Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

[Newsstand] So what’s wrong with Marcos’s F1 party?

John Nery

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[Newsstand] So what’s wrong with Marcos’s F1 party?
Of course we all need to be particular about the source of the funds. That is the most important issue.

As if to demonstrate the great decline in stature from chief justice of the Supreme Court to ad interim executive secretary and thus temporary chief aide, Lucas Bersamin spent a lot of time in his first press briefing on Tuesday, October 4, offering ridiculous rationalizations for President Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s weekend getaway to Singapore.

The former chief justice did not act at all like a circumspect judge, conscious of the responsibility all public officials bear toward public office. The new executive secretary also did not act any different from the old one, who was accused (even by supporters of President Marcos and Vice President Sara Duterte) of a high-handedness born of sheer proximity to power. Instead, Executive Secretary Bersamin made assertions to justify the President’s junket that even law students would have readily picked apart.

He prefaced his remarks by saying that he did not have “direct knowledge” of how the President’s trip to Singapore to catch the Formula 1 race was funded. If he was reciting in class, his professor would have ripped this admission wide open. He must have known he would be asked about the Singapore trip; why didn’t he prepare beforehand by determining the source of the funding? Either he was lazy, or unprepared, or irresponsibly incurious. It’s also possible that he made the admission as a way to distance himself from the issue, an attempt to put his answers on less authoritative ground. If he did in fact make that bet, the headlines and stories in the wake of his press briefing show that he wagered wrong.

But his admission was merely laying the predicate for his first rationalization: “You don’t need to be too particular about where the funds were sourced.” This is atrocious nonsense, based on the unsaid but false assumption that the President is exempt from standards applied to other public officials. In fact, Bersamin tried to justify this nonsense by referring, broadly, to the implied deference the Administrative Code of 1987 pays, or so he says, to the entire First Family. But nothing in the same Code, or indeed in any other law, says that the basic principle that “public office is a public trust” does not hold for the President and the First Family.

Of course we all need to be particular about the source of the funds. That is the most important issue (but, significantly, not the only one). The distinction between the private person and the public official is a measure of political modernity; we no longer make the mistake of thinking that the office is the man. If President Marcos incurs an expense in his private capacity – for instance, buying a ticket to an Eric Clapton concert, or indulging an addiction to nicotine – he must pay for it out of his own pocket. That’s what his salary is for; that’s where his family’s private wealth, the subject of unending litigation, comes in.

To say, blithely, as Bersamin did, that the source of funding is “irrelevant,” is to do violence to the constitutional principle of accountability. Bersamin suggested that even he could have paid for the President’s travel, if only he had the money, and it would have been okay. Again, arrant and dangerous nonsense.  If, to follow his own example, he did pay for the President’s trip, then he should be ready to stand accused of buying his new position. 

Private time

Bersamin’s second rationalization was that the President was on “private time.” He said: “It’s not immodest, it’s not contrary to morals, private time ‘yan.” He was preemptively answering possible ethical questions that could be raised against the President based on principles enshrined in the Constitution and the laws, but he was only indulging in a non-sequitur. Just because an official does something on private time, it doesn’t mean that what he does is necessarily modest, or not contrary to morals. 

“Private time” doesn’t cover a multitude of sins. And even if, to borrow Bersamin’s own strained metaphor, Marcos Junior had become a “matinee idol” whose very presence at the race added “some suspense and intrigue and some importance to that event,” that new-found celebrity still would not protect the President if he were to commit a crime or a scandal during his own private time.

But in fact Bersamin used the private time argument in bad faith, because he had a third rationalization that ran opposite the second. The President, the former justice said, “was still performing his job as President when he was abroad, although that is not an official state visit.” It is easy enough to see how vapid this reasoning is, when you apply it to actual and specific examples. 

When Marcos watched the Clapton concert, was he still performing his job as President? When he spent hours soaking in the expensive atmosphere of an F1 race, was he doing so as part of his presidential duties? Questions like these are why Bersamin offered the private time argument, but as chief aide he thought it was necessary to add the exact opposite argument, just to cover all the bases.

What a disgrace. But he didn’t stop there. To try to deflect public outrage over the President’s insensitive partying in Singapore, at a time when many had not yet recovered from the last typhoon, Bersamin said it was the criticism of the President’s visit that was insensitive. “Yun ang insensitive, yung criticism.” 

When an avatar of the rule of law is the first to attack the public’s inherent right to criticize erring public officials, he has lost his bearings and has no business serving in government. The irony is that he even thought his own person could serve as the clincher to the argument that the source of funding was irrelevant. But it didn’t – because there was nothing there. – Rappler.com

Veteran journalist John Nery is a Rappler columnist, editorial consultant, and program host. “In the Public Square” airs on Rappler social media platforms every Wednesday at 8 pm.

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