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But where is the President?

I understand, from the official daily schedule circulated on Monday by the Presidential Communications Operations Office, that President Duterte will make a public appearance today for the first time in almost a week. The 'tentative schedule' (these releases are almost always classified as tentative) shows the President attending the 'Eid'l Fitr Celebration' in Malacanang at 7 p.m.

This marks the second time in as many weeks that Mr. Duterte has been missed. He was not seen in public from June 12 to 16, and again from June 21 to 26 - assuming, that is, that he keeps his appointment tonight. (It is the only appointment on his agenda today, according to the schedule shared with the reporters and bloggers who cover him.)

At a general meeting of the Public Relations Society of the Philippines last week that I was privileged to address, a gentleman during the Q and A noted the traditional media's

'failure' to report on the President's whereabouts. I understood what he meant, and conceded his point (in a word, the media should dig deeper), but I also noted other factors at work that made the President's first prolonged absence controversial.

In the first place, I cannot recall a president who has ever missed Independence Day; I do not mean presence at the Rizal Park rites, but participation in any appropriate ceremony on June 12. It is the role of the head of state to lead the observance of the anniversary of the state he heads. Role, not duty. No constitutional or legal obligation requires the president's presence or participation in Independence Day ceremonies. But - and I borrow the exact phrasing then candidate Rodrigo Duterte used when he explained to me, over a year ago, why he meets certain obligations despite a personal disinclination to do so - officials have a 'sovereign function' to discharge.

Secondly, within minutes of each other, two Cabinet officials offered contradictory explanations for the President's absence. This lack of coordination on the first day the President went missing naturally led to more questions. Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella justified Mr. Duterte's absence in terms that were too general to be believed or credited. The President, he said in Filipino, was busy facing challenges facing the country. ('Meron siyang hinaharap na ilang bagay upang maayos talaga ang ating hinaharap na challenge.')

This, as I suggested to the PRSP, was pabulum, an obvious, lame attempt at a rationalization. (Kids, don't try this at home.) I commiserate with Abella, whom I met once and who struck me as an eminently decent person; a person obviously not used to lying, he is forced by circumstance to use his 'creative imagination' to explain the often inexplicable Duterte act or statement.

At the same June 12 rites, however, Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano told curious reporters what sounded like a better approximation of the truth. 'You know the President has been working 24/7, meeting the troops, meeting the commanders, and then late last night, visiting the wounded and the dead. So that's why this morning, he didn't feel that well.'

That was the far better answer; it wasn't perfect, because it raised the question about who manages the President's schedule, and why the necessary rest wasn't arranged to allow him to fulfill his ceremonial role on Independence Day. But the oldest president we've elected is not feeling well? That seems more plausible than 'facing challenges facing the country,' and something everyone can understand. The initial, stark contrast in explanations helped feed public anxiety.

Third, the President's main supporters on social media seemed conspicuously silent for most of the time he was not seen in public. I think this means that even they were out of the loop, and did not know what was really going on. Cue greater curiosity.

Why is the President making himself scarce?

This is unusual behavior for a public official-and recalls those expensive summits where, as I had written before, 'he spent millions of taxpayer pesos for the privilege of being absent from key events.' The President enjoys a reputation for candor. About his mysterious absences, it is time for him to be candid with us.
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Publication:Philippines Daily Inquirer (Makati City, Philippines)
Date:Jun 27, 2017
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