In and out of public view

PRESIDENT Rodrigo Roa Duterte walks past old photos of past presidents as he arrives for the meeting with the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases on April 15. — KING RODRIGUEZ/PCOO.GOV.PH

WITH the new normal of working from home, bad work habits like disappearing acts or long lunches are impossible to track. After all, there’s hardly anyone physically at the office. So, who’s to call anyone out for unexplained absences? (Out with a client? Yeah, right.)

So, why is the leader’s occasional, or getting pretty regular, vanishing act inviting all sorts of speculations, mostly to do with secret medical ministrations, often in a foreign country? Maybe, he’s just working from home in his boxer shorts and not in any mood to dress up for a TV appearance.

True, political leaders are different from corporate executives. The former performs more ceremonial functions like inaugurating a new skyway or announcing the latest lockdown status (just stay in your room and don’t venture out to the dining area).

So, why does every week-long absence from public view trigger off speculations on the status of health when everyone prays for either his recovery or continued absence? There are other possibilities for not attending televised meetings and giving state-of-the-immunization reports.

Here are some other possibilities.

He understands that a high-pressure job requires some time for meditation. (Yes, at least a week.) Maybe he goes for stillness and reads Marcus Aurelius, who was, after all, the head of the Roman Empire at its peak. He can learn a few lessons — “Death smiles at us all, but all a man can do is smile back.” (Yes, he really said that — Marcus with a “u”.)

What about learning a new language? Something Asian, but not Bahasa. How do you say: “this way to the palace, Sir?” All those complicated tones that can change the meaning of the words can be tricky. Instead of ushering guests in, one may end up asking the intruders to brush their teeth after taking off their face masks.

Maybe speech therapy sessions in his native tongue take up time. He may need to continue practicing how best to handle impertinent questions about his whereabouts. The urge to let loose invectives needs to be restrained. The therapy requires pausing to take a drink of water and slowly swallowing this before answering — I was just feeling tired.

One excuse (or explanation) for sudden disappearances hasn’t been tried? What if he is running a brainstorming session on a three-year economic recovery plan? Sure, this goes beyond his term. Is that too fanciful as an explanation? Well. At least it will be unexpected.

Why are all sorts of speculations triggered by a long absence? Hasn’t physical presence been replaced by virtual participation, sometimes with the video off? Disappearing from public view is not unusual in these times of face masks, social distancing, and working from home. Being greeted with a remark like “haven’t seen you in a while” is not strange at all. The rejoinder is readily accepted — I’ve been staying home.

Still, the visibility of a leader, especially in times of crisis, is more than symbolic. It communicates taking charge, having a plan, and sticking to some time-based targets. It’s not the time for withdrawing from the limelight and staring at one’s navel.

The critical need for visible leadership is the subject of Kurosawa’s classic 1980 film, Kagemusha (Shadow Warrior). A petty thief is trained to be the stand-in of a fallen warlord to buy time to consolidate the feuding factions. The impersonator is trotted out to rally the troops. Even when challenged to comment on plans in a meeting with the generals, the usually silent impostor offers a vague comment — the mountain does not move.

In real life this idea of a double for a disappearing leader is almost impossible to pull off with close-up shots and a sometimes prickly media. Skin tones alone are hard to replicate. Maybe, a double can perform security functions as a decoy for the real leader who is in some other location, levitating some parts of his body. This is only possible with distant views. The double can wave to a small crowd — was that him? Who can tell with a face mask?

Just being present at enough meetings requires some passion for the job. Anyway, if one is known to skip formal dinners in international fora, what’s the big deal with somebody else making Q-status announcements?

Unexplained absences have become too commonplace. Maybe we’re getting too used to it by now.

Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda