MANILA, Philippines – Sometime during his brief presidency, Joseph Ejercito Estrada remarked about the emotional cost of being the most powerful Filipino.
“It’s lonely at the top,” Estrada volunteered during a chat with media at his official residence, the Premier Guest House, as if saying it would help lift the weight off his chest.
He was the last person one would expect to hear such a complaint.
Estrada’s life has always been an open book – he had extramarital affairs and children from multiple women. When he entered Malacañang, he had a loyal base of supporters dating back to his action star days. Every public event was like a rabid fan meeting – reporters said goodbye to pens that slipped from their grip while walking alongside Estrada during coverages; any attempt to retrieve them would likely land them in the ER.
Estrada also had dedicated friends who played mahjong or stayed up with him past midnight. He was never short of company.
With Estrada's experience, this was the question on some people's minds when Benigno Aquino III was elected: How more lonely can Palace life get for the country’s first bachelor president?
The persistence of memory
At a thanksgiving and farewell luncheon he hosted for members of the Malacañang Press Corps, reporters in his table ask Aquino about his family home in Times Street which is being fully renovated for its returning occupant.
He lays out a mental map of his old home: the location of his room, the dining room where the family “discussed everything,” the aroma of his late mother’s cooking wafting from the kitchen. His eyes light up when he recalls the time Cory Aquino just finished a batch of spaghetti and meatballs, one of her signature dishes. As always, he was the first on site – the unofficial “food taster” – and was ready to dig in but he was told off, as the family must always eat together.
He links this memory to his 2014 visit to the family’s former Boston home during its 3-year US exile. Guided by the new owner, retired teacher Ione Malloy, Aquino walked through the house he last saw in 1983, when the family returned to Manila following the assassination of former senator Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino Jr.
Ryan Lim/ Malacanang Photo Bureau
"Flood of memories," he says of the Boston visit.
At both recollections, he is clearly swept by nostalgia, as if momentarily transported to those happy days. He may have been relishing thoughts of that simpler time when his family was complete, when he did not yet bear the responsibility of looking after over 100 million people.
Those memories, among other things, may have helped sustain Aquino during some of the odd hours of his temporary 24/7 job – after the documents are signed, the meetings are over, and he heads back to Bahay Pangarap where his German Shepherd, Apollo, awaits him, along with Ivy and Yolly, his household staffmembers.
Aquino might have felt the pangs of a lonely presidency but he would often just joke about it in public. The outgoing president has made a lot of self-deprecating jokes about his “Coke Zero” love life, along with his vanishing hair.
Sometimes, though, he would turn serious. In February 2012, at the commemoration ceremony of the 124th birthday of former First Lady Doña Aurora Aragon-Quezon, he admitted in his speech that he envied the late President Manuel L. Quezon for having a wife by his side during his term.
"Mapalad nga po talaga si Pangulong Quezon dahil may kasalo siya sa hirap at ginhawa sa pamamahala sa bansa. Kaya nga po kung minsan, hindi ko po maiwasang isipin; iba po talaga siguro kapag may inspirasyon ka,” he said in his speech then.
(President Quezon was lucky since he had someone to share his administration's good times and bad times. That's why I sometimes cannot help but think how different it would be if you have a source of inspiration.)
Responding to questions after the event, Aquino elaborated, “Given the burdens of my office, if you have someone you can talk to, if there is someone who will tell you, 'You're still okay,' of course, that is the key to your inspiration.”
The President has been on what seems like a continuous search for inspiration during his term. He managed a few relationships despite his fishbowl existence, but none of them were serious enough to reach the altar. What's he like when he thinks he's found someone? His friends give Rappler some clues.
“I know if he's dating because he won’t call us to go out too often. If we don’t go out too often, it means he’s busy with someone. And that doesn’t necessarily mean we know who it is. Until he will tell me, ‘I met this person,’” says Acting Foreign Secretary Jose Rene Almendras, one of Aquino’s closest friends dating back from his college days.
A Palace official who asked not to be named says when you often overhear the President humming a tune while working, that's a sure sign that he's seeing someone.
Budget Secretary Florencio “Butch” Abad, Aquino's friend and political mentor, offers another clue. “He’s – in general – in a better mood.”
“You can sense that he doesn’t only look forward to the end of the day because he’s done with work – he looks forward to having conversation, possibly having a date…. Because going home to [Bahay] Pangarap…there’s nobody there. It’s like going home to a practically empty house,” Abad says.
What about love advice? Almendras says he'll give it if he's asked but he has observed that the President talks more about this with his wife, Marides, who is involved in family counseling.
Abad says Aquino would sometimes talk to him about the subject. "Especially, we married people who are in permanent more or less relationships, he values our thoughts on these things."
Photo from Noynoy Aquino’s official Facebook page
With no children of his own, Aquino has been known to have a close relationship with his nephews and nieces.
Almendras says Aquino’s nephew, Miguel Abelleda – the eldest son of Pinky Aquino-Abelleda – used to stay at Bahay Pangarap when he worked at nearby Unilever, but moved out as he got married in November last year.
Sometimes, Kris’ children, Joshua and Bimby, would keep their uncle company. (Another Palace official says when there are crises, eldest sister Ballsy Aquino-Cruz or youngest sister Kris, would be seen at the President’s residence.)
The public is most updated with Aquino's relationship with his youngest sister's children. Kris updates the public with details of her sons' bonding time with their uncle, and her dynamics with her older brother, on Instagram. One time, she showed part of her SMS thread with Aquino: the President offered to be her kids' babysitter while she was having a medical check-up. The next day, anyway, was a national holiday and they were welcome to spend time with him in Bahay Pangarap.
Aquino attended the intermediate level graduation of Josh at the Multiple Intelligence School in 2011, and even delivered the keynote address at the event. He also watched the premiere of Bimby's and Kris' movies.
In some of his public addresses, Aquino would say that he would think of his nephews and nieces when he makes decisions, and would draw strength from them as well, sounding like a father talking about his children.
At a Department of Health event in Malacañang on May 3, 2013, Aquino said in his speech: "May mga araw po, aaminin ko sa inyo, talagang ang bibigat ng mga problema. Napansin ko nga ho 'yung litrato ko noong ako’y ininaugurate, medyo di hamak na mas makapal ang buhok ko noon....Pero napapagod ka 'pag ang bigat ng problemang humaharap sa iyo. Talagang parang kung minsan natapos ka na ring magdasal. Talagang kung minsan, saan ka ba talagang bubunot ng lakas? Mapapalingon ka. Suwerte ko may mga pamangkin [ako]."
(I have to admit, there are days when the problems are really very heavy. I noticed that in my inauguration pictures, I had thicker hair then....You get really exhausted with the weight of your problems. There are times when you're done praying. There are really times when you ask yourself, where can you draw strength? Then you turn around. I'm lucky I have nephews and nieces.)
Power of music
Aquino also turns to music to relieve his stress after work. In a Rappler interview, Aquino says the first thing he’ll do after he returns to private life is to put his own house in order. He looks forward to organizing the new room for his extensive music collection – his constant companion at his presidential bachelor’s pad – in the family home in Times Street.
"The new room will have a bearing on what the sound will be," Aquino says, adding that he will be personally in charge of the design and fittings of his new music room.
During his presidency, Aquino would call his friends to watch a live band, or to hang out in his music room in Bahay Pangarap.
“We either go to a bar to listen to our favorite band. We stay in his music room to listen to music there or something. Or sing along with the rest of the Cabinet whenever there's an opportunity after social events in the Palace,” Almendras says.
One time, the Cabinet official says, he and Aquino sang at a bar in Greenhills with the Brothers Band. “Everybody thinks our favorite is The Harder I Try because everytime we’re there, they always ask us to sing [it]. I think the real reason is I think that’s the only song where we sound good,” he says.
Aquino is different from others in his generation – his taste in music is more diverse, and not limited to standards usually favored by those in their 50s. Abad also says that as an audiophile, Aquino hears something in music that would escape ordinary people.
At a Christmas party with members of the media in 2014, he was asked to have a duet with press corps president Joyce Pañares, backed up by a live band. Pañares asked if he wanted to sing a Beatles song or some other classic. Aquino said he has his own songs, and brought out his iPod to reveal – to her surprise – Katy Perry’s Firework and Adele’s Rolling in the Deep. They sang both.
During overseas trips, the President has made side visits to restaurants, music stores, and the occasional gun shop (he's a gun enthusiast). In his last US visit, he chanced upon John Pizzarelli’s 1994 album, New Standards. He tells Rappler that one song from the album, I'm Alright Now, is part of the soundtrack of his administration – a list asked of him during the interview. (LISTEN: The Noynoy Aquino administration soundtrack)
Estudyante Blues is no longer his signature song. He says he has “moved on” from the Freddie Aguilar hit which used to encapsulate his early experience in Malacañang with its lyrics, “Ako ang nasisisi, ako ang laging may kasalanan (I’m always being blamed, I’m always at fault.)” If he should ever sing the song in public again after his term, he says he would likely change the lyrics to “Hindi na ako masisisi, hindi na ako ang may kasalanan (I won’t be blamed anymore, I won’t be at fault anymore).”
He didn't sing Estudyante Blues at the Liberal Party post-election thanksgiving party, but he ended up holding an impromptu mini-concert with his party mates, including losing standard-bearer Manuel "Mar" Roxas II. (WATCH: Aquino, Roxas let loose during LP thanksgiving party)
Aquino says this is because on their way down the stage after the first set, he saw Roxas’ mother, Judy Araneta-Roxas, who had a bit of a cough. He wanted to cheer her up and asked if she had heard her son sing. When she said she hadn't, he called the attention of Roxas who dragged him back and others with him to the stage. They spent the next 3 hours singing to their "bosses."
His other hobbies are biking and shooting. Almendras says Aquino no longer bikes around the Palace compound as much, and is practicing for competition shooting.
Photo by Gil Nartea/Malacanang Photo Bureau
Aquino’s friends say the President also enjoys good food – another way for him to destress. But the President himself laments that having a proper meal on time has become a quest during his term, especially during the campaign or on provincial trips. (READ: Now it can be told: What Aquino loves about China)
Before he became president, he tipped the scales at 180 pounds, at his heaviest. After the 2010 campaign, he was down to 165 pounds. His weight dipped to 148 pounds during the 2016 campaign. Aquino, who is 5’10,” is now between 152 to 155 pounds – a weight he maintains, he says, for as long as he has two meals a day.
The President says a typical day for him begins with reading newspapers, responding to text messages, and giving out directives based on the latest reports. After breakfast, he heads to the main Palace building across the river to attend meetings and pore over documents. Lunch would be a light meal, often taken late; sometimes just a shared sandwich. He would look forward to a satisfying dinner.
Aquino says the “standing joke” in his Cabinet is that lunch with the President means a meal at 3 pm, at the earliest. Officials who join his provincial trips bring Skyflakes crackers or sandwiches as contingency food in anticipation of missed meals. (Provincial trips, he says, are BYOB – bring your own baon.) With so many missed meals, pancit Canton just a notch above the instant kind in terms of flavor becomes a "gourmet meal" for them, he says with a laugh.
Aquino seems conscious of his guests going hungry, as he usually has a small dish of mini-chocolate bars for officials during meetings. Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario was once seen leaving a Palace meeting with an uneaten Snickers bar in hand.
Comfort food for Aquino is hot bulalo (beef shank) soup with rice. “It hydrates” and instantly warms the body, he tells reporters at the luncheon.
While he enjoys food, there are items that he has stricken off his diet, but not for health reasons.
His favorite meal used to be spaghetti and fried chicken until he saw someone breaking the neck of a hen at his grandmother’s farm as a young boy. He also remembers the time his nanny gave him ducklings. They grew into a flock that feasted his mother’s bonsai. They ended up as adobo. To this day, he cannot eat any fowl dish.
After watching the post-apocalyptic film, Soylent Green, he became a vegetarian, but not for long. He soon returned to meat, particularly beef.
On foreign trips, Aquino made an effort to be different from his predecessor, especially when it comes to dining. In August 2009, then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was criticized for having a $20,000-Le Cirque dinner in New York with her official US delegation in 2009, though then Leyte Representative Martin Romualdez said he picked up the tab.
Photo by Robert Vinas/ Malacanang Photo Bureau
Over a year later, in September 2010, when he went to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly, Aquino ate hotdogs on a sidewalk. He also had burgers and pizza with his official delegation during that trip.
Another fact that many people don’t know about Aquino is that he likes to provide some comic relief to break the terse atmosphere of some meetings or as a warm-up before discussions on the set agenda.
Sometimes, he would read aloud a forwarded text joke before he starts a meeting. He also likes to recount funny stories involving his friends as well as himself. It seems he has enough to fill a book.
Aquino bares his book plan when Rappler asks him to confirm a reported standing invitation from US President Barack Obama to visit him after they end their terms. Obama steps down on January 20. 2017.
“I’m trying to recall. Tinatanong niya ako (He’s asking me) what I’ll do (after my term). I don’t know. But one of the ambitions is perhaps there’s a book somewhere around here,” he says.
Aquino says he will sit down with Undersecretary Manolo Quezon after his term to discuss the significant events of his presidency. But both of them agree, he adds, on compiling a collection of jokes that provided some relief to the Cabinet during trying times.
“I think both of us agree, I’m the first one who wants to come out [with it] but we have to consider the timeliness of it: ‘Jokes that sustained us during the worst moments.’ The idea was, if you can still crack jokes with each other then you are not overwhelmed by whatever it was. I guess that’s the whole point,” he explains.
“Or yung talagang wala na kayong energy, naghihintay kayo ng any news, hindi man lang good news; any news. O di magpapatawa, magbebreak muna, a 20- to 30-second break. Afterwards parang refreshed na lahat. ‘O, okay ka na ba?’ ‘Okay ako, Sir.’ 'O, tamang-tama, ito gawin mo ito.' Parang ganoon,” he says.
(Or when you’ve lost the energy, and you’re waiting for news – not even good news; any news. Then you try to make people laugh; take a break first, a 20 to 30-second break. Afterwards, everybody feels refreshed. ‘Are you okay?’ ‘I’m okay, Sir.’ ‘Great, now do this.’ Something like that.)
Aquino does the same in most public engagements. When he speaks to Filipino communities abroad, he always brings some of his jokes with him to liven the room packed his homesick countrymen. Before he begins a speech, he would often ad lib at the start – a verbal handshake with the crowd to ease them into his prepared address.
Before he embarks on that book project, he’ll go on his first unlimited break in 6 years. His chosen hideaway elicits some surprise. Of all the places that he can go to – and after all his lamentations about not even setting foot on the powdery beaches of Boracay as president – he just wants a long vacation in his family home in Tarlac.
“Paggising, tahimik e. Saka kokonti ang asiwa sa probinsiya namin,” he explains with a laugh. “I worked for Luisita 5 years e. Wala pang 5 na ayaw kong makitang tao sa buong Tarlac. Baka dalawa lang….I won’t go abroad.”
(It’s peaceful when I wake up. And there are few negative people in our province. I worked for Luisita for 5 years. There are less than 5 people I don’t want to see in the whole of Tarlac. Maybe just two.)
How would he settle back to a normal life after 6 crazy years? He may be a private citizen again but he's unlikely to enjoy anonymity. In the absence of his usual wall of security, he's expected to get, among others, even more selfie requests. Aquino admits he used to feel “harassed” by this “but after a while, just let them be.”
He gets a preview of this while on a cigarette break outside the President Grand Palace restaurant in Binondo, where he is hosting a farewell lunch for the Palace media. He notices a few young people from across the street taking pictures of him. He walks over to them and says, “Nagpapakahirap pa kayo (You don’t have to work so hard),” then allows them to take proper shots with him.
In the Rappler interview, he says he has standing invitations from some losing candidates to visit their tourist attractions but he’s more likely to spend time just “checking out comfort food facilities” nearby – places he has been to but not as often when he became president.
“What still exists, what doesn’t exist, what has deteriorated, what has improved. Maybe going to National Bookstore leisurely. I can go through every section,” he says with a wide smile, picturing his approaching freedom.
At his final Department of Foreign Affairs anniversary as Chief Executive, Aquino explains why he looks so happy: "I'm smiling because in just 7 days, I'll be stepping down."
It’s like getting his life back, one day at a time. – with reports from Camille Elemia/Rappler.com
Mia M. Gonzalez is a senior desk editor of Rappler. She previously covered the Philippine presidency and politics. An award-winning literary writer, she is the author of Welostit and Other Stories, which was a finalist for the National Book Award.