Former Senator Joker Arroyo

Last 5 October 2015, at the age of 88, former Senator Joker Arroyo bade final adieu to the Filipino people he had actively defended and faithfully served for more than four decades.

To some, Sen. Arroyo appeared to have descended, in the twilight of his long illustrious career, to nothing more than a lame apologist for the administration of Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, before he decided to leave the glare of publicity and return to the quiet comfort of domesticity he had long forsaken in the name of service to the Filipino people.

For those of us, however, who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, under the dark shadows of martial rule, I certainly have fond memories and deep respect for the man, so much so that I try to go beyond his penultimate public pronouncements that must have surely left quite a bitter aftertaste in the mouth of some of his admirers—in an attempt to justify the enigma.

I first saw then Atty. Joker Arroyo in person as he stood at the foot of the Santa Cruz Bridge right across the Metropolitan Theatre. He was watching the throngs of people marching into Liwasang Bonifacio after crossing the Quiapo Bridge. It was the beginning stages of the sustained people’s struggle against the Marcos dictatorship in the aftermath of the Aquino Assassination.

Even then, Atty. Arroyo was, as he had always been, self-effacing. There was nothing in the way he comported himself that called special attention to what laid beneath his regular physical stature: a swift mind, a staunch heart, and an eloquent tongue that sent shivers down the spine of the best lawyers on the other side of the political fence. Also, given the way he combed his hair forward, the old Roman way, combined with his independent thinking, I had always associated him with Seneca.

Thus, on that sunny day in late 1983, I watched him with awe as he stood in the company of his fellow human right lawyers, observing with silent glee the zeitgeist passing before their eyes, which they perhaps thought would never come to pass during their lifetime. Just looking at these human right lawyers made me think that there must indeed be something in conflict that brings forth the best in men; and the more bitter the conflict, the more Life gives forth its best sons and daughters to face and overcome the challenges.

However, unlike some of his fellow “human right defenders” during martial law whose true colors were revealed once they took over the reins of government from those they detested and fought against, Atty. Arroyo remained true to his ideals and principles even after he already became part of the establishment. Starting as Pres. Corazon Aquino’s Executive Secretary, the feisty Naga City native thereafter served three terms as Representative of the then lone congressional district of Makati City, then as three-term Senator of the Republic, before bowing out of the public limelight.

During all those times he walked the hallowed halls of the nation’s supreme legislative assemblies, he was known to have kept only two or three staff members, and personally drafted his own bills, prepared his speeches, media releases and formal communications. More surprisingly, he refused to accept the pork barrel funds allocated for his office. He never shied away from taking the podium to speak for or support causes that his colleagues deemed to be an albatross.

In the mold of Winston Churchill, Senator Arroyo spoke his mind out whenever needed, sans hysterics and drama but simply with a clarity, substance and fortitude further elevated by decorum and decency in both manner and speech that befitted a rightful Senator of the Republic and a statesman. He did not care if he was a lone voice crying in the wilderness and tilting at windmills; he would say and do what he believed was right without regard to popularity ratings and definitely without pandering to vested interests and agenda of PR and pressure groups from whichever part of the political spectrum.

It is for all the foregoing reasons that I did not begrudge the man when, at the twilight of his public career, he seemed to have become a pariah, even among those with whom he had struggled against the Marcos dictatorship during the turbulent days of yore, when he defended on the Senate floor some of the policies of the then already discredited Macapagal-Arroyo Administration. This was because, despite some irritation, I was still confident that whenever he articulated his position on a given issue it could only be based, consistent with his true character, on his personal conviction and not because he was just mouthing someone else’s position. For that alone, he deserved everyone’s respect.

Truly, like a comet in a uniform night sky, Sen. Arroyo was a distinctive light in a bland light field of supine politicians who would rather take the path of least resistance let alone act and speak with dignity and decency. And, even though we know that, exactly like any comet, he would not remain in our field of view for long, we are still thankful that even for a fleeting moment he was there to affirm our belief that all is not lost for our society.

Sen. Arroyo has finally taken his rightful place in the pantheon of our great statesmen whose ideas and very way of life bespoke of men our nation sorely needed but often overlooked. Still, we hope and pray that there will be those like him who would “continue to plant trees knowing that they would never sit under their shade—simply content with the thought that, somewhere, sometime, among the future generations, there would be those who could say of him and his own generation, ‘not everyone had slept during the dark night of our forefathers.’ ”

Thanks so much and fondest farewell to you, Mr. Senator.

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