“Power corrupts. Absolute power is kind of neat.”
John F. Lehman
WHENEVER my friends and I talk about corruption in government or feuds among cliques in Malacañang, the country’s seat of government, I always wonder aloud if any of us would still remain the same were we occupying the same high positions that come with so much power and privilege.
At a private affair I attended recently, I had a chance to talk with an old friend, now a Cabinet secretary, after so many years of not seeing each other. I joked to a photographer nearby to snap a shot of me with the government official lest he forget that he ever knew me now that he is among the high and mighty.
But I doubted that this will happen, as evidenced by this guy’s entire behavior at the event. He arrived at the venue 30 minutes before the appointed hour, sans bodyguards and fanfare. Seeing there were still not a lot of guests yet, he quietly parked himself at a bench and started texting. When I walked over to greet him, we started chatting and joking like the old friends that we are. And when the other guests arrived, also former colleagues like myself, this Cabinet secretary acted like it was only yesterday when we all last saw one another. How very refreshing to see someone unchanged by the trappings of his powerful position.
In contrast to this Cabinet secretary, one other guest at the event, a popular legislator, sent his staff in advance to ask whether the ceremony would start on time. Not only that, when the legislator arrived, he brought his own photographer. What the… ? This was not a public event where taxpayers’ money would be spent. It was more like a gathering of friends. Someone later compared him to a failed vice-presidential candidate who also would go around with an aging photographer in tow to private functions. Tacky.
This reminds me of another ranking government official, who, when he was still in the private sector, already had a large retinue of bodyguards and a long lineup of backup vehicles. “Daig pa ang presidente ng Pilipinas!” many bitched. Okay, in his defense, this guy was not well off when he was growing up. He was a working student but because of his hard work, he quickly climbed up the corporate ladder. In fairview, he has been a big help to his and his wife’s families, financially. So maybe we should excuse him for assigning a bodyguard to accompany his wife whenever she goes shopping. Or constantly bragging that he has the ear of the President. Hmmm….
But, let’s face it, power is intoxicating. Even the media isn’t immune to its charms. We like it when we feel we are needed by publicists desperate to meet their client’s quota of writeups for the month. We feel ever so important when we can dispense a favor to them, even if it’s using just one tiny press release. In return, publicists are willing to give us the moon. Well, almost. I remember one publicist telling me about how an editor would call him up to borrow his car and a driver so she could go to her hair salon—which was just in the same neighborhood she lived in. Now that’s just batty.
And, admit it, those of us without power somehow envy people who have it. Especially if we think they don’t deserve it. At the back of our mind, we wish we had that much influence over people, policies and events. That, at a snap of a finger, we can order a restaurant closed down for serving bad and expensive food, or fire a stupid saleslady at your favorite shoe store for not knowing what loafers are, or be allowed to cut ahead of the long snaking lines at the international airport’s x-ray machine. Silly things like that. Of course, we all just want world peace, right?
Make no mistake, though—power flows not only at high levels of society. It permeates even in poor classes—the burly istambay sa kanto who can demand free beers from a sari-sari store owner, the local Shylock relentlessly imposing usurious loan rates whenever his kapitbahay tries to borrow money, or the neighborhood shabu supplier getting kids to distribute his stuff. Anywhere you go, there will be people who have influence, in positions of authority, and who will abuse their power. And there will be those who will cower in fear or awe of them.
I think those who fatally succumb to power’s power are probably insecure about themselves or what they are doing. They haven’t reconciled themselves to who they really are and what they ought to do in life. Perhaps, within there is a constant struggle of pleasing other people, or doing what is expected of them, and they end up only becoming miserable because they can’t do what they really want to do. Like a politician who just really enjoys being a banker but has to please his political family so he keeps legislating away. Or maybe a chief executive of a company who still has to show his former classmates and colleagues how far he has come from his days of destitution. It’s sad and pitiful. You want to kill them, but you don’t.
Now that’s real power.
(Originally published in Business Mirror, Something Like Life, Aug. 4, 2006)