Speech: Quezon: Relevant Today?

Quezon: Relevant Today?
speech delivered at Quezon Day observance, Quezon Memorial Circle, QC, on August 19, 1995
by Manuel L. Quezon, III

I have been invited to talk to you, today, on the subject of Manuel L. Quezon and the Youth. Let me begin, then, by quoting something he said on this day, fifty-seven years ago: on August 19, 1938, to be exact.

Quezon said,
We shall be a flowing stream, a rippling brook, a deep and roaring torrent, full of life, of hope, of faith and strength. Through self-discipline we shall harness all our energies, so that our power, spreading over the length and breadth of this land, will develop its resources, advance its culture, secure social justice, give puissance to the Nation, and insure happiness and contentment for the people, under the aegis of liberty and peace.

Other peoples of the world are straining themselves to attain higher levels of progress and national security. We shall not, we must not lag behind.

The Filipino people are on the march, towards their destiny, to conquer their place in the sun.

Now, let me tell you, how I think most young people would react to his words, today. They would look at you and make a face. And behind that face would lie a question that expresses so well the cynicism, and the despair that consumes so many Filipinos today, as they look around them, and see the situation our country is in. And that question is this: What happened?

To be fair, this is a question many older people ask themselves. Remembering with nostalgia the pre-war days when Quezon governed with such flair, they probably wonder what went wrong. Why hasn’t our country fulfilled its potential, the way Quezon envisioned?

For the older generation, I would ask you to think back to the days when Quezon dominated the political landscape. Let me point out immediately that nostalgia is properly defined as a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place and time; a time that may have been happy in retrospect. And for those, like me, who never saw him in the flesh, who have grown up knowing leaders who themselves were youths, or were not even born yet, during the days of the Commonwealth, I ask you to compare what you know of the past, with present-day realities. And from these two perspectives I will make my point.

In his day, Quezon was said to have been popular with the young. His political style was innovative. He was considered modern. Nick Joaquin once wrote something that illustrates this difference. He described how Osmena, in his office in the Ayuntamiento, entertained members of the press by offering them light wines and biscuits, in the best tradition of Spanish hospitality and taste. Quezon, in his office in the Intendencia, served sandwiches and beer to the members of the press. And who do you imagine endeared himself more to the reporters of his day? Certainly as a journalist, I can tell you that I will take beer and sandwiches over wine and biscuits, anytime!

In many ways Quezon’s political style -garrulous, intimate, relaxed- was in itself an innovation. By contrast, Osmena was criticized for being aloof, detached, formal, which in itself was not bad, following, after all, the rules of decorum of the 19th century. The only problem was that this was already the 20th century. And while Osmena harked back to the best things of the century he was born in, his exact contemporary Quezon knew that the times were changing, and that with the introduction of the New American Order -and its style of governance- a change in leadership style was advantageous.

That is why he went to the best school for learning politics, American-style: The Congress of the United States. Since his generation had to secure their goal -independence- by playing a game whose rules were drawn up, and refereed by Americans, the logical thing was for Filipinos to learn how to play American-style, and play well. By the time he returned to the Philippines, in 1916, he had mastered American-style wheeling-and-dealing. He immediately set out to practice what he learned and, in the progress, recast the political landscape.

A piece of trivia, to illustrate my point: It was not until 1922 that English began to be used in the Philippine Legislature. Interestingly enough, this was one year after the Unipersonalista-Collectevista split had rocked the Nacionalista party to its foundations. 1922 was also the year when the Democrata party reached the pinnacle of its strength as the opposition. 1922 saw Quezon -and his political style- gain the upper hand, marking his emergence as the No. 1 political leader. He had learned his lessons in the US Congress well. Historians today state, as a matter of conventional wisdom, that the crisis that led to a change in the Nacionalista Party’s leadership -the Unipersonalista-Collectevista split, as I mentioned- was simply an example of political manuevering on Quezon’s part, and that, after he had assumed the mantle of party leadership, Quezon displayed leadership more Unipersonalista than Osmena’s ever was.

This is, I think unfair to Quezon, and also, to Osmena. Let me just say that the historian Alfred McCoy has mentioned that today few people realize that until his election to the presidency, in 1935, Quezon’s leadership was never absolute. He was perpetually faced with rivalries and new alliances of politicians. And you cannot maintain your leadership in the face of numerous mutinies or near-mutinies, simply by being autocratic. Simply put, volleys of punetas hurled at your fellow politicos does not a dictator make.

No, he maintained his position through endless consultations and conciliatory gestures. His personal temparament may have been autocratic, and his temper was mercurial, but when it came to sustaining his influence, he relied on mastering the game -its rules, its methods. And of course the politics he learned with such virtuosity were the politics of the US Congress at the time. That is to say, Big Machine-style politics, as exemplified by Tammany Hall in New York, a form that survived until the 1940s: remember that Harry Truman became a US Senator through the machinations of the Pendergast Machine in his state. A form that did not become extinct until the demise of Chicago’s Mayor Daley in the early 1970s.

This was real politics. Not the efforts of a directing class, a group of gentlemen leading the nation according to the ethos of noblesse oblige. This was sweaty, rough, ruthless politics. The politics of the poker table, of rooms heavy with cigar smoke. Of ward leaders and party machines. This was politics as modern as the inventions revolutionizing the age: wireless radio, airplanes. This was politics geared towards winning, winning,and winning, through the systematic demolition of one’s opponents and their resources. It was modern at the time. It was daring and lusty, not meant for gentlemen of the old school, with their standards of conduct that dated back to the Victorian-era. This was the politics of the Jazz Age. And that’s why the youth idolized him.

Machine politics, Tammany Hall politics, the politics that gave Quezon a nickname among American friends (Tammany Hall sachems nicknamed him Casey), and gave us the wonderfuly elegant and pliable Gov. Francis Burton Harrison, the politics that flourished so well here before World War II, became something of an anachronism after it. Before the war it was the normal kind of politics, and something of an achievement for us Filipinos -we had, after all, made a quantum leap from Spanish inquisitorial government to Little Brown Brother paternalism. But after the war, it was outdated. In the United States alone, politics changed with the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt: the era of big local kingpins gave way to the power of the party with its national (no longer merely a group of local alliances) constituency and leadership.

In the Philippines, the opposition called Young Philippines had already begun questioning the Big Chief style of Quezon’s administration before the war. The Japanese Occupation, and the rise of alternative movements, such as the Huks, resulted in the limitations of the pre-war tayo-tayo system being graphically exposed. More people wanted to be included in the tayo of tayo-tayo. And until Magsaysay came about, it seemed that no one could figure out how this was to be done.

Magsaysay, who exerted as much of a revolutionary influence on the politics of his day, as Quezon had a generation earlier, died all too soon. But he did leave a precious legacy: Quezon made Filipino politicians world-class players, and in so doing made the spectators proud to see such pros being fielded; Magsaysay made ordinary people realize that they weren’t just there to watch; after all, they were both parts of, and the owners of, the teams (we can call them parties) being fielded.

The problem, since then, has been how to go beyond that wonderful realization, in order to accomplish something more substantive: the phasing out of the old-style political game, so that a new game, not based on groups scrambling for their slice of the pie, can be introduced. It has been fifty-one years since Quezon died, and almost thirty years since Magsaysay died, but all our politicians have been able to accomplish is to prove that they know the rules of game inside and out, backwards and forwards. They are little virtuosi puffed up with pride, when all they have accomplished is to prove that they can get -and hold- power just as effectively as their political forebears could.

But so what? The same things, repeated over and over again, get infinitely more tiresome every time around. The same strategies, repeated often enough, no longer dazzle. The politics that made things so much fun, and exciting, for the young people of the 1920’s -and even the 1950’s- is, in the 1990’s, old, old hat.

And so my point is this. The things that made Quezon memorable -his personality, and yes, his skill, but most of all his unorthodoxy and creativeness- will always be the things that will inspire the youth. Those things should be remembered. But the ends to which he applied these qualities, his tactics, his style of politics: those should be interred in the history books and be eliminated from our national life. They are outmoded today. They cannot inspire the youth today. They have no relevance today. What we need, is someone who can shake up the game and revolutionize it the way he did sixty years ago. That is all.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.