Today the nation remembers a man whose persona became larger than life when he lost his life.
Every August 18 since 2012 is the day when many Filipinos, particularly residents of Naga City in Camarines Sur, observe the death anniversary of the legendary long-time mayor, the late Jesse Robredo.
August 18, 2012 was also the day when the narrative of Jesse’s stint at the Department of Interior and Local Government suddenly changed after he died in a plane that plunged into the deep waters of Masbate.
It was the day when then President Noynoy Aquino made a complete turnaround in the way he saw Jesse. Instead of the mediocre subordinate he treated shabbily, Jesse instantly became an exemplary hero in the eyes of Aquino.
I remember writing in my column about Jesse three years ago how everything changed after Malacanang announced a state funeral with full honors for Jesse. “In death, the truth of his life and character came out shining for Secretary Jesse M. Robredo whose sterling achievements and selfless devotion to public service, as recounted by grateful admirers from all over, has mesmerized a nation yearning for real-life modern day heroes,” I wrote then.
Prior to the tragic plane crash, it was obvious Jesse was not held in high esteem by Aquino despite being a recipient of Asia’s highly prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award for government service.
From the time he took over at the helm of DILG in 2010, Jesse had endured ridicule amid persistent rumors that Aquino was not satisfied with his performance and he could be replaced anytime. And Aquino did not bother to hide the fact in TV interviews that he had their differences to settle before Jesse could be ad interim appointee and not merely in an acting capacity.
As a result, he was bypassed several times by the Commission on Appointments as there was no strong push by Malacanang. There was a time his appointment was not even submitted by the Palace.
That Jesse felt “he could be sacked any time” was confirmed by his widow, Vice President Leni Robredo, in an interview with the Inquirer last April. “That was the Sunday before the plane crash. I was driving him to the airport, and he said, ‘hindi ko alam kung may patutunguhan pa ba ito.’”
To make matters more embarrassing, his supposed powers over the police as DILG and concurrent ex-officio head of the National Police Commission were clipped. It was Jesse’s lowest point at DILG when government was severely criticized for its handling of the infamous Luneta siege that led to the massacre of eight Hong Kong tourists.
It might have been humiliating for him when people learned he was a “half-baked” DILG chief with no power over the police. But it was probably worse when his detractors found such a setup unbelievable because TV footages showed him inside the ill-fated tourist bus hours after the tragedy. “He had no business in the bus if he had no authority over police,” critics thought. “He not only interfered with investigation, he also probably contaminated the crime scene.”
Jesse’s stint at DILG seemed a paradox indeed. Many were bewildered why he allowed himself to be so humiliated when half of his powers were given to his undersecretary, Rico Puno, Aquino’s shooting buddy.
“To me that’s selflessness. To others, they would read it as a lack of confidence in him,” Leni said. “Whatever limited power he had, even when he had no control over the police, there was still opportunity to make a difference.”
Jessie surely made a difference. He is best remembered for his innovative effort at DILG to bestow the “Seal of Good Housekeeping” to deserving LGUs that practice transparency and prudence in utilizing public funds as shown in COA reports.
And it seems also a paradox why Aquino appeared to be dissatisfied with him when he was an exemplary public servant after all.