Duterte expresses regret for his Obama insult. But he's always had a way with words

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made headlines this week after he called President Obama a “son of a bitch.” But given Duterte’s record of crude remarks, the insult could be considered typical, maybe even tame. 

During Duterte’s presidential campaign — he was inaugurated on June 30 — he remarked on the size of his penis, called Pope Francis the “son of a whore” and joked about an Australian missionary who was raped and killed during a prison break in 1989.

"I was angry because she was raped, that's one thing," Duterte, the mayor of Davao City at the time, said. "But she was so beautiful, the mayor should have been first. What a waste.”

Duterte later expressed regret over his remark about Obama. In a statement read by his spokesman, he said his “strong comments” that were made in response to a reporter’s question “elicited concern and distress.”

"He expresses deep regret, regards and affinity for Obama and the U.S.’ diplomatic partnership with our nation,” the spokesman said, according to the Singaporean broadcaster Channel NewsAsia.

The apology was rare. While campaigning, Duterte refused to apologize for the rape joke despite a wave of outrage. In mid-August, Duterte called U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg a “gay son of a whore.” He has not apologized for that insult.

Duterte, 71, gained a reputation as a tough-talking, no-nonsense leader over his 22 years as mayor. He campaigned for president on the promise of eradicating the country of illegal drugs within six months, without regard for human rights or due process — in the spring, he threatened to dump drug dealers’ bodies into Manila Bay “and fatten all the fish there.” 

Since his inauguration, more than 2,000 suspected drug dealers have lost their lives. Many were killed by police; others by shadowy vigilantes. Obama had planned to raise the issue with Duterte at their planned meeting in Laos — since postponed — raising the Philippine president’s ire. 

Duterte’s statement of regret was delivered on the sidelines of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Laos.

Richard Javad Heydarian, an assistant professor of political science at De La Salle University in Manila, said Duterte’s comments tend to play well at home, where his spontaneity and audacity complement his image as a man of the people.

“His style has given him a 100% success rate with elections” in the Philippines, Heydarian said. “So he’s probably thinking, ‘I’ve had such a high success rate, why would I change tacks?’”

Duterte, in his remarks Monday, also accused the U.S. of causing many of his country’s problems, including instability on the southern island of Mindanao. The Philippines was a U.S. colony until 1946.

“We have long since ceased to be a colony of the United States,” Duterte said. 

“Duterte is a very sensible person,” Heydarian said. “He may seem like a crude, Third World strongman. But he reads about the early 19th century and the 20th century, and he knows about U.S. injustices — not only against its own Native American and African American population, but also towards the Philippines, when the Philippines was a U.S. colony. 

“I think that’s the problem here — that Duterte makes a lot of sensible points, especially if you’re a progressive liberal,” Heydarian said. “The issue is that he has some problems with impulse control and preventing himself from making these statements. He’s also confident that he has domestic support — and that we’re reaching a post-American age, where the U.S. doesn’t have the power it did before.”

The U.S. relationship with the Philippines “has been and remains rock-solid,” a top aide to Obama said Tuesday, acknowledging nonetheless that Duterte’s comments cast a shadow over the scheduled meeting between the two leaders.

“That did not create a constructive environment,” deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters in Vientiane, Laos. “We felt that it wasn’t the right time.” 

The White House stopped short of publicly asking for an apology but didn’t rule it out.

“It’s their determination as to how they address his comments,” Rhodes said of Duterte’s administration.

Times staff writer Christi Parsons in Vientiane and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

jonathan.kaiman@latimes.com

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UPDATES:

Sept. 6, 8:35 a.m.: This article was updated with White House reaction.

This article was originally published Sept. 5 at 10:30 p.m.

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