(This is an excerpt of the article "TELLING THE FILIPINO STORY TO THE WORLD : Both sides now: Senate’s ‘Lazarus,’ ‘Demi Moore’" by Cynthia Balana in today’s issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. You can also see the whole article here: http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/inquirerheadlines/nation/view/20101130-306105/Both-sides-now-Senates-Lazarus-Demi-Moore)
The lady fights graft
Long before she became a senator, Miriam Defensor-Santiago swam against the tide during her tenure as commissioner of the Bureau of Immigration and Deportation (BID), now simply BI.
“Parang mga sagong hinalo (They looked rattled),” was how I described BID employees when they met Miriam on her first day at the bureau.
Miriam came to the BID in January 1988 backed by a short but impressive list of personally handpicked men and women. Some were former RAM boys of the 1986 EDSA Revolution, like Col. Bienvenido Alano, Navy Cmdr. Ruben Domingo, Maj. Wilfredo Pabalan and Maj. Noe Wong.
I was amused at how this 5’2” woman with a lean frame could turn the BID world upside down in her anticorruption campaign. Miriam instantly drew accolades as well as brickbats.
President Cory called Miriam “the brightest spot in my administration” until they parted ways a few years later for many reasons. As a young and idealistic reporter, I found myself practically breathing and living Miriam.
Like other BID employees, I reported for work as early as 8 a.m. The chief honcho was in her office at 7 a.m. I would leave only after Miriam had left. The glass door and windows of the press room, which was adjacent to Miriam’s office, made it easier for me to see her coming in and going out.
Covering her meant you had to be on your toes 24/7. Once, I followed a fuming Miriam, who had confronted an impertinent woman employee. With lightning speed, Miriam pulled the employee’s chair, causing the employee to fall off, before she made a triumphant exit.
A different story, however, reached the media persons who had arrived late for the press briefing. They asked Miriam if it was true she hurled a chair at an employee.
Santiago grinned: “The accurate statement,” she said, “is that I was educating her. She was impudent, and in my educational zeal I may have rearranged the office furniture.”
The newsmen roared with laughter. I actually heard this employee badmouthing Santiago many times to other employees, telling them not to follow their boss.
It was a Page 1 story, but many of my veteran colleagues got it wrong because they were not there when it happened.
A flurry of Page 1 articles and exciting photos about Miriam’s feat in the BID probably earned me a niche in her heart. In her book, “Cutting Edge: The Politics of Reform in the Philippines,” Miriam mentioned my name as one of three young reporters whose help she sought in reversing the culture of corruption in the bureau.
In private, Miriam was the opposite of what people saw on TV. She was sweet and gentle, kind and compassionate, and above all, playful and witty. She enriched my vocabulary with her colorful language and her fondness for wordplay.
Who can forget the stinging phrase “a fungus-faced congressman who needs a lobotomy.” Or “chopping off corrupt BID employees into pieces and feeding them to the sharks in Manila Bay. But the sharks will reject them out of professional courtesy.”
She once described herself as the “Demi Moore of Philippine Politics,” referring to the actress in the Hollywood flick “Ghost,” a big hit at that time. She won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for public service, Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, while at the BID. And she never failed to thank me and other BID reporters for being part of that phase in her professional life.
Miriam was always ready to give in to the “whims” of my editors, who admitted that newspaper sales would zoom each time Miriam was on the front page, whether it was a photo of her at target shooting practice or playing basketball.
I lost track of Miriam after I was transferred to the Senate beat. By then, she had been appointed secretary of agrarian reform. But her nomination was repeatedly bypassed by the Commission on Appointments. She threatened to disappear in the wilderness, but not without a parting shot: “This is goodbye. I will fade into the dark like Batman.”
Unlike the Titanic, Miriam was unsinkable.
One day, I found myself in her house in UP Village. My editor in chief then, Federico Pascual, wanted me to do a story on her again.
Miriam never disappointed a journalist’s lust for a good story, so I began my Q and A: “So, how does it feel to be slapped in public?” I asked, referring to the rejection of her nomination. She shot back: “Oh it’s a burning sensation coupled with irreconcilable humiliation!”
For the photo shoot, we went to a sports club in Quezon City where a PDI photographer took her pictures. It was a first in Inquirer’s history: a Q and A story and in the centerfold, a huge picture of Miriam, in a one-piece bathing suit, seated by the poolside, hugging her much talked-about “shapely legs.”
The next day, an ecstatic Pascual told me that the Inquirer had to reprint more copies of that issue. Newspaper dealers said all the copies were sold out by noon, and many were still looking for more.
When she was seriously injured in a car crash (which she described as an assassination attempt) in April 1991 before her presidential campaign kicked off in 1992, I was at V. Luna Medical Center in Quezon City and saw her for the first time in extreme pain. Her husband Jun fetched me at her request.
Miriam struggled to smile upon seeing me. She could not move. Her face was black and blue and bore stitches. I called the newsroom to tell them about Miriam’s physical state, and relayed her husband’s request not to write about her in such a state as this could dishearten her supporters.
I ceased being a journalist that day, and simply acted as a friend. What people felt in their moments of suffering mattered most to me than the desire to have another scoop. The news desk respected my decision.
After Miriam was discharged from the hospital, she sent me a beautiful letter, thanking me for “standing by me at the time when I was down and out.”
“I have no brain or bone injuries, but I have severe muscle traumas which are extremely painful. I hope to resume my public appearances by June 1 or so. If you want an exclusive interview after that time, just tell me or Jun,” she wrote.