The travails of a presidential spokesperson

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Greg B. Macabenta

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The travails of a presidential spokesperson

In a moment of pique, I recently posted on social media that I always thought Harry Roque, spokesman of President Rodrigo Duterte, was “marunong” (intelligent). And I added: “Bobo pala (It turns out, he’s dumb).”

I’m taking that back. I don’t think Roque is dumb. His academic credentials are impressive and so is his track record as a lawyer.

So, how do you explain such naïve (at best) or idiotic (at worst) statements in a media interview concerning China’s construction of “artificial islands” in the West Philippine Sea? I’m quoting the news item verbatim:

“MANILA, Philippines — While China’s island-building in the West Philippine Sea may be worrisome now, one day, the Philippines will ‘thank’ China for them.

“This was what Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said during an interview with Franco Mabanta, a supporter of President Rodrigo Duterte, on Wednesday, Feb. 7.


“‘There will come a time when China’s might has ceased, when we will have to thank them for those islands,’ he said.”

“‘Clearly, eventually, those artificial islands will be ours if we can ask China to leave,’ he added, maintaining that only the Philippines can legally build artificial islands.”

The hope that China can be asked to leave territory it has grabbed couldn’t possibly be the opinion of someone who used to teach Constitutional Law at the University of the Philippines and finished his Master of Laws degree at the London School of Economics.

Sen. Grace Poe’s remark that Roque’s statement was “wishful thinking,” was rather benign. Idiotic is not even a good enough description of such gross naivete.

There can only be one explanation for this seeming lapse of lucidity on the part of Roque. He was simply echoing the opinion of his boss, Duterte.

In that context, hoping that China might someday willingly walk back on its territorial grabbing is not as bizarre as Duterte’s recent “joke” that China might want to make the Philippines one of its provinces.

In this Chinese Year of the Dog (in Tagalog, Taon ng mga Tuta), one can almost see poor Harry Roque asking his boss how he can explain the latest presidential foot-in-mouth gaffe.

“Sir, what do I tell the media? Shall I say you were just joking?”

“Of course, I was joking, p– ng ina!”

Harry Roque

Pero sir, that joke may not have been politically correct!” protests Roque.

Gago! Anong korek-korek? Basta’t sabihin mo joke only, tapos!”

And so, poor Harry Roque, as a loyal presidential spokesman, may be expected to translate into more respectable language the mindless profanity of his boss, as follows: “While there are clear advantages in closer bonds between the Philippines and China, it was obviously in the spirit of friendly and harmless good humor that President Rodrigo Duterte made that statement about the Philippines becoming a province of China.”

Hopefully, in giving that official explanation, Roque will not commit a Freudian slip and mutter under his breath: “Dati na naman, eh (It already is).”

At any rate, what choice does Roque have? A job is a job and as spokesman of the President, he is, in effect, only a microphone or a megaphone, magnifying and making public the words and thoughts of his current employer.

Do official spokespersons have a right to express their own views? Technically, no. If they want to do that, they must first resign. Of course, they can argue or reason with the boss, but the latter has the final say.

Hoy, gago, pagagandahin mo lang ang salita ko para maging disente, pero huwag mong babaguhin ang ibig kong sabihin, intiendes (Hey, idiot, just make my language more decent but don’t change the meaning, understand)????”

Well, maybe I’m giving Duterte too much credit for all the inane statements of Roque. I frankly suspect that his recent rationalization for China’s assigning Chinese names to certain features in Benham Rise, sounds too much like vintage Roque.

Roque reasoned that such Chinese terms as “mami,” “siopao,” and “hototay,” are generally accepted by Pinoys but that hasn’t given the Chinese exclusive ownership of the Binondo edibles.

Sen. Ping Lacson was obviously having difficulty holding his temper when he chided Roque for the analogy. Said Lacson: “It’s probably a matter of time before we see Chinese structures on more artificial islands. Damn us! Are we this helpless?”

Honestly, Senator Lacson?

The President of the sovereign Republic of the Philippines thinks so. He thinks we are this helpless. Kaya, bow na lang ng bow, to use “Swardspeak.” (Incidentally, I believe the senator’s surname, Lacson, is also Chinese in origin).

But the travails of Roque are normal for anyone who would echo the thoughts of a boss who runs his mouth before his brain is in gear.

In a TV interview, former US vice-president Joe Biden described President Donald Trump as “having difficulty with precision in his statements.”

Biden was struggling to be politically correct, of course. What he really meant was that Trump has difficulty telling the truth.

But being untruthful is only half of the problem that Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has to cope with. Trump also flip flops like a pair of rubber slippers, shifting his position on issues based on what his supporters on Fox News urge him to say, think or do.

In her daily White House press briefings, Sanders has to struggle to make sense of the specious rationalizations made by Trump, as well as those that she apparently has to conjure by herself. When the members of the White House press corps keep getting back at her on a sticky issue, she snaps at them, pivots, passes the blame on to other parties, or shifts the topic away from the issue at hand, or simply ignores the questions and moves on to other topics.

Many times, the equivocation (at best) and the lies (at worst) are glaring. Concerning the resignation of accused wife-beater, Rob Porter, the assistant of Trump Chief of Staff John Kelly, Sanders had difficulty reconciling the facts with the White House fiction that Porter was asked to resign “within a few hours” after reports on his legal problems had been found out.

In fact, according to the FBI, the complete report on Porter had been submitted by the agency to the White House months earlier but certain individuals in the White House had chosen to ignore them. When confronted with this, Sanders pivoted and accused the FBI of not doing its job. That, of course, was an outright buck-passing lie. The FBI only submits its findings and leaves it to the government department concerned (in this case, the office of the chief of staff) to act on them. But Sanders, confronted with her weaseling, brazened it and then changed the topic.

You can almost see Sanders arriving home at the end of the day and being asked by her husband: “How was your day, honey?”

“As usual, dear. I had to take the bullet for President Pinocchio.”

But the bottom line is that both Roque and Sanders are probably very well paid. In the case of Roque, I believe he has his eyes on the Senate and will therefore take any bullet (virtual) for Duterte, in order to be well-positioned.

But he had better hope that his friends in China do not also decide to assign a Chinese name to him. Something like, Hally Loque.


Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.