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Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago, an original and a maverick (1945-2016)

Tributes kept pouring in for the late Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago two weeks ago as the “Iron Lady of Asia” and “the best president the Philippines never had” was laid to rest after losing her two-year battle with stage 4 lung cancer. Like most complex and intelligent individuals, Santiago, even in death, had captured the public imagination. She was also many things to many people.

Let’s set aside for now the many appointments, elected posts, rulings, bills, and awards she earned, authored, pushed, and amassed over the decades. Let’s also refrain from tackling at length the many personalities she once sparred with, from former President Fidel Ramos and the late Sen. Raul Roco to socialite Bettina Aboitiz and lawyer and now Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre, during a long and checkered career as a lawyer, law professor, judge, and three-term senator.

To journalists who mine the written word, Santiago, whether on the wrong or right side of history, was always good copy—from her colorful vocabulary and acerbic wit down to the strange way she spoke and her expressive body language. Articulate, well-read, and always grammatically correct, Santiago had an uncanny talent to say the right words at the right time. And she did this with aplomb, as if she was perpetually on declamation mode or poised to plunge into a debating contest.

They weren’t empty words, but were in fact strong, descriptive words loaded with meaning. She saw no need to patent them—although she did write two bestselling compilations of jokes, witticisms, and pick-up lines she used in her speeches—because such vintage Miriamisms as “I eat death threats for breakfast,” “I lied,” and “fungus-faced” were hers and hers alone.

Never the type who would blend in or shy away from a fight, she loomed large in the Pinoy consciousness during four decades of public life. In fact, those familiar with her quaint Ilongga lilt didn’t have to see or listen to her speak on TV and radio anymore. Santiago’s quoted words in print had a life of their own that allowed the reader to almost visualize her presence and hear her carefully measured cadence and trademark intonation. That was how searing her presence was.

Another thing that sets Santiago apart from her peers was her perpetual lock on the youth. When she first ran for President in 1992, she drew into her sphere huge numbers of pager-toting members of Generation X. The strength of their votes nearly put her in Malacañang if not, or so she insisted until her dying day, for the massive cheating that took place during the counting.

In 1998, when pagers were being junked in favor of SMS-capable cellphones, she ran again for president and lost to the massively popular Joseph Estrada. Bogged down by questions about her mental health that began as early as 1992, which she attributed to black propaganda, she nevertheless still managed to attract large numbers of young people during her campus rallies.

Earlier this year, Santiago went for one last and, as it turned out, unsuccessful bid to capture the Palace. Visibly weakened and slowed down by her bigger, much more brutal fight with the Big C, Santiago was a shadow of her once brilliant and feisty self. Even those who caught the debate on radio knew that something was amiss since it took a while for the once loquacious and live wire senator to compose her thoughts. Still, flashes of the vintage warrior were evident, as she made her case to the Filipino people in between sitting down and catching her breath when it wasn’t her turn to speak.

Journalists who have had the privilege of interviewing her at home on more lighter concerns that didn’t involve politics say that of the many hats Santiago wore, she was happiest teaching Law at her alma mater—the University of the Philippines. She was also said to be gracious, chatty, and displayed a bright, cheery disposition that was the complete opposite of her stern public persona during senate debates and hearings.

She had the power to equally terrorize and cut down to size ill-prepared students as she did corrupt and inefficient politicians and bureaucrats. During one such class recitation, according to a journalist who interviewed Santiago, a male student was barely able to survive her grilling. Dissatisfied by his answers, Santiago asked the young man to look outside the window.

“Mr. Cruz, turn your head toward the window. What do you see outside?”

Puzzled, the young man, in a voice that was barely audible, could only muster one word: “Ah… Darkness.”

“For once, you’re right, Mr. Cruz! That, incidentally, will be the state of your future if you don’t mend your ways.”

Despite her no-nonsense reputation inside the classroom, Santiago was well-loved by her students. It didn’t come as a surprise to observers that she again appealed to a considerable chunk of young voters in the most recent presidential elections. This time, the selfie and social media savvy set no longer belonged to Generation X. Instead, they’re now called Millennials. Santiago, then already 70, and her bombastic oratorical style, still resonated with kids young enough to be her grandchildren.

The bubbly and erudite campus figure who once admired for her long, shapely legs back in college also had a political career with legs. Love her or hate her, Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago will always be remembered as an original and a maverick.