zambales in a case before the Ethics Committee of the House of Representatives. Congresswoman Kate Gordon, wife of Senator Richard Gordon, and Congresswoman Andrea Domingo of Pampanga, charged Congressman Diaz with having misappropriated the funds for the Mt. Pinatubo victims by using them in the meetings of his committee in the Furusato Restaurant at EDSA.
The complaint did not contain any documentary evidence. Lawyers of the ladies asked for Speaker de Venecia to issue subpoenas duces tecum to several officials of the House to produce the desired documents. The subpoenas were in the nature of fishing expeditions. So I was averse to the issuance of the subpoenas.
Because of media pressure, Speaker de Venecia was poised to issuing the subpoenas.
Before the issuance of the desired subpoenas, Congressman Edel Amante who was a friend of Congressman Diaz told me that unless I see de Venecia, the subpoenas will be issued.
Consistent with Edel’s advice, I went to see Joe and asked him, “Mr.Speaker, is it true you are issuing subpoenas to produce documents for the complainants in the hands of some government officials?”
“Bono, I’m sorry I have to issue the subpoenas because I’m already pilloried in media,” he answered.
“Mr. Speaker, issuing a subpoena, under the circumstances, is against the law. If you issue the subpoenas, then you will compel me to file a case against you immediately before the Ombudsman,” I answered.
“Are you sure it’s against the law?” He asked in return.
“Sure, I’m sure,” I replied.
“If that is the case, you don’t expect me to violate the law. I will not issue the subpoenas,” he concluded. The subpoenas were never issued. Congresswomen Gordon and Domingo lost the case before the House Ethics Committee, with Kate Gordon telling Supreme Court Justice Adolf Azcuna, who was present during the last day of the Ethics Committee hearing, that they lost the case to a criminal mind. So Azcuna asked Kate, “Who is the criminal mind? Congressman Diaz?”
Kate Gordon came out with an immediate reply, “No, not Tony Diaz, he does not have it in him. It’s Adaza, his lawyer.”
Of course, the Gordon comment was said in anger. I just smiled when Justice Azcuna, my friend, told me about it after the hearing was adjourned. But this case of Diaz proves that Speaker de Venecia is a fair and just man, and a man of the law. The constituents of Congressman Diaz vindicated Speaker de Venecia and the Ethics Committee by their sending Tony Diaz of Zambales back to the House of Representatives with a majority of more than one hundred thousand votes.
I chanced to meet with Speaker de Venecia again when he was running for President in the elections of 1998. It was obvious he was the most deserving to be President among the candidates.
Not because I was Commissioner of Immigration under the watch of President Ramos at that time, but I was seriously convinced Speaker de Venecia was the right man for the right job.
For literary accuracy, I am lifting from my book, Leaders From Marcos to Arroyo, my encounter with Speaker de Venecia.
The leading contender of Ramos party was Speaker Joe de Venecia. Congressman Amante, my law partner and I extensively discussed who the best candidate Ramos could support. It was quite obvious that the best of the lot was Joe de Venecia – imaginative and creative, experienced in both domestic and foreign affairs and a very smart wheeler dealer.
However, with the very dismal, if not totally embarrassing image of the Lower House, it was nigh impossible to have the Speaker elected as President of the Philippines.
I told him I didn’t believe he could win
Amante and I sought an audience with De Venecia at his residence at the plush Dasmariñas Village, Makati City to discuss his slim chances of winning.
“Mr. Speaker,” Amante started the conversation, “Bono has something to tell you.”
“Joe, Edel and I don’t believe you can win the presidency. There are many issues your opponents are raising against you which you cannot successfully answer in sixty days of campaigning. First, you are viewed as a promising politician. Out of 10 promises you cannot fulfill 11. Second, during the time of Marcos you made millions out of Landoil even if the company neither had land nor oil. Third, you have a face which people cannot trust.
So they say, ‘how can you win?” I told him very bluntly.
“Bono you are not for me, you must be working for my opponents,” De Venecia commented.
“Joe you are wrong. We are telling you this because you are our friend. It’s better for you to run for the Senate as you will surely be elected, then Senate President. From there it is easy to propel yourself to the Presidency,” I expanded my arguments.
“You know, Mr. Speaker, Bono is right,” Amante seconded.
“Besides, President Ramos will not enthusiastically support your bid. To begin with, you are better prepared to be President than Ramos, meaning you would be a better President than Ramos. So why should the President allow you to overshadow him considering you come from the same province?” I said something more intriguing than Joe de Venecia would ever entertain or imagine.
“No, Bono, the President assured me of his full support,” De Venecia emphasized.
“Joe, my old man who was mayor of our town for more than 20 years used to tell people when he hears someone make assurances which he does not mean to fulfill, ‘That is to his according.’ I am telling you now that is the kind of assurance he made to you,” I tried hard to drive home my point.
But De Venecia being a Ramos loyalist stuck to his guns. This shows how good a follower is de Venecia. But that is a good virtue for a follower, not for a leader. When you are skirting the heights of national leadership, your first preoccupation must be the country above all else. This escaped Joe, together with his readings and experiences. But Joe is not alone in this for an Achilles’ heel. For Joe, it is loyalty to a person, for others, it is loyalty to ideas, principles and a false sense of reputation and integrity. Whichever is the reason, it is one and the same; it is a serious error of judgment.
Despite our advice, Joe decided to run for President. As an administration candidate, he felt he was riding the crest of the wave which is the usual perception of people and politicians when one is the administration candidate. I was not bullish about Joe’s candidacy as President Ramos. I felt he was an underdog despite Ramos’ support.
My perception of the fate of Joe’s candidacy became more pronounced when President Ramos invited me to join him in the last two weeks of the campaign in Visayas and Mindanao – the usual bailiwicks for any national administration. The leaders of President Ramos in Visayas and Mindanao told him a brazen lie – Joe would win in those regions.
The same leaders told me that unless Ramos cheated for de Venecia or poured a lot of money in the Visayas and Mindanao, Joe would surely lose the election resoundingly.
Speaker de Venecia lost the election – because President Ramos did not cheat for Joe or pour money for Joe to win the election.
When Joe was losing in Mindanao, he called me by phone if there is anything we could do about the Mindanao results. I said “No.” Everything could have been done before the elections by President Ramos but he failed to do it.
Three months or so after the proclamation of the winning presidential candidate, President Ramos invited many of the officials who worked with him in the national government to attend meetings at his residence at Alabang Village. Congressman Edel Amante invited me in two or three of those meetings. In one of those meetings, I met Speaker Joe de Venecia and asked him several questions, “I thought we are strategizing for future moves of this group? Why are we always talking of the legacy of President Ramos? What about you and me?”
“Yes, what about yours and mine?” He replied with an intriguing smile.
I have not seen Joe since then. I just saw his face gracing the cover of his book in one of the book stores in town. I lament the lost opportunity of Joe de Venecia to become President of the Philippines. He is better than any of the Presidents of the Philippines from Corazon “Cory” Aquino to his unprepared son, Benigno Aquino III. Joe could have orchestrated a much more dynamic economic development program as well as evolved more independent and decolonized foreign policies than Cory who knew nothing, in the perception of many. He could have done better than President Ramos in solving the energy problems of the country and avoided the selling of government lands and public utilities to the private sector. He could have done better in solving the insurgency problems and in evading the pitfalls of the jueting controversy than President Estrada. He certainly could have avoided the massive graft and corruption during the lackluster term of President Arroyo. And he certainly would not have authored the many insane and stupid policies of the Benigno Aquino 3rd presidency. And Speaker de Venecia could have done more to make life for the people in the country better.
It is Henry Kisssinger, the Secretary of State of the United
States of America during President Richard Nixon’s time who is credited to have said this: “Any man who does not know how to be President in the first day of office will never learn till the end of his term.” He is right. Philippine presidents from Cory Aquino to Pnoy Aquino did not know how to be president, the first day they were in office. Thus, they have plunged the country from calamity to catastrophe. We need leaders like Speaker de Venecia whose creativity, vision and intelligence can manage the renewal of the country.
But I am afraid Joe’s time has passed. As the cliché goes, time and tide wait for no man.
The Philippines is a queer country. While forty years old is the legal qualification for one to run for President of the Philippines, seventy years old is a popular disqualification to run for President. Under especial circumstances, one could be summoned to the heights if one has the qualifications of Charles de Gaulle of France, Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the United States of America or Winston Churchill of England. Other than qualifications, it is the special need of the hour that could summon you to the highest perches of power and charisma to move people to frenzy for them to demand that you become the national leader.
It is unfortunate for Joe de Venecia that the concatenation of elements is not there for him. It is a waste he could not be President. Anyhow, it is a good play in memory of what could have happened to the country if Joe became President of the Philippines.