by Alan Robles
Once again, Filipinos are witnessing their politicians living up (or down) to the standards set by this famous quotation.
Who was it who said it anyway? Imelda Marcos? No, dear old Madam has her own one-liner contribution to the Book of Crooks: "Some are smarter than others."
The question was first uttered one night 51 years ago. It was asked by a man named Jose Avelino, one of the most corrupt officials in the administration of then President Elpidio Quirino.
Avelino, who also happened to be Senate President, resented the fact that his moneymaking activities were being investigated. Shocking! How dare the government! So, at a party caucus/dinner in Malacañang Palace in January 1949, unaware that two concealed journalists were avidly taking notes, he decided to sternly lecture the President on the realities of Philippine traditional politics.
"What are we in power for?", he demanded.
History has immortalized that one phrase, but Avelino actually said more. In fact the question was just the opening part of one of Philippine politics' most illuminating moments of honesty. Avelino proceeded to harangue a stupefied Quirino on the morality of immorality.
"Why should we pretend to be saints when in reality we are not? We are not angels. When we die we will all go to hell. It is better to be in hell because in that place there are no investigations, no Secretary of Justice, no Secretary of the Interior to go after us.
"When Jesus Christ died on the cross, He made a distinction between the good crook and the bad crook. We can aspire to be good crooks."
Avelino claimed that even St. Francis of Assisi protected a robber being chased by authorities when the crook expressed contrition.
What was Quirino's reply to Avelino's sermon? The President gamely said "I am no saint...but when public opinion demands an investigation, we have to go through the formality of ordering one."
The next day, the press gleefully went to town with Avelino's remarks. The Senate President was mocked and pilloried, there was great indignation and the result was -- well, in a word, nothing. After all most of the politicians who could have done something about it subscribed to Avelino's belief: "What ARE we in power for?"
Instead an infuriated Avelino intensified his quarrel with Quirino and even tried to have the President impeached. He failed. In return Avelino was investigated by the Senate, found guilty of tax evasion and sentenced to...one year's suspension. He never went to jail. Never paid a fine. And unlike St. Francis' criminal, never expressed contrition.
His faith in crookedness was fully justified. He was fawned upon by Quirino himself, who realized he needed political allies. The President appointed Avelino a roving ambassador, and when the suspension lapsed, personally reinstated him in the Senate. After all, what WERE they in power for?
Avelino's long gone, but the doctrine he preached lives on and flourishes. Unfortunately there hasn't been a disciple who's been as forthright as Avelino.
If the charges against the rapidly-fading President Estrada are proven true, he'll have provided some straight answers to Avelino's question. What are we in power for? For our mistresses; for making ill-gotten wealth; for coddling criminals; for screwing the public.
Even if the charges ARE proven true, will they carry any weight with the group of politicians who'll make the decision? Will the Senators shut their eyes, cover their ears, thicken their hides? Will Avelino's spirit carry the day?