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ADVOCACY MINDANOW: My famous cabinet prayer

“PUNCHIN’  LADY MAYOR”– I met a newly-arrived Canadian the other day in Manila and the first thing she asked when she learned that I was from Davao was; “Wow. How’s your punchin’ lady mayor?” She said she saw it all on CNN and BBC.   At the rate TV channels repeatedly used the video clip of Mayor Inday Sara Duterte throwing that famous punch as an attention-getting “intro” to its newscasts and commentaries, we should not be surprised if it becomes the “most viewed” video clip of the year.

They say that TV is a cruel medium. I cannot help but agree. I had my own share of misfortunes! Or call it mistakes. Or lapses of good judgment, (to make it sound dignified). And television was there to “immortalize” them for the whole world to see. Mayor Sara’s travails now remind me of my own.

WHILE PRESS SEC –Remember that now-famous cabinet prayer in Malacanang I did when I was press secretary more than two years ago? That was somethin’! Let me recall.  It was November 18, 2008.

As a matter of practice, before the regular Tuesday cabinet meeting would tackle the day’s agenda, a cabinet secretary was normally tasked, beforehand, to do the opening prayer. A prepared text was usually done in advance and read by the assigned official. That week, I was called by the presidential management staff to do the opening prayers.  So, I then asked my executive assistant, my daughter Ning Dureza (now Uy) to type one for me. She prepared one, I read it and it was good — the usual invocations, dignified words, standard phrases, straightforward, solemn etcetera.

COPY LOST –I tucked a copy of my prepared prayer with my other papers and hurried off to the palace cabinet meeting room.  I was running late by my watch. But I had to drop by at the press room at the ground floor to check whether the Malacanang press photographers were on their way to cover the opening part. You see, cabinet meetings were normally executive sessions and “off the press” except that opening prayers were open for “photo ops” only, meaning only press photographers could take video or “still” shots and after the opening prayer, they were to leave the room before the substantive meeting got underway. Prayers in the cabinet were routine matters so photogs were usually invited just so footages could be taken for the day’s news.

That Tuesday morning was just the ordinary photo ops for the opening prayer. And of course I was ready with Ning’s prepared text for my prayer. As I had to pass by the press room, I was a bit delayed when I reached the cabinet room. Everybody was already on his/her feet for the prayer including the President while I was puffing and panting, catching my breath. Then I reached for my folder, looked inside but the prepared prayer sheet was not there. I looked again but the copy was still missing. Everybody was waiting. The video cameras were whirling, flash bulbs flashing. I was frantic but I did not show it.  Yes, I could deliver an impromptu speech for hours, but please, not a formal prayer, with the whole world watching. I had not done that before. But I had no choice. As if nothing unusual was happening, I started praying “extemporaneously”, impromptu. And from the heart. I told myself I would recite what came freely into my mind.

UNUSUAL MANNER   –I recall starting my prayer by saying: “Let’s all bow our heads in prayer.” And I could see everybody did, some with closed eyes. Then, I proceeded: “Lord, please forgive me for I have misplaced the copy of my prayer and this may be due to old age. I would instead pray from the heart. “I noticed a few cabinet members were stirring a bit. Then I continued   with something like this: “Bless the members of the cabinet who are celebrating their birthdays this week, especially Sec Art Yap who promised to serve lechon for all of us…” (It was Art’s birthday that day or that week and I recall he promised earlier “lechon baka” for lunch.)  Then I searched for thoughts on how to further proceed. I opened my eyes. At the president’s side across the table were Sec Bebot Bello and Sec Ralph Recto (now senator), although still with heads bowed, were starting to smile and trying to stifle their laughter. (They must have immediately sensed that I was starting to pray in an unconventional manner.) Then I said something about asking God’s grace for the members of the cabinet who were tasked to attend to the heavy burdens of governance and “attending to affairs of the state as well as perhaps affairs of the heart”. (I admit I was a bit naughty and irreverent there) You see, there were juicy rumors circulating that time about some officials having “some love affairs” and that thought just came spontaneously.)  I gazed around, and some heads were no longer bowed. Some were already noticeably amused. I looked at the direction of a “suspect” and he looked uncomfortable (aha, gotcha!. hahaha!)

PRAYER FOR PRESIDENT –Then I continued saying we were praying for the new Senate President (Sen. Johnny Enrile just got installed then and I most welcomed it). I referred to him as someone who was of “advanced age” (I didn’t say old, Mr. Senator, so please forgive me) but whose experience and competence over the years of long service augured well for the nation…etc. I was already hearing soft laughter from all sides.  Then I came to the main part of the prayer which was expectedly a prayer for the President.  I recall I said something about asking the Lord to bless her and give her forbearance, fortitude, good health, etc so that “she can continue to be of service to this nation and the people… until 2010 (that’s the end of her term.). Then for one reason or another, I did not stop there. I wanted to deliver a punch line on a light note.

At this point, and before I proceed with my recollections, a brief backgrounder is important. It was around that time that critics of President GMA were accusing her that she was maneuvering to amend the constitution to be able to continue being in office beyond her term. The air was so heavy with such speculations and rumors that I knew the president was very careful about not giving credence to them. Also, being close to the Malacanang inner circle in my work as her press secretary, I did not notice a single indication that this was so. On the contrary, I was convinced that PGMA was counting her remaining days and was anxious to get off the saddle. We all knew what the job of a president would entail and getting off from that office would be every president’s urgent aspiration. (Never mind if many will however dispute this.) So, I treated it as a “non-issue” and an amusing item that ought not to be taken seriously, but a good point to mention in a light-hearted prayer.

Sorry but I was already taking an irreversible course in my prayer and I was reciting every thought that came along.

PUNCH LINE –With those at the back of my mind, my spontaneity prompted me to do a “punch line” with that prayer. When I said that we all pray  so that the president  could continue to serve this nation and its people until 2010, I added a naughty  line;”AND WHO KNOWS,  PERHAPS, BEYOND!.. Then I paused but at that point I saw the president already reacting. I finished it with the phrase:” IN HER PERSONAL AND PRIVATE CAPACITY” as I really originally intended.

But all hell broke loose even before I uttered the last phrase. I saw the President across me gasping: “OH MY GOD” as she raised her hands over her head, apparently aghast or in dismay or in anger or in disgust (or all of the above!) She faced the whirling and flashing cameras across the table and said: “Off the record ang prayer. Please off the record tama na, tama na” as she gestured to the photographers to just leave.  The members of the cabinet were all laughing as they got seated.  As the palace staff hurriedly shooed off the photographers, I tried catching up with them at the Malacanang grounds and pleaded: “The president is requesting that it be off the record. Ok lang?”  They did not answer. But of course I knew that requests for “off the record” normally were honored only when announced prior to the event. An “after event” request could already be treated as an attempt to censor or “kill a story”.  It was a “scoop” for all and no one of course would pass up on that “sensational slip of the tongue” by no less than the press secretary of the palace. Yes, that fed the media and opposition frenzy about PGMA’s alleged plans to stay in office beyond. That prayer somehow reinforced and gave credence to their accusations.  And yes, no less than her spokesman and alter ego revealed it! In a cabinet meeting at that, etcetera.

MEDIA AGOG!   As expected, within the hour, TV channels and the media as a whole were agog and went to town with it.  That video clip became an instant Youtube favorite. After the cabinet meeting, I approached the President hoping to explain the snafu.  I told her that there was a punch line that would explain the correct and complete context of my utterances. It dawned on me that she did not catch the important final phrase. When I explained, at first she appeared amused but evidently disturbed. But overnight, the scenario changed.  When the episode hit the air lanes she became instantly the target of media attacks — instead of me, the perpetrator. She was not mollified, to say the least. And I felt so guilty.
That evening, I watched the news. The whole prayer was fully and accurately recorded and reported, even the last phrase “in her personal and private capacity” could be heard although somehow buried in the burst of laughter that followed. In fact, the following morning in an interview with host Anthony Taberna of ABS-CBN, I called attention to that last phrase (“in her personal and private capacity”) as a clear indication that my prayer was clearly not to promote the president staying on but was, on the contrary, looking forward to her returning to the private sector. However, sometime later, to my  dismay, the subsequent TV re-plays and re-runs of that cabinet prayer no longer included  the  last phrase “in her personal and private capacity”  It was erased, spliced or removed. By whom I would not care to know. For what reason? Well, it was obvious that keeping that segment intact would negate what some sectors were accusing PGMA of.

A MISTAKE – – I had a few thoughts after that episode. I was convinced that my “cavalier” prayer was a mistake, a lapse in judgment and irreverent. Although I told the press that it was intended as a “light prayer” and that God had a great sense of humor (which some critics and some in the media sorely lacked), I realized that I was playing “into the fire”, doing “brinksmanship” and I was unnecessarily and recklessly bringing along the President with it. The biggest irony of it all was that as her press secretary, my principal work would have been to provide her a firewall. In that episode, I was not true to my task. I pushed her to the fire.
It happened while I was well within five months as press secretary. I agonized and was totally embarrassed. Quietly in my heart then, I wished I was back home in Davao doing something else. Four months later, in February 2009, I resigned principally because I had to take care of my ailing wife, Beth. But the speculation continued to hound me that I was fired because of that prayer. Whatever! The fact remained that I felt so relieved I left. I was at peace with the thought that I was also doing the presidency a favor by leaving. I drew some comfort too from the fact that my bosom friend, Cebuano Cerge Remonde ably took over as press sec. But he also did not stay long. He died from a heart attack while in office. (I heard some unkind remarks from some friends who said I would have suffered the same fate if I did not go.)

Truth to tell, while I was enjoying — and at times agonizing –during that 8-month stint as press secretary, having left it was “liberating”. Not only for me but I think, most importantly “liberating” for the Office of the President which decidedly did not deserve my occasional, unconventional, and at times naughty ways.

“OH MY GOD”. –TV, indeed, is an exciting medium. But it can be cruel too. Having served and spanned both sides, once as a media man and later as a public official and now back again as a media man, (a full circle) I had no misgivings though. All of those happy moments and misgivings were admittedly considered “part of the territory”, so to speak. I have no complaints. Only memories.

More than two years have passed since that cabinet meeting and that “disastrous” prayer.  I now look back to that incident with great discernment — and amusement. But it was instructive with several good lessons learned. (By the way, if you wish to view an abridged  portion of that episode at  the Youtube  entitled “OH MY GOD”,  please go and  search for DUREZA PRAYER.  You’ll somehow savor what I am now saying.)

LESSONS LEARNED –Here are some lessons learned from that incident:
Lesson 1, don’t ever lose the copy of your prepared prayer. Lesson 2, don’t do impromptu prayers unless you are used to doing it or unless you have standard lines and invocations formed ahead in your mind.  Lesson 3, do not assume that everyone, including God, has the same sense of humor as you have.  Lesson 4, all prayers are always answered but at times, the answer is NO, as in this case.  Consider this: if my prayer, as charged by critics, was to convince God to keep PGMA still as president beyond her term, God’s answer was a clear NO. On the other hand, if my prayer, as I had truly intended, was for her to continue serving the nation but in a private or personal capacity, the answer is still NO. She’s still in public office now, right?  Lesson 5, if you are spokesman or alter ego of someone, shed off your personal views and set aside your personal instincts and stifle as much as possible your usual ways.  As much as possible,you should be your principal, personified. Any first sign that you’re not into it, then do your principal – and yourself- a favor by allowing someone else to do the job.

I’m sure there are more lessons out there to mention. That’s enough for the moment.

Mind you, I still have a few more “bad moments” and of course too many “good moments” to share.  But that prayer experience was a defining moment for me.

And to borrow the words of Mayor Inday Sara: That too was decidedly not one of my best moments! (jessdureza@gmail.com)

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