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Who Was Noynoy, Off the Record?

The man behind the president.
IMAGE FRANCISCO GUERRERO
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By now, you’ve probably seen countless Tweets and posts offering condolences to the Aquino family. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III’s presidency was riddled with controversies—as all presidencies are—and plenty of posts have started with, “He was an imperfect leader, but…”

Death has a funny way of bringing the important things to the forefront. For all his political blunders, of which there were many, most people seem to only have good things to say about PNoy, namely his professionalism, honesty, and integrity—traits that have become scarce in Philippine politics. Decency, it seems, is the bare minimum in what we demand from our leaders. A sad fact that’s been put into the spotlight in the last few hours.

Raised from birth to follow in his parents’ footsteps, Noynoy set aside his own personal life to dedicate his life to service. “Kayo ang boss ko!” was his rallying cry, even when the tide turned against him towards the end of his presidency. Now, just hours after his death, that’s what people remember the most: his character. His presidency and his legacy will be subject to historians, the judge and jury of our memory. They’ll be the ones to determine the lasting effects of his many achievements: strong economic growth, new investment grades, lowest unemployment rate, suing China over the West Philippine Sea and winning; and his many failures: slow response to Typhoon Yolanda, poor handling of the Manila hostage crisis, and the deaths of the SAF 44.

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But we’re not here to talk about his policies, his presidency, and all the things historians and trolls will debate for years to come. We’re here to talk about Noynoy, the man. You don’t bring your resume or your wealth to the grave. At his funeral, people won’t speak of the economy or Dengvaxia or anything worthy of a news headline. Instead, they’ll speak of his character outside the title.

Dead men tell no tales, so what do the living have to say about him now?

His closest friends and confidantes have taken to social media to share their personal stories with him. Here’s what they have to say about Noynoy, not the president.

1| Leni Gerona Robredo

Before she was Vice President, Robredo was newly widowed. Her husband, Jesse, was closer to PNoy than she was, but following Jesse’s tragic and sudden death, PNoy stepped up to help an old friend’s grieving widow.

“I only got to know him on a personal level when Jesse’s plane went missing," Robredo posted on Facebook. "He flew to Masbate at dawn to personally supervise the search and rescue operations. He flew to Naga to see me and the children to explain to us how the search was progressing and flew back to Masbate in the morning of Aug 21, his Dad’s Death Anniversary, when Jesse’s body was found. He brought Jesse home to us in Naga and I remember telling him I wanted to see my husband for the last time before the embalming begins. PNoy was telling me, in not so many words, that Jesse was underwater for 3 days and was not in the best shape. But when I insisted, he accompanied me to the embalming room where Jesse was, still inside the body bag. I opened the body bag and spent what seemed like forever, saying my final goodbye. PNoy was just there, standing a few steps behind me, not saying anything and just letting me be.

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"Months after, when it became easier to talk about it, he told me he made sure that he was just a few steps behind me so that he was near enough to catch me just in case I fainted. But when he saw me holding Jesse, he thought he would be the first one to faint.”

2| Chel Diokno

Decades ago, Noynoy and Chel were just two sons of political prisoners. Their fathers, Benigno Aquino Jr. and Jose Diokno, were among the first to be imprisoned on trumped-up charges during martial law.

“I remember how you stayed for more than an hour at Mom’s wake, reminiscing about our dads’ imprisonment. How, in private moments, you would often talk about our parents, and their detention in Laur. You left us too soon.”

3| Mahar Lagmay

He might have had plenty of people to oversee things for him, but that never stopped him from pointing and correcting the details of geologist Mahar Lagmay’s PowerPoint presentation.

“He once pointed out to us that the units in our presentation were wrong. Instead of meters I put centimeters. He always asked sharp questions during meetings. It was like defending a Ph.D. dissertation every time we faced him.”

4| Kristoffer Pasion

Historian Kristoffer Pasion recounts his time working at the Philippine Communications Group under Manuel Quezon III and how PNoy was detail-oriented and data-driven.

“If some personality of historical significance in PH dies, we needed to beat the media to it in releasing a statement… PNoy's questions to our principal came as innocently as "Why were the Jesuits expelled from PH by Spain?" or "Why should the National Anthem precede prayer in state events?" All these questions great or small, would entail a briefer. This was how history informed his policy.”

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5| Camille Elemia

What public figures say off the record offer an intimate insight on who they are when they’re not wearing their professional caps. Rappler journalist Camille Elemia was lucky enough to have plenty of candid conversations with the former president, even in the months prior to his death.

“When my father was diagnosed with colon cancer in December 2020, Aquino was never short on words of encouragement – that my dad was diagnosed earlier than his mother, former president Corazon Aquino, so he had a better prognosis. He recommended some doctors and I candidly told him, ‘Sir naman, we cannot afford your doctors.’

“I have been checking up on him in the past months. On Tuesday, June 22—two days before his death—he replied, ‘Even your Dad would be hard-pressed to give nearly daily updates to you.’”

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Anri Ichimura
Section Editor, Esquire Philippines
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