Today’s Weekender: Reverie on Quirino

TODAY’S Weekender Reverie on Qurino

by Manuel L. Quezon III  

November 14, 1996

While waiting, Bocca wandered around the hall of the chandeliers and became fascinated by the portraits of the Presidents. “What kind of a man was this?” he would ask before each portrait… “I must have copies,” said Bocca. [So he was provided with] photographs of the portraits, and from these photos came Bocca’s very perceptive evaluations of the Presidents of the Philippines.         

“What makes them so impressive,” he says, “is their immediacy. They are all modern. There are no wigs, no ruffles, no Victorian beards to lend distance to their regard. These Presidents are all men of our time, and they gaze from their paintings like people one knows, a jury of peers deciding the verdict of history on any who would join them. Even General Emilio Aguinaldo is a contemporary.”         

Quezon, “handsome as a Roman god,” his languidly held cigarette only emphasizing his hateur, has a ruthless jaw and a mouth “downturned distastefully at the corners, as though he is expecting his intelligence to be insulted.” Osmeña “looks you in the eye with confidence and urbanity, handsome even in old age, a scholar elegantly dressed in a suit probably made in London.” Laurel has the “face of a good man who has no apologies to make to history.” Roxas is an aristocrat: “lean, brilliant, vulpine, so poised and so tautly sprung one feels that if one blinked he would be gone.” Quirino is a “Spanish aristocrat playing his own private, sophisticated joke on society, because this apparent embodiment of the voluptuary and sensualist wore a hair shirt of unremitting grief.” Magsaysay is “very much the tough guy: he probably chews glass.” Garcia has a smooth regard, “as though his claim to immortality is so modest as to be undeserving of minute examination.” —Quijano de Manila  (In his essay, “The Battle of the Books,” September, 1965)

WE are all familiar with the official portraits of our past presidents. Mainly because of National Bookstore, which re-prints them periodically, probably in response to the demands of generations of school children, who are required to buy them for school reports. Beyond the meager information printed on the back of those postcards, we know nothing of them. Nothing, at least, that stir us to the extent that we would echo Macapagal biographer Geoffrey Bocca’s comment, that looking at the portraits gives us a “sense of immediacy.” They are, simply, pictures of paintings.And while we are known as a people with little or no long-term memory, our ignorance of our past leaders cannot be attributed solely to this national characteristic; another reason for our lack of knowledge of these men can be illustrated by a discovery made after the flight of the Marcoses in the wake of the Edsa revolution.

As eager volunteers cataloged the contents of Malacañang, they discovered that all of the presidential portraits -save one- had been cut down, reduced in size, so that they would all be smaller than the painting of Ferdinand Marcos. Apparently his zeal in magnifying his role in history had extended to this petty detail; and as they say, from this piece of trivia the general may be gleaned from the particular: the martial law regime had embarked on a systematic effort to inflict national amnesia on Filipinos,. At least those with minds malleable enough to be made in the image of the New Society. This policy of historical megalomania was accompanied by a seemingly opposite, but actually parallel, effort on the part of those who more often than not, bitterly opposed him, and were against everything he stood for.

The professors and writers who dared resist the New Soceity’s scheme of things pushed forward their own agenda, socialist in orientation and revisionist in tendency, which sought to re-order the Filipino conception of the past along the lines of historical determinism and dailectical materialism; if not in an outright manner, than at least along lines inspired by it. In many ways this trend has been beneficial, leading to a more critical attitude towards the past. But this exists solely among the minority of the popultion that cares about such things; in the case of vast herd of students who’s only encounter with the past has been a fleeting one in the classroom, the effects may not be so good. Emerging from the confines of their classrooms they carry with them the feeling that their history has been an unmitigated string of tragedies,, and their leaders, a wretched lot. The result: cynicism, the absence of a sense of connection to past generations, rootlessness and apathy. The worst characteristics a generation which will eventually come into its own can have. There is no better example of this process than what has happened to the memory of Elpidio Quirino, second president of the Third Republic, whose fortieth death anniversary was commemorated last Thursday. Victim of the historical amnesia enforced for a generation by Marcos, vilified to this day by those writers who belong to  the “everyone who was anyone was a stooge” school, he has come to down to us -if at all- as “the embodiment of the sensualist and the voluptuary.” Furthermore, without (and this is important) any appreciation of the true character of the man, who after all, during his incumbency “wore a hair shirt of unremmiting grief”: grief over his personal tragedies, and the sad turn of events that led to his administration being immortalized in political foklore by one purchase, that of a stainless steel chamber pot allegedly made of gold, and by the vivid image of birds, bees, the dead and aswangs having (it was alleged) voted in elections. This may apply more aptly to the older generation which remembers him, of course. Beyond that, although his name is quite evident in our history books (and who ever makes more than a cursory glance at history books?) , in terms of his place in the public’s consciousness,he might as well have never existed at all. Which is strange considering the political passions he aroused among his contemporaries during his incumbency. In retrospect, we who belong to the two generations that have emerged after Filipinos lost their “political innocence,” the folklore -the issues- that have come down to us from the time of Quirino, seem well-nigh laughable.

Who  can imagine a society convulsed with fury over the purchase of a five thousand-peso bed, or an obscure household item such as a chamberpot, particulary when these items remained in the palace’s list of possessions long after Quirino himself had passed away? The contemporary observer can only assume that either Filipinos of that generation hads no idea as to the extent that they were being ripped-off by their leaders, or, we have certainly come a long way since then in terms of the cupidity of our leaders. The standard assumption is that our leaders have always been, are, and will always be, out to loot the nation, plundering everything they can get their hands on, down to the kitchen sink. Or chamber pot. While there have always been venal officials, in the case of presidents, this cannot be said to be the case. Before Marcos you would find it impossible to find a president who died a fantastically wealthy man.

While TODAY publisher Teodoro Locsin Jr. has written that no president ever died poor (and that is true), no president ever died a plutocrat. Certainly you would be hard-put to find, anywhere, an example of scrupulous regard for proprieties as that displayed by Quirino himself, who set aside his wife’s funds for his children, and did not touch it himself: upon his retirement he set up residence on a plot of land in Novaliches purchased, at the market price, before he was president. He did not even construct a home until he had left office. But this whole issue is a thorny one to delve in to, particuarly when we have not made up our minds as to whether we would prefer our officials to die in penury, and not retire in relative comfort; a debate we have been having with our officials since the days when the Tammany Hall ethic of “honest graft” (an odious term but one that our political godfathers, the politicians of Tammany Hall, New York, bore with equanimity) began to be looked upon ascance: in the time of Quirino.

But I digress. What of Quirino, the President? He was a man characterized along the lines of John Gunther’s descrpition of him, made during a whirlwind visit to the Philippines before World War II: “[Said to be another future candidate for president is] the present minister of the interior, Elpidio Quirino, dictatorial in tendency… who is said to be too rough and anxious for the job.” A characteriziation, quite obviously, without depth, based on superficial observations. He was a man who exemplified much of what made his generation great. He was a self- made man, the son of an obscure provincial jailer, educated at public schools; he was a man who’s abilities were noticed by his elders early on and who rose up -slowly, sometimes painfully- the ranks of government and the bureacracy; a man of the old school, and therein lies the discomfort with which he was viewed later on during his life. For gentelmen of the old school always inspire terror and resentment in the hearts of younger, brasher people who have no understanding of urbanidad . For if Claro M. Recto represented the full flowering of Castillian culture in our country, Quirino represented the full flowering of a particular aspect of the same culture, the gallant caballero . It was his lot to stand up before the withering fire of a younger, set for whom gentlemen were figures of fun -or objects of contempt. With his political demise, the era of the gentleman drew to a close, and the few examples of this kind of manhood have, ever since, withdrawn to the quiet seclusion of their clubs, despairing over the tide of barbarism that has swept over the country.

An incident at which we should marvel. Taken from the authorized biography of Elpidio Quirino, The Judgement of History , by Salvador P. Lopez: Towards December 30, 1953 the preparations for Magsaysay’s inauguration were completed. Protocol dictated that the incoming president go to Mlacanang and, together with the outgoing president, proceed to the Luneta grandstand. This had been the precedent set by inaugural ritual. But because of the acrimonious election campaign, Magsaysay feared that that a meeting with Quirino may revive recriminations and turn it into a heated confrontation. Quirino, a product of an older world and a stickler for propriety, made it known that he would not attend the inaugural ceremony if Magsaysay did not go to Malacanang to fetch him. In that event, he would simply leave Malacanang and drive directly to Novaliches. In the end, Magsaysay was persuaded to overcome his misgivings and observe protocol. When he went to Malacanang on the day of the inaugural ceremonies, Quirino was him most gracious self. He was wearing a cream colored linen suit, and a black tie with red dots.

Later, on the way to the grandstand he put on a white buntal hat. In the presidential room of Malacanang where he received the incumbent President, Quirino pointed to the chair he had been accustomed to use and asked Magsaysay to try it for size. “I’m paying my last respects to you now,” said Quirino in Ilocano. they then went down to the waiting limousine, and rode together to the Luneta grandstand (now fittingly called the Quirino grandstand). Mgsaysay got down while Quirino drove on to Novaliches.

This is a marvelous scene, The Man Who Chews Glass, about to assume office, face-to-face with the Last Gentleman; the paragon of a new, brash generation that heralded a revolution in the politics of a nation, come to fetch the exemplar of the old order of knights -hidalgos , not just caballeros , actually- who had secured the independece that had made such a radical development possible. It would be easy to focus on this scene in an offensive way, but it actually presents us with the best of both generations. The younger one slightly nervous, but bursting with energy, eager to claim its own, flushed with victory and the dreams of a populist Philippines completely transformed, and the older one, weary with the world, vanquished in battle (throughout which it had borne its standard bravely and with unflinching dignity), ready to pay homage to the New Era, the younger  warrior come to claim the sword of his opponent and one time mentor. The reader may have observed that this is more an attempt to recapture the spirit of an age, or, to be specific, the spirit of the exemplar of a generation quite alien to us today in terms of thought and behavior.

Quirino was the last of the type of Filipino who felt that our self-respect demanded our treating everyone, from the most impoverished to the wealthiest, with unfailing politeness and formality; an attitude best expressed by a onetime employer, and for many years colleage, of his, who had said “civility is the consummate flower of culture and civilization, for it embraces all the virtues and in turn sustains and enhances them all.” An attitude with its origin among the propagandists (or most of them, at least) who viewed themselves as representatives of their race, and living proof that their nation could produce individuals the equal of any European grandee.

A sense of sartorial style, an air of dignity and of refinement in tastes and habits were, for them, the badge of patriotism and honest achievement. Something incredibly alien to us who have been subjected to the anti-intellectualism and intense rejection of the civic virtues that accompanied the turmoil of the last thirty years (a wave of revulsion which, it must be added, the generation of Magsaysay viewed with horror). An eminent Filipino politico titled his memoirs “Not So Long Ago,” which is true when you think that he was writing of events that took place barely two generations ago, a mere twinkling of the eye in terms of the life of our very young country. But the title of his book, while apt, was too optimistic. The events -and personalities- of his time, for us, might as well have never happened at all. If we are aware of them at all, our point of view might be summed up with the phrase that begins all fairy-tales, revealing how these things have become so remote to our experience as to have become mythical, to say the least: “Once upon a time…”

And so, a reverie of sorts, on the theme, “Once upon a time, we had other presidents before the conjugal dictatorship.” Once upon a time, we had gentlemen, and one of them was our president. In the end, let Quirino’s eminent biographer, the late Salvador P. Lopez, have the last say on Quirino. For Quirino, most of all, a man whose olid achievements to his country: “[His He was the first president to have a concrete plan of action for industrial development]  which included the following: the Ambuklao dam; electric and fertilizer plants at Maria Cristina Falls in Mindanao; irrigation projects at the basins of the Agno and Pampanga rivers; land redistribution and settlement in Isabela, Cotobato, Bukidnon and Lanao… “[A]n American diplomat [was once driven] to make the arrogant and cynical comment.: “The trouble with Quirino is that he is taking Philippine independence too seriously.”

No Filipino president could wish for a higher compliment than this… “Elpidio Quirino never forgot his humble origins. The cause of the poor, the humble and oppressed were to him the commitment of a lifetime.  [it should be included here that he was responsible for the adoption of “the Minimum Wage Law, the 8-Hour Law to facilitate enforcement, nd housing projects in Quezon City for low-salaried public and private sector employees.”] “He died a man of modest means, having avoided the unrpincipled use of power to amass the perquisites of wealth and privilege for selfish ends. “While he enjoyed the rewards and satisfaction of a good life., an innate sense of morality and decency preserved him from the sins of pride, greed, and selfish interest… “Although he was the object of persistent and unrelenting press criticsm during his tenet as president, he never wavered in his respect for freedom of the press… “With initiated the policy of establishing more equitable and just relations between the Philippines and the United States, without subservience or domination… “…He realized the need to initiate or develop relations with other countries, especially in Europe… “As original proponent of the the Asia-Pacific movement he foreshadowed the emergence of …ASEAN.”

Here was a man who strove to serve his country as he saw fit; a man generous to a fault, the embodiment of “urbanidad”, that word so alien to our rootless tongues. A man we have failed to bother to remember.

Shame on us.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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