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Hopefully coming soon: A Jesse Robredo biography

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SAN FRANCISCO – The more I read about Jesse Robredo, the more I want to learn about him.

Which is why I’m really hoping that the wave of uplifting stories and recollections about the late local government secretary will inspire a writer or group of writers to begin working on his biography.

Like most, I first heard of Robredo in the 1990s during his rise to fame as the successful mayor of my father’s hometown, Naga City.

Only now, in the aftermath of his death, am I getting a better sense of his journey.

And it’s one heck of a story.

That’s perhaps the silver lining in this tragedy: We’re learning more about an incredible public servant. And these revelations are timely.

We’re about to mark the 40th anniversary of the declaration of martial law in 1972 which gave rise to the brutal Marcos dictatorship. According to bits and pieces of his life in published reports, the regime and its fall in fact played a role in Robredo’s decision to pursue a life in public service.

Apologists for the regime like to paint the 1986 revolt was a failure. Robredo’s life story is just one example of how it was actually a victory. For here is a Filipino who was a product of that era and who was moved by the uprising that finally ended a dark chapter in our history.

Robredo was in his 20s when that happened. He was so inspired by the People Power revolt that he opted to leave what could have been a more prosperous career in the private sector to devote his life to public service.

As other commentators have noted, Robredo didn’t just dabble in government service. He didn’t just use it as some stepping stone to a more lucrative career, as a way to establish connections for self-serving goals. Robredo actually took the plunge, and stayed in government, battling it out in an extremely difficult arena.

Who is going to deny that government service in the Philippines is akin to swimming in a pool of sharks?

I’ve had friends and acquaintances who served in public agencies, only to give up in frustration, unable to stomach the corruption and inefficiency. They would say things like, ‘Hirap, pare. Ang dumi – it’s dirty.’

And that’s what makes Robredo’s story fascinating. How in the world did he do it? How did he not only survive, but also thrive and succeed in a world of clowns and crooks?

That’s the story that needs to be told.

And what we need is an in-depth narrative that goes beyond the broad-strokes portrayal of Robredo as a man of conviction, commitment and humility.

I want to read more details and anecdotes. I want to know how he navigated a world of clueless trapos and jaded, corrupt bureaucrats.

A biography can paint a more complete picture, one that not only inspires but also educates Filipinos on how he succeeded where so many others either failed or simply gave up.

I’m not volunteering. This is not for someone who is far from home.  I’d actually argue that this is a project for a young writer or journalist — or a group of young writers and journalists — who can frame the story in a way that can best be appreciated by the younger generation.

This will take time and a lot of effort, and will involve interviewing as many people as possible, and going through Robredo’s letters, memos, text messages and e-mails.

That’s what I had to do in my 20s when I was just out of college and worked on the biography of Edgar Jopson.

I had much time and energy back then, and spent three years interviewing roughly a hundred people, including Edjop’s former classmates, friends and comrades, guerrillas in the jungles of Mindanao, and even the military officer who idolized Edjop in college but who ended up leading the Davao raid that led to his death.

Writing that book speaks to what I was talking about. I never knew Edjop who belonged to an earlier generation. But I think that fact helped me approach his story in a way that was relevant to my generation.

It was hard work, but it was incredibly fulfilling. And that’s something Robredo’s would-be biographer can look forward to. I still get emails from or come across blog posts by readers who said they were moved by Edjop’s story.

I have no doubt it would be the same with a Robredo biography.

And it should be a complete and comprehensive story. It should not be a form of hagiography, or hero-worship. It would be a disservice to Robredo to paint him as a saint or some kind of super technocrat.

We should not romanticize him or other public figures. In fact, we shouldn’t romanticize politics in general.

My own reporting on Edjop uncovered many flaws, including complaints about his rigidity and questions on why he switched sides in an internal dispute with the UG movement. Then there’s his own realization that some of the leaders of the movement he joined may have been behind the infamous bombing of Plaza Miranda.

These made him more real to me (and I suspect to readers) but these did not significantly diminish his importance as a Filipino hero.

I’m sure that would also be true in telling Robredo’s story.

I’d want to know his weaknesses and how he overcame them. I’d want to know if, in a world of unprincipled and scheming politicians and bureaucrats, he was forced to make compromises.

How did he make these decisions? How did he pick his battles? How did he reach his goals despite the efforts of the forces of corruption and greed to derail him?

These are questions I found myself asking as I read the many stories about Robredo’s career. And these are exciting points to explore, especially for a young writer willing to piece together one of the most fascinating stories about a government official of our time.

Jesse Robredo is gone. But we should not let his story die.

A book, or maybe there could be several, would be an important step toward honoring his legacy and making sure it’s not forgotten.

Imagine a young Filipino at home, at the library, or in a classroom poring over a Robredo biography, tracing his journey, absorbing the lessons from his life and career, mulling over his successes and failures.

As he or she puts that book down, perhaps that young Filipino would conclude, ‘What a life! It is possible to make a difference in government, without embracing the ways of the trapo. Maybe I should also give it a try.’

On Twitter @KuwentoPimentel. On Facebook at www.facebook.com/benjamin.pimentel


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