It was no more than a week since PFVR underwent surgery for a life-threatening blockage in an artery in his neck in December of 1996. And there we were awaiting his arrival for a special Cabinet meeting he had called at Bahay Pangarap.
Just as we were about to take our seats in the main hall, out came Louie Oppus, the President’s junior aide-de-camp. Sidling up to me and holding a pair of swimming trunks, he whispered, “Sir, sabi ni Boss samahan nyo raw s’ya.” Stifling any protest or question, I grabbed the swimwear and headed for the bathroom, where I was joined by 3 other befuddled would-be swimmers.
We came out just as PFVR, also in a pair of trunks, a towel over his shoulder, was making his entrance into the hall. He acknowledged the cheers of his Cabinet, flashing the thumbs-up sign and booming, “Ok tayo, ok tayo!”
He marched out into the lawn, waving at startled Malacañang beat reporters and cameramen. Cameras clicking, they scrambled as PFVR jumped into the swimming pool. I had by then gone ahead in the water in the company of Dep. PSG Commander Jun Esperon and Mayor Sonny Belmonte, Sec. Hector Villanueva, and Usec Louie Liwanag, all blushing in their skimpy swimwear.
The President swam 6 laps nonstop and engaged his swimmates in a lively banter at one end of the pool. Then he pulled himself out of the water, barking, “Ok, back to work, back to work!” and proceeded to the showers. In no time he re-emerged impeccably dressed in a dark suit ready to preside over the Cabinet meeting.
The following morning, contrary to speculations circulating earlier, the front pages declared the President and his government in good health.
Alas, that episode was not to be the last of my PDA’s (not “Public Display of Affection” but “Public Display of ‘Aquaticism'”) with PFVR. In August of 1997, the President flew to Boracay to assure not just the nation but the international vacation market as well that the island’s world-famous beaches were not contaminated with coliform as earlier reported in the media.
Although I was in on the plot to have PFVR swim in the waters of Boracay, little prepared was I to be handed again a pair of trunks to swim with him. The President led a small pack of swimmers, free-styling around several motorized bancas parked by the beach fronting the landmark grotto of the blessed Madonna. I dropped out after 3 bancas. FVR circled around 3 more as tourists, government officials, and the media watched and clicked away.
And thus was Boracay, crown jewel of Philippine tourism, pronounced safe and inviting as ever for vacationers domestic and foreign alike. The sight of the President himself bathing in its waters declared it so.
I had my final “PDA” with FVR as President in late November of 1997. He had just keynoted Lakas-NUCD’s national assembly at the Intercon, convened as part of a painstaking process to formally select the administration party’s standard bearer for the presidential election the following year. Stepping down from the rostrum, the President whispered to me, “Gabby, masyadong tense itong mga Lakas. Grab some of them and follow me to the pool. Mag-swimming tayo habang lunch break.”
So swim again we did, my President and I, doing a few laps in full view of the media, Lakas partymen and hotel guests. Well, that didn’t exactly spell victory for the party the following year. But, true to the President’s call for HOPE (Honest, Orderly and Peaceful Elections) during that assembly at Intercon, the election that made Erap Estrada president was in fact honest, orderly and peaceful.
I have not done any swimming with FVR since he stepped down from the presidency, nor I believe has he been covered by media doing laps in a pool or taking a dip in the ocean since. But, who knows, one of these days, when there is serious need to soothe the anxieties of the nation again, he just might. Swim, that is. – Rappler.com
Secretary Gabriel S. Claudio was political adviser to President Fidel V. Ramos. He wrote this essay – originally titled “FVR swam, and the nation was afloat” – for a forthcoming book of anecdotes on the presidency of “FVR,” who celebrates his 86th birthday on March 18. Rappler is publishing it and the accompanying photo with his permission.