THE LONG VIEW
Marcos in retrospect (1)
MANILA, Philippines – You’d have to be over 40 years old, and closer to 50, to remember a time when Ferdinand Marcos wasn’t the president yet. If you were born in 1965 (the year he became president), you would have been 21 years old when he finally left the Palace—much of those 21 years of your existence spent listening to government propaganda telling you he was the greatest Filipino ever. If you were born when Marcos fled, you must now be 21 years old—much of your existence spent being told that Marcos was the worst Filipino, ever. Both you and your parents have grown up in the shadow of one man and his wife.
Marcos was not a smoker, he was not known as a drinker, he didn’t swear—the strongest expression of irritation people would hear from him was “Lintik!” And he was not much more of a womanizer than most men of his generation and macho culture like to think themselves to be. He was not tall, but trim and athletic for most of his life: a marksman, orator, armed with a photographic memory. Surely we can agree he was a man of talent; we continue to disagree whether he used those talents for anything larger than his own ambitions.
The dull biodata of his life, the one we copy and paste for school reports, doesn’t force us to try to make sense of his life. Perhaps the most perceptive effort on this that I’ve encountered was written by an American, Lew Gleeck. He wrote a slender, often quarrelsome book titled “President Marcos and the Philippine Political Culture.”
The life of Marcos can be divided, said Gleeck, into phases. Those phases mirrored chapters in our nation’s development, and that of the culture in which leaders and the led operate.
Phase One was Marcos the law student who gained fame. While standing trial for the murder of his father’s political opponent, Julio Nalundasan, Marcos became the bar exam topnotcher. The Supreme Court summoned him because his grades were so high, the justices were convinced he cheated.
He convinced the justices he had passed. Soon afterwards, he faced some of the justices again, when his conviction for murder reached the Supreme Court on appeal. He won his appeal on Sept. 21, 1940, a date he would immortalize 32 years later.
Phase Two is also the most mysterious: Death March survivor Marcos; the guerrilla Marcos. How much of it, as demonstrated by his medals, was true? At least part of it. Genuine photos taken right after the war showed Marcos with pretty impressive decorations on his chest: a Distinguished Service Cross, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Any veteran with those indisputable awards would be considered a hero—except that Marcos wanted to be the most-awarded veteran, and some of his claims would become, to put it mildly, controversial.
This phase, I’d like to suggest, contains a period often overlooked in the debate over his war record. That period is Marcos’ intellectual, even philosophical development. In this he was surely influenced by a statesman to whom Marcos felt he owed his acquittal by the Supreme Court, Jose P. Laurel.
Here’s something President Laurel said in 1943: “The whole history of government shows that public affairs would be better administered and the welfare of the people better served in the hands of a moral and intellectual aristocracy. The people cannot be governors and governed at the same time. On the other hand, a good and efficient government, a benevolent government, may exist and continue indefinitely to function with admirable harmony, when men of superior moral and intellectual endowments are in control of the state.”
Laurel also said that there were four rallying centers of our national unity: the Flag, the Constitution, the National Anthem, and the Presidency. Marcos in his day would try to leave his mark on all four: he changed the color of the flag; he unveiled a modern arrangement of the anthem during one independence day; he almost single-handedly wrote a new constitution; and he made his office, and thus himself, the Alpha and Omega of our government and society.
The third phase was Marcos the elected politician: as congressman from 1949 to 1959, first in the Liberal administration, given his first big break as a presidential assistant by President Roxas, then supported in his candidacy by his fellow Ilocano Elpidio Quirino, and then in opposition to the Nacionalistas; then Marcos the senator from 1959 to 1965, including being Senate president from 1963, and president-in-waiting after President Diosdado Macapagal promised to support him in 1965. Marcos the up-and-coming politician had three power bases: his generation of the UP Cadet Corps and the guerrillas, the fraternities and the Ilocano vote.
The fourth phase was the President Marcos of 1965-69, and the incumbent President who achieved a landslide re-election in 1969, only to be embattled from 1969 to 1972 on all fronts. This was a time of social upheaval, where our deeply-divided society tried to figure a way forward.
As Leon Ma. Guerrero, in his justification of martial law, “Today Began Yesterday,” wrote, “The experience of the Filipinos… had been of parties that were not parties but unprincipled coalitions of the rich, the powerful, and the unscrupulous; of elections that were essentially meaningless exercises in fraud, terrorism, bribery and demagoguery; of politicians who represented no one but themselves. The people’s capacity for self-government had been trapped in a political mechanism they had not learned to work or control, and their capacity for indignation and generosity, sacrifice and service to the country, left to wither and decay.”
The solution, to Marcos’ mind, was martial law. This was the fifth phase: the supposedly reformist Marcos, the one who wrote “Today’s Revolution: Democracy.”