Quezon forgotten, while the Chinese envoy weeps

BY THE WAY – Max V. Soliven –
* * *
Would you believe? The birthday of one of our great men came and went last August 19 and nobody seems to have noticed it – much. I refer to the dramatic leader of the post-Revolution “Independence” movement, Commonwealth President and “stormy petrel” from Baler – Manuel L. Quezon.

Many, of course, still love to quote Quezon, particularly that prophetic phrase of his in the 1930s that he “would rather have a government run like hell by Filipinos than a government run like heaven by Americans.” I guess we’ve gotten so used to living in hell that nobody sniggers anymore over that MLQ remark.

Thinking of Quezon reminds me of the old Chinese proverb that, if a man wishes to achieve immortality, he must do one of three things: he must plant a tree, he must write a book, or he must father a son. Quezon did all three. He planted many trees and botanical gardens (most by now gone with the wind). He wrote a book, The Good Fight. And he had a son, Manuel Quezon, Jr.

Yet, even if he had accomplished none of the above, Quezon deserves an honored place in our pantheon of heroes. For Quezon represented to all Filipinos what was best and worst in them. He was diminutive in size, but in his deeds and even bluster he seemed to loom larger than life. He was ruthless, as when he dealt with political foes, and he was compassionate, as when he retrieved them from misfortune. He was selfish when opposed, and he was generous when victorious. He was proud, and he was humble. But, above all else, he loved this country, if not always wisely, at least well.

Of Quezon’s prickly pride, we need not seek any new examples. He was quick to anger when he believed the Filipinos insulted or the Philippines denigrated. But he had, as well, the humility and candor to write, following the bitter “anti” and “pro” battles that preceded accord on the Tydings-McDuffie Independence Act: “When the historian passes upon what we have all said and done at this momentous period in our history — a period in which we either build or destroy our nation’s well-being — how petty and how small must our dissensions and disputes seem to him! How insignificant to him our cherished slogans by the side of the nation’s safety and welfare!”

History’s judgment has, in fact, been kind. And so valiant was Quezon’s life that when Vice President Sergio Osmeña Sr. – who for 39 years of his own political career had suffered defeat and humiliation at Don Manuel’s hands – was informed of his death in America, tears sprang unbidden to Osmeña’s eyes. Even the thought of his own ascension to the long-denied Presidency didn’t prevent Don Sergio from crying over the passing away of his longtime political “enemy” and rival.

My late father, Benito, an Assemblyman from the first district of Ilocos Sur, had been supported by Quezon when he ran against and defeated Interior Secretary Elpidio Quirino. (MLQ had sent papa a blank cheque, not signed “Jose Velarde” but Manuel L. Quezon, through Camilo Osias, but the cheque had been returned uncashed.) Then, Apo Bitong, as dad was called in his bailiwick, sided with Osmeña and his best friend, Manuel A. Roxas, in defending the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Law against Quezon’s “anti” offensive. The last straw was when my father opposed the Quezon-sponsored bill creating “block voting.” He had dubbed it a tool of fascism. Quezon scolded papa, fuming that he was being unfaithful to his own party, the Nacionalista Party, whose pet bill “block voting” was. To which my father replied, “As you yourself said, Mr. President, my loyalty to my party ends where my loyalty to my country begins.”

Puñeta!” the Stormy Petrel had exclaimed, “I hate people who quote me against myself!” He tried to use persuasion: “Block voting, Sullivan (which is what he always called my dad), will make you a Senator!”

When my father still shook his head, MLQ scratched his name off the NP Senatorial line-up. Not long after that, the Philippines found itself plunged into the Pacific War, and dad went to Bataan to fight as a major, while MLQ went to Corregidor to rally our invaded nation with his radio voice, then was evacuated to Australia, then to wartime exile in the USA where he berated the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt for having abandoned the Filipinos and Asia, in favor of sending troops, armor and ships to the rescue of Great Britain from the Nazi blitz.

My father was released half a year later from Japanese prisoner-of-war camp and Bilibid Prison, dying of malaria. He cussed Douglas MacArthur for having fled (on FDR’s orders, it later surfaced), leaving behind his Filipino and American forces in Bataan and “The Rock.” Yet, he uttered not a word against Quezon whom he still admired, despite his own cruel treatment at MLQ’s hands.

Such was the charisma of Quezon, that even his foes forgave him.
* * *
In 1984, I asked MLQ’s son, Nonong Quezon, then approaching middle age himself, what he had learned from his illustrious father. Nonong had been 18 when his father died in August 1944, and was living an almost reclusive life at the time. He was a spitting image of MLQ in those days, but where his father had been flamboyant and a womanizer (so what’s new?), mischievous with the ladies and an accomplished rigodon and tango dancer, Nonong had turned out to be quiet and reserved.

He hesitated over my question, then said at last that his father had taught him four things.

The first was to be completely honest – never to tell a lie. The second was not to be vindictive. “When my father,” Nonong recalled, “was fighting a man, he fought him uncompromisingly and with every weapon at his command. But when the fight was over, and he had won or lost, he would always remark that a man should never bear a grudge.”

The third lesson was that a man should be grateful. He should be loyal to his friends, and never forget what they had done for him. But he always publicly drew the line on loyalty – as, to repeat, his unjunction that his loyalty to his party ended where his loyalty to his country began.

And, finally, he should be proud to be a Filipino. “Pride of race,” Nonong pointed out, “was what my father always stressed.”

Despite his decidedly Spanish cast of features (Quezon was secretly irked to have been dubbed Kastila), it never mattered to him whether a man or woman had Chinese, Spanish, or ethnic Malay-Indonesian bloodlines – what was important was that he was in his soul a Filipino.

This may sound chauvinistic in this cynical day and age. But perhaps that’s what we greatly need in these confusing and dispirited times. A stiff dose of pride.

Max V. Soliven
Author: Max V. Soliven

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