By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan
*Read behind-the-scenes stories of the Corona trial verdict day here.
He was not a witness, but many dubbed him the “star” of the trial that ultimately removed Chief Justice Renato Corona from office.
Many followers of the impeachment proceedings found a renewed appreciation for Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile: firm, resolute, and–at 88 years old–mentally agile in his role as presiding judge of the court.
He insisted on the judges’ impartiality in dealing with the trial panels, hearing testimonies, and accepting evidence. He strove to maintain order when senator-judges raised hell or participants appeared to act with disrespect.
While he cast the final vote convicting Corona, his justification speech equally scored weaknesses in the prosecution and defense. More so, he bared the pros and cons resulting from either decision his court would make.
Enrile pounding his gavel would become one of the trial’s enduring images.
With high trust ratings, it appeared he was the one who gained the most goodwill and political capital from the trial–even compared to President Aquino, who had a big stake in the impeachment drive.
But JPE, also known more recently as Manong Johnny, was not always publicly seen as this lamp of wisdom and direction.
Few politicians are widely recognized by their acronyms as JPE. A lawyer, bureaucrat, and lawmaker, the only thing missing was had he become President of the Philippines. And for a time, Enrile was in a position to possibly become that.
School history books written in the recent 20 years have cited him as one of the sparks that ignited the bloodless first EDSA revolt.
And it is to his and then Gen. Fidel V. Ramos’ withdrawal of support for Pres. Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 that some align his presiding of the Corona impeachment trial—both preludes to the downfall of public figures.
The high points of JPE’s public life are a string of reviled decisions and redemptive actions. Falls and rises.
Political phoenixes are no stranger to the Philippines. But Enrile’s career spanning half a century is perhaps the biggest testament to this.
For before he was identified with People Power, Enrile was associated with the dictatorship it ended.
He was branded the chief architect of Marcos’s Martial Law. He was Defense chief when a supposed ambush on his convoy and a succession of public disturbances led to the declaration of Proclamation 1081 on September 21, 1972.
Enrile stayed at that post for 14 more years, and was reportedly seen as a possible successor to Marcos—the “most politically astute of the next in line,” according to Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew.
Then the assassination of Ninoy Aquino and the snap elections followed.
Enrile cast his lot at Camp Crame, and the rest was history.
Pres. Corazon Aquino again gave him the Defense department, but Enrile soon fell from favor with the administration amid many coup attempts against Aquino. He was suspected of inability to control the military opposition.
His next career phase–and probably the one more familiar to younger readers–would always be attached to the word “Senator”.
During his four terms since winning a seat in 1987, JPE was there at important points in the Senate’s recent history.
He voted to end the stay of permanent United States military bases in the Philippines.
“Its basic assumption is an insult to our race,” he said of the RP-US Bases Treaty in his explanatory speech.
“I cannot live with a treaty that assumes that without 8,000 servicemen and some passing warships, we shall fall flat on our faces. I cannot believe that the vitality of this country will be extinguished when the last bar girl in Olongapo turns off the light in the last cabaret.”
Ten years later, however, he would be lumped with the “Onsehan sa Senado,” 11 solons who prevented the opening of a second envelope of evidence in Pres. Joseph Estrada’s impeachment trial—the country’s first.
“There are people in this chamber who do not know the meaning of truth,” Enrile said then.
Protesters at EDSA called the 11 senators lapdogs and paid confederates of Estrada, who was eventually toppled.
It took a campaign anchored on a catchy jingle and an advocacy close to voters’ stomachs (electricity costs) to bring Enrile back three years later.
Role to be played
“I, too, have been judged, often unfairly and harshly,” he said as he gave his verdict on Corona. “But I have constantly held that those who face the judgment of imperfect and fallible mortals like us have recourse to the judgment of history, and, ultimately, of God.”
In a later interview on ANC, JPE said that one must nonetheless take those ups and downs: “I never got bothered by the opinion of others. I know myself. I know what I’ve done… We play roles in this life, roles that we do not relish and do not expect.”
The lessons of those past upheavals somehow influenced his conduct of the impeachment trial.
The 2001 Estrada trial was never finished after an unaddressed walkout of the prosecutors. So when Chief Justice Corona left the Session hall abruptly without a by-your-leave, Enrile immediately ordered closed all gates of the Senate.
After the verdict, a number alluded to his 2010 campaign ad saying Manong Johnny made them happy.
A week later, Enrile’s fellow senators issued a resolution lauding his leadership during the trial. Reporters found him in high spirits the next day and asked why.
“Because you’re happy,” he said in Tag-lish. “You know, I’m always happy. If I become unhappy at this stage in my life, maybe God might say, enough.”
Many think the judgment has been passed on Enrile’s legacy as a Senator or even as a luminary of politics, but he said he has never thought about it.
“I think that there is a strong power moving in this world that really directs events for each one of us to play a part,” he told Karen Davila on ANC.
“Given that notion, I would leave it to the people to judge me because different people have different impressions about you, about me, about others so let it be.”
Not to mention Enrile’s term is only halfway through.