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Farewell to FVR

By ALFRED A. YUSON, The Philippine STAR Published Aug 15, 2022 5:00 am

He was in a bad mood at five in the morning, Manhattan time, as we met for a video interview at a room in the Waldorf-Astoria. Seldom did I acquiesce to such set-ups at that unholy hour, and would have matched his caliber of irritation if I didn’t acknowledge that I was outranked.

His irascibility had been due to an earlier interview on radio by “Kabayan” Noli de Castro. Or was it Ces Drilon? Memory takes constant hits once the recollection leaps back over a quarter of a century.

We were in New York for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in 1995. Our small crew with producer E.G. Hizon and videographer Ernie Enrique would also feature other activities in the Big Apple that involved the Philippine contingent of businessmen that usually accompanied President Fidel Valdez Ramos in his foreign sorties.

As we sat to face one another, I thought best to allow FVR to let off more steam, since he was still muttering angrily at a certain failure of CSW (his much-vaunted Complete Staff Work) having to do with some papers that he wound up dumping on the floor.

Many other pleasant memories serve to gild the lily of appreciation. A lot of these happened after his term, when our group wasn’t serving him any more in any capacity.

Next up was the sheet that had the compact list of questions I had prepared and sent over through an aide the night before. He scanned it for a quick review, and for a while I got concerned that his frown still resisted dissipation. But after a minute, he said with vestigial gruffness, “Okay, let’s start. No more than 20 minutes.”

“Yes, sir.” I knew better than to remind him that he had agreed to a full half-hour. The interview went on well, despite the absence of the usual warmth in his voice and the congenial smile. In my mind, I was already appreciating the sober, concise replies that could, with judicious editing, translate into a serious regard of our country’s history of participation in the UN, as well as his can-do initiatives for our continued economic upturn.

In the lead-up to the presidential election of 1992, when Tita Cory had endorsed FVR as her successor, I first shook hands with him at the rooftop deck of the Hyatt Hotel on Roxas Boulevard. It was at a modest cocktail party hosted by Hyatt GM Perfecto “Bubot” Quicho, a close friend from way back in 1970, long before he became the first Filipino GM of a five-star hotel.

President Corazon Aquino and President-elect Fidel Ramos at the Quirino Grandstand in 1992. 

We volunteered to join up for FVR’s presidential campaign. Bubot’s close friends and relations included then Defense Secretary Ramos’ trusted right-hand man, Gen. Renato de Villa. We started meeting up with supportive financial executives and technocrats to help map out the campaign with a particular focus on the media side.

Several weeks after winning the presidency, “Tabako” asked Bubot to form a small group for covert operations. No one would know of us. Our Sierra Group (definitely predating The Gray Man, now on Netflix) would be separate from any others that were “officially” handled. We’d quietly specialize on advisories pertaining to the media — not its management nor manipulation, but as first-responder consultants on any crisis or growing concern. We could also propose initiatives for gaining the upper hand with regards media mileage and comfort levels.

Years earlier, I had enjoyed a sort of sinecure for reporting a few hours daily to edit reports that were passed on to higher-ups by an agency that backstopped then President Cory. Left with much leftover time after sprucing up poor grammar and syntax, I warmed up coffee mugs as I went over the day’s five or six broadsheets.

I have since made it a habit, believing in FVR’s pitch for longevity. A long, productive, fruitful life he lived indeed, gifting his country with a memorable legacy as “Steady Eddie.”

As a personal exercise, I devised a simple system I labeled as FUN — for Favorable, Unfavorable and Neutral — to which areas I assigned the daily news stories and op-ed pieces that wound up as sliding percentages. It became easy to track down which issues were gaining controversy or might turn problematic even as these just turned a corner.

At some point I showed a week’s compilation of these simple alarums to the boss. I learned later that my one-man effort made its way to NICA, which sent over a couple of operatives to question me on my background and how I inherited the system. I said I was a UP dropout but that it had nothing to do with anything, and that I just invented the monitoring system since I was a perceptive journalist and had time to go over all the broadsheets.

The following week one of the interrogators came back to show me a copy of my FUN system that had marginal notes in red ink addressed to the NICA chief. More or less, it said: “This is good and much appreciated. Make sure to keep it up!” It had FVR’s initials.

At some point, well after our Sierra Group (with E.G. Hizon, Mario Taguiwalo and an evolving subset of conscripts) first met officially with President FVR at Gen. De Villa’s DND office which he had inherited, I must have eventually recalled the NICA incident to Tabako. With a laugh, he said he recalled it too, and had wondered why it had been discontinued. He then added it to our tasks, the revival of the weekly FUN.

Our video crew became a staple in all of FVR’s foreign trips — to the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Australia, New Zealand, even Cartagena in Colombia when FVR attended a summit. We interviewed the Cabinet officials who joined these trips, and important businessmen who tagged along. And of course FVR each time. Primarily sponsored by PLDT, our hour-long documentaries were shown on blocktime at ABS-CBN.

The single instance when FVR upbraided us, for executing a print project without his red pen coming into play, involved a simple brochure titled “Ocean of Shared Destiny” — for which I drafted the desiderata text for token distribution in the Americas. We were running out of time before the flight to Honolulu, so went ahead on our own to have a thousand copies printed. FVR didn’t exactly blow his top. But he asserted that he could have added his own original thoughts on the matter. The point was brought home with finality: not only was he a writer himself, but also an editor.

The Chief Executive had multiple admirable parts, starting with a workaholic thoroughness and disciplined rigor that set our country right. A visionary, he was also a humanist, an empath who was often an easy touch. In New York in 1995, I managed to send word to him that our National Artist and premier poet Jose Garcia Villa was reportedly in dire straits apart from having a health condition. FVR quickly ordered an aide to seek out Doveglion’s apartment and drop off some wherewithal. Nowhere in media was this ever reported.

One of my warmest memories was of a night in Brussels when Mr. Hizon and I wandered into the hotel bar and found FVR at a table with Joe de V. Espying us, he waved us over and introduced us to the Speaker, adding nonchalantly, “These guys are my buddies.” We gladly accepted the cognac offered us for a toast to the special bonding.

Many other pleasant memories serve to gild the lily of appreciation. A lot of these happened after his term, when our group wasn’t serving him any more in any capacity.

In 1999 I requested him for an essay contribution for the anthology FIL-AM: The Filipino-American Experience. He came across, even joined the local launch at Giraffe, before I toured with the book through New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. We’d visit him at his home in Alabang, where he proudly showed us his burgeoning museum-library. He’d show up at private parties at La Regalade, sporting a new pair of spectacles that had no lens within the frame, which we only realized when he playfully poked his “Kaya natin ito!” thumb through each hole. At his RP-Dev office in Makati, he’d happily welcome a visit, touring us through rooms, with desks and long tables weighed down with piles of books, assorted publications and document folders. Then he’d sit us down for lengthy, jovial conversations while treating us to coffee with his recommended tablespoon of virgin coconut oil.

I have since made it a habit, believing in FVR’s pitch for longevity. A long, productive, fruitful life he lived indeed, gifting his country with a memorable legacy as “Steady Eddie.”

Farewell for now, dear sir and buddy.