AMIDST the growing blowback against President Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous war on drugs and its Siamese twin, his war on human rights, I recently caught a wacky TV episode on Netflix, which tries to present a funny caricature of the pistol-packing, venom-belching DU30. This is Episode 15, Season 3 of the political drama TV series “Madame Secretary” on the life and career of the fictional Dr. Elizabeth “Bess” Adams McCord, a CIA analyst for 20 years and a political science professor at the University of Virginia, chosen by her old boss Conrad Dalton, now US President, to replace Secretary of State Vincent Marsh who died in a plane crash.
Titled “Break in Diplomacy,” the episode features McCord’s visit to the Philippines and her meeting with Datu Andrada, the fictional President, described as a “genuine psycho,…a textbook classical narcissist with an exaggerated sense of self-importance, pathological need for admiration, and a complete lack of empathy.” The Philippine Embassy in Washington, D.C. has protested this episode, but there is no sign that any unsavory allusion to the Philippine President has been removed. I am unable to reproduce here the exact dialogue, but I abbreviate and paraphrase.
A meeting in Singapore
The Secretary’s visit happens during the run-up to the “Singapore Interchange,” a proposed meeting of friendly nations led by the US. Dalton sees much to be gained from the Interchange, but Andrada decides to skip it. The White House knows very little of Andrada, except for what Dalton, McCord and Russell Jackson, Dalton’s chief of staff, are currently hearing about him in a video with trenchant sound bites. “No longer will we stoop to accept the title of Little Brown Brothers,” he says. “To hell with their colonial arrogance. I will make the Philippines a superpower. So no, I will not participate in the Singapore Interchange.”
McCord wonders whether he really means what he says or these are merely negotiating tactics.
“Maybe it’s time to call his bluff,” Jackson says. “Cut ‘em loose, let him see how it feels to face the Chinese with nothing but his bluster.”
Dalton disagrees. “Too risky. We need the Philippines to help us keep the Chinese from further encroaching into the South China Sea. There’s really no point in continuing the ‘Singapore Interchange’ without them.”
“Then let me go to Manila first,” McCord suggests. “If his motives are as superficial as (CIA) Director Haymond says they are, they can be easily countered with a little face-to-face diplomacy,” she says.
“Can you reason with the guy in that video?” Jackson asks.
“Who said anything about reason?” says McCord. “I’m gonna play to his ego, offer him some military hardware to boost his superpower fantasy.”
“Give him drones.,” says Jackson. “Everyone and their grandmother loves drones.”
“Go ahead, Bess,” says Dalton. “Put together a package with DoD (Department of Defense). Give it your best shot.”
McCord flies to Manila. And Andrada receives her in Malacañang, dressed in what looks like an off-the-rack “polo barong”, buttoned up to the collar. (DU30, who is much stockier and older than Andrada, played by actor Joel de la Fuente, customarily wears a custom-tailored barong with sleeves rolled up and breast button unbuttoned.)
“May I call you Elizabeth?” he begins.
“Sure,” she says. “May I call you Datu?”
“I don’t think that’s appropriate,” he answers.
“I wanted to congratulate you on your election,” says McCord.
Andrada: “Really? I know Dalton supported my opponent. He underestimated me, but of course, so did my opponent. He had no idea my people would be looking into his crooked financial dealings.”
McCord: “I’m sure you’re going to be a strong and principled leader.”
Andrada: “I will make the Philippines stronger and more independent.”
McCord: “Don’t you find that in the final analysis it is our friendships and our partnerships that determine our true strength?”
Andrada: “If they are the right ones.”
McCord: “Yes. Which is why I’m here, as your partner, to join me in Singapore. You must know how vital these talks are to finalizing the jurisdiction of the remaining contested South China Sea islands. And, um, some of those islands that China is claiming, specifically the Scarborough Shoal, are widely considered to be yours, after all.”
Andrada: “Partners. You call us this now, but that was not your intention when you bought us from Spain, and kept us as a colony after promising us our freedom.”
McCord: “I agree, that was a dark beginning, but it was also a very different time in both of our histories.”
Andrada: “Perhaps it is time for us to go our separate ways.”
Aircraft carrier for Phl?
McCord: “President Andrada, what do you want?”
Andrada: “Oh, what are you offering?”
McCord: “Military reinforcements. Five V-22 Ospreys.”
Andrada: “We would need at least 10 Ospreys.”
McCord: “I can authorize that.”
Andrada: “And a new aircraft carrier.”
McCord: “What about RQ-4 Global Hawks?”
Andrada: “What about tactical nuclear missiles?”
McCord: “I think you know that’s just not on the table. How do you feel about drones?”
Andrada (laughs): I like what I’m hearing. Do you know how sexy it is to hear a woman talking about drones?”
Mc Cord chuckles, Andrada laughs.
Groping the state guest
She goes to get something from her bag on the next chair. But as she bends, her back toward Andrada, he moves closer and touches her butt. She automatically swings around and punches him on the face, breaking his nose. He is shown later with a splint on his nose.
McCord and her staff are advised to leave.
“Breaking the President’s nose isn’t a new form of diplomacy,” Dalton tells McCord at the White House.
“So is groping the Secretary of State, in my experience,” says McCord.
“But you’re okay?”
“I know this doesn’t bode well for the ‘Singapore Interchange’,” says Jackson. “Sugar Ray McCord has put the world on notice how we deal with bullies.”
(Nothing of the incident gets to the press. On Facebook Andrada claims his sparring partner Cobra has given him his bandaged nose. Meanwhile, the Singapore meeting is put on hold.)
Dalton: “The man is even more unhinged than we thought. How are we to proceed from here?”
US Army commander Gen. Kelsey Reeves announces that Andrada has ordered the US military out of the Philippines, and promises to rip apart the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the two countries.
McCord: “Taking out US military bases doesn’t happen in an afternoon. I think if I apologize to Andrada, suggest that he caught me by surprise and I acted on instinct, I can grovel. I’m a decent groveler. All things were going so well until I broke his nose.”
They intercept reports that Andrada has given away Scarborough Shoal to China.
McCord suggests reaching out to Andrada’s advisers. “There have to be some who aren’t happy with this change,” she says.
“That’s a start,” says Gordon Becker of DOD. “But I might suggest something more aggressive. We have a good enough relationship with their military to reach out in confidence. It’s a moderate transgression of protocol, but I think it’s worth the risk.”
Dalton agrees. “Let’s contact the military chief of staff,’ he says.
A dangerous proposal
The next thing we see is a four-star general talking to Dalton on secure video teleconference. He expresses concern about Andrada’s pro-China policy. “I can assure you that President Andrada’s decision to pivot away from the United States is not one shared by our military,” he says.
“We are at a critical juncture that requires critical action. If I can speak candidly, assuming we are all relying on each other’s discretion, and confidentiality, we have good reason to believe that newly elected Vice President Thea Navarro does not share President Andrada’s desire for Chinese friendship. Should something happen to the President, we have been assured that with President Navarro, we could all go back to our valued friendship and an alignment of power that would keep peace and security. We have a plan in place, but it can only be carried out with the full support of the US.”
Dalton thanks the general, says he’ll get back to him later.
McCord is concerned. “Just to confirm we all heard the same thing, that was a clear offer for a covert assassination,” she says.
Dalton: “That’s one way to skin a cat.”
Jackson: “…Cleanest way to get rid of Andrada. Worse things have been perpetrated in the name of keeping the balance of power.”
Avoiding a coup
McCord: “If the military decides they should be in power, the Filipino people will lose their democracy. Let’s walk away from this option. Let’s use our vast intelligence resources to dig deeper for skeletons in his closet. We’ll find something to leverage him with.”
Jackson: “Girl friends, bribes, coarse rhetoric? No one cares.”
Dalton: “The Philippines is a Catholic country, might still frown upon a leader who harasses women.”
McCord is informed that five women had been paid for unwanted sexual contact, but one woman arrives in her office with far more damaging information. McCord talks to her, after which, she talks to Andrada on SVTC. He is still wearing the splint on his nose.
“You have taken tens of millions of dollars from Chinese companies,” says McCord. “We have proof and we’ll share it with the Filipino people.”
“These are the kind of American lies the Filipino people will never accept,” Andrada says.
McCord: “You don’t have to give me a speech. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the Filipino people will be fine with you, selling them to the Chinese to enrich yourself. Maybe the courts will be too. “
Andrada: “I won’t be humiliated by you.”
A pass to the White House
McCord: “You won’t be. I have quite the opposite in mind. You’ll share a press conference at the White House with President Dalton as befits the leader of such an important and venerable ally.”
The next scene shows Andrada, still with a splint on his nose, standing beside Dalton and speaking at the White House: “Lastly, I am pleased to stand before you to reaffirm our commitment to the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between our two countries. Thank you.”
“I don’t think Andrada will be too happy to give his money back to the Chinese,” says Jackson afterward.
“We’ll see if he’s worth the cost,” says Dalton.
“Great speech,” says McCord to Andrada, as he walks out of the room.
Andrada looks pleased. “The press at home is already talking about how brilliantly I played China and the US off one another to our advantage. Which was my plan all along,” he says.
“Sure, good for you. I’ll see you in Singapore in a month,” says McCord.
“So now, we are even,” says Andrada.
“Who, you and I? No, we’re not even,” says McCord. “But when I determine the time is right, I will tell the world what you tried to do to me. (She whispers.) And what I did to you. And then, well maybe, we’ll be even. But if I hear about you ‘sparring’ with any other unwilling partners, that time will come sooner rather than later. Oh, and Datu, when we do see each other in Singapore, you call me Madame Secretary.”
Spoof or spook?
I cannot imagine how DU30 would react to this episode, if and when he gets to watch it, assuming he hasn’t yet done so. Some politicians would rather be rubbished by hard-hitting publications like The Economist, The Guardian or The New York Times, which give them a chance to reply. But to be made fun of in a popular TV series is completely different; it could make you the butt of all jokes before you could say anything.
To the extent that the drama episode tries to portray DU30 in any way, we have a case of “art imitating life,” which is always permissible. But to the extent that we have a fictional General Purisima proposing to the White House a “covert assassination” of the fictional President Andrada, even if ultimately rejected, and the fictional Secretary of State breaking the nose of the Philippine President, even if in self-defense, we cannot welcome the possibility of “life imitating art.”
If the intention is to spook rather than merely spoof DU30, it may be scoring some success now. For a number of reasons, DU30 may have some difficulty getting good sleep these days.