May 9, 2011

Star Struck!

President Fidel V. Ramos
Now just to be clear: I’m not the type to get star struck at all. If I meet a celebrity on the street, I’m much more likely to fashionably claim not to know them than to stare.

But last Tuesday, when my editor Sir Mel said, “We’re going to FVR’s office on Friday to get approval his approval for our edits on his book. You want to join us?” I was torn.

Meet President Ramos on Friday? But I had a pending deadline for seventeen articles and one research project, all due that week!

I had no choice. I had to forgo the deadlines. After all, I’ll have deadlines all my life. How often will I meet Fidel V. Ramos in person?

So on Friday, I dismissed all pending work and went to meet my favorite Philippine president.

EDSA baby

Perhaps some of you will not understand. “What’s to like about Ramos?” you’ll ask. After all, being a politician, he’s been charged with—and is probably guilty of—more sins than the rest of us. What’s to admire?

But you see, I am of the EDSA generation. For me, Ramos is a hero—one of those who triggered the revolution that freed us from the dictator.

(And please, if you were not 18 or older during the martial law years, don’t comment about how much better it was for us then than now. You can't know. I, on the other hand, may not have been 18 then either, but I have historians to support my claims that it was not better then than today.)

So yes, I admired President Ramos and am proud to say it.

On Friday, wearing a sleeved and collared shirt for the first time in three years, I went with Sir Mel and his staff to meet the former president at his RPDev office in Makati City.

First impressions

We were welcomed by a tall man in his fifties who wore a crew cut and looked like he could whip a gang of teenage boys with one hand tied to his back. He led us to a spotless room with a huge window overlooking the metropolis, and there we waited for the president.

I was a bit surprised when he came in. I had been expecting somebody tall, but it was easy to see he was just about as tall as I was. The very first thing that drew my eye was that tobacco. First, it was huge—it was about as thick as my two thumbs put together. Second, it hardly ever left his mouth, even when he spoke. Third, from the moment we arrived to the time we left, he never lit it.

I asked Sir Mel about that. Why did the president never light his tobacco? Apparently, on the first days of the EDSA revolution, FVR had prayed, “Lord, if I get out of this alive, I will never smoke again.”

But he never said anything about giving up tobacco. So henceforth, he kept his bosom buddy but never lit it.

Sir Mel introduced us to the president, telling him that I was an ardent admirer. (And I was.) The president scoffed and said, “Sus. Bola! (Flattery!)” But I could see he was pleased.

Before the meeting began, he offered us all some kapeng barako (Batangas coffee). But my heart was already beating faster than usual as it was, so I opted for tea instead.

When the everyone else’s coffee was served, he insisted that I taste my seatmate’s coffee. I took a small sip—and tasted something so potent, liquid fire flowed from my thoat to the top of my head. The cup was spiked!

Everyone apparently knew the secret of these coffee cups and laughed. With a sigh of relief that I did not have to finish a whole cup of that, I took refuge in my tea.

Up close and personal

The meeting started. Though it was mainly between my editor and FVR, the president would now and again throw a question at the rest of us. Finding out that Michelle, our graphic designer, was celebrating what she claimed was her 25th birthday, he asked, “Do you know what they say about 25-year-old women?”

He proceeded, “At 25, a woman is like a soccer ball. She has 22 boys all running after her, trying to get her.

“At 35, a woman is like a basketball: she still has boys running after her, but now there are only 10 of them.

“At 45, a woman is like a ping-pong ball. She only has two men in her life, between whom she switches back and forth.

“At 55, a woman is like a golf ball. There is only one man, and he tries to send her as far away from him as possible.”

Then he asked me, “How about you. Are you 25 too?”

Sir Mel remarked that I was married, with three kids.

The president replied in mock surprise, “Really? You look so young. You look just like one of your kids!”

Clearly, at 83 years old, the president had not lost any of his wit.

But he grilled me on the number of my kids. “At your age, you already have three kids?”

“Going on four, sir,” I grinned.

“When is the fourth coming?” everyone asked, apparently thinking I was pregnant.

“We don’t know yet,” I answered. “Maybe in two years,” I laughed.

“So,” he said, “you are not pro-RH bill.” It was partly a question and partly a rebuke.

In fact, I am very much pro-life and am against some parts of the RH bill. But since I never fight a battle I can’t win—and I was in his territory—I just looked at him and smiled but didn’t answer.

Last few minutes

Before the meeting ended, it was clear to me that while I admired this man, there were many things we would have disagreed on had I ever had the courage to engage him in a discussion.

But then again, I did not admire Fidel Ramos for his personal beliefs. I admired him for his role in this country’s history:
  • He played a key role in bringing down the Marcos dictatorship.
  • He was the president who brought electricity back to the country after the power shortages in President Cory’s term.
  • When he pushed for a constitutional amendment and the country protested, he actually listened and changed his plans.
  • He may have been corrupt like everyone else, but he respected our intelligence enough to not be blatant about it—unlike somebody we so recently knew.

Before we left, I gathered enough courage to ask him for a picture. The president gamely agreed. He called one of his staff—another straight-backed, broad-shouldered man wearing a crew cut (so many good-looking men in such a small room; I could feel myself getting feverish)—and asked for his glasses.

I didn’t understand what he meant, since he already had his glasses with him—and why did he need glasses for a pictorial?

The man soon came back with shiny gold-colored spectacles. Apparently, this was FVR's gala set.

And then, the president nudged me, “Look at my glasses. Made only in the Philippines,” he winked. I looked and saw that they had no lenses, to avoid reflecting the camera flash. Clever.

The person on the left couldn't help but grin too much
Afterward, he escorted us out of the office, through the hall, and to the front door. Amazingly, for an 83-year-old man, his gait and stance was firmer than some men I’ve met who were 20 years his junior.

On our way out, he pointed to a picture of a girl in her twenties. “My girlfriend,” he said. “Isn’t she beautiful?”

I glanced at Sir Mel with the unspoken question: “Who is she?” Sir Mel laughed quietly at me. “It’s Ming Ramos, of course!”

Right before we stepped out the door, the president again ribbed me about my three-going-on-four children. “Do you know about the man-woman equations?” he asked.

I didn’t.

“A smart woman plus a smart man equals romance,” he said. “A smart man plus a dumb woman equals an affair. A smart woman plus a dumb man equals marriage. A dumb woman plus a dumb man equals pregnancy.”

Because I was sure he was not that much against pregnancy—surely his wife and his mother had also been pregnant at least once—I laughed it off.

For whatever his position on family planning may be, I will always remember him as a hero of EDSA. Surely, he is the most competent Philippine president I had known in my lifetime.

If for those two things alone, I will always admire Fidel V. Ramos. And I will always cherish the day I met him—up close and personal.

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