Colorful stories

published at The Standard, 15 June 2015
This time, there is buzz about a foundling.
Imagine the drama in all that—a baby abandoned on the doorstep of a church in the province, becoming president after nearly 50 years. What are the chances, after all, that the baby would end up being adopted by a celebrity couple with the means to send her to good schools, both in the capital and abroad?
How much of a coincidence it would be if that same baby would end up topping the senatorial race, proving her mettle on the Senate floor, and then emerging as one of the top picks for the next chief executive of the land?
Her biological parents, who left her at the church that day for reasons known only to them, must be watching the news now with mixed emotions—pride, in how far their baby has come despite the odds,  and perhaps regret as they wonder if she would have beaten the odds anyway had they raised her on their own.
The next few months will be worth watching as we follow this foundling’s political journey. If her path  does take her to Malacañang, would succeeding events confirm that her life story is remarkable, indeed, the stuff of legend?
* * *
This is the first foundling we’ve had in top leadership, but she is not the first archetype.
Throughout our 117 years of history as an independent nation, we’ve had several leaders, some of whom were preceded by their reputation.
We have had the poor boy from the barrios, the brilliant young lawyer, the housewife untainted by any scandal, the shrewd general, the action star whose heart bleeds for the poor, and the son of democracy icons. There could also be the man persecuted by the elite because of the color of his skin.
We have had varying success with these choices, no doubt. But given the increasing influence of social media and other, more effective means of reaching out to voters, the battle for the hearts and minds of people has become an exercise in packaging or branding. Thus the danger of superficiality.
No doubt, a “product” with an interesting, even compelling, personal history is so much easier to sell than somebody perceived to be square, no matter how competent, seasoned, experienced, diligent and clean.
This is not to say however that we should junk outright anybody with a colorful background. It is only, after all, a matter of public relations savvy.  This is what makes politics in the Philippines entertaining, and why the terms of officials are often seen as the time in between elections, rather than elections creating breaks between tenure.
The challenge is to look for more, and ask for more -- because we deserve more than catchy lines and glossy packaging.
It is naive and irresponsible for the public to assume that just because a politician comes with an interesting back story, the story already guarantees good performance on the job. This thinking is what has brought us trouble many times before.
Elections are popularity contests, sure, but here where the stakes are high, we should consider both the package—and what’s actually inside.