Intimations of mortality

Intimations of mortality

by Manuel L. Quezon III



AS this is being written, Raul Roco has yet to arrive. I don’t know whether he will bring glad or somber tidings about his health. Whatever the news, at least rumor will be replaced with facts.

One of Roco’s most ardent supporters is my aunt, Nini Quezon Avancena. While I haven’t had a chance to speak to her about her views concerning the developments regarding Roco’s health, her continued support gave me pause for thought.

Of all people, my aunt (and my father, were he still alive), would know what it’s like to have a politician saddled with ill health. I believe my aunt remembers her father as healthy and strong, but my father grew up with the ups and downs that inevitably accompanied his father’s tuberculosis. Chronic illness didn’t prevent their father from seeking office, or exercising the powers of the presidency, even when laid low by fevers and weakness.

In fact, their father turned his illness into an advocacy, mobilizing government support for the Santol Sanitorium (later the Quezon Institute), a cause my aunt has been involved in since she reached adulthood. My father observed that his father’s tuberculosis did affect his father’s temperament: TB was considered inevitably fatal, and a politician afflicted with it is susceptible to being obsessed with their posthumous fame. My father once advised me to study the life of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the father of Pakistan, as an instructive parallel to the life of his father. Both men stubbornly clung to power and pushed forward the independence of their countries partly out of the desire to be the first independent president of their country.

Most politicians have a mystical belief in destiny. They realize that their moment comes only once; and that when that moment comes, they must seize it, regardless of their personal circumstances. Sometimes that moment comes when the politician’s health has been ruined. Manuel Roxas, according to a doctor uncle, was widely viewed by doctors as virtually uninsurable when he ran for president in 1946. He had developed chronic heart disease as a prisoner of war and used his weak heart as an excuse to minimize his cooperation with the Japanese.


In contrast, Sergio Osmena, though over a decade older than Roxas, was in the pink of health but increasingly deaf. The irony is that this fostered the belief (fanned by his political opponents) that he was senile and incapable of handling the problems of the countryWhat was important to Roxas’s supporters was that Roxas was younger, more vigorous, and more aggressive. This perception was enough to elect him president. . A further irony is that Osmena ended up outliving Roxas by over a decade.


When Roxas died, Elpidio Quirino was at sea, recovering from a heart attack. His ill-fated reelection campaign against Ramon Magsaysay foundered in part because Quirino ended up having to be confined at Johns Hopkins hospital in Washington at the height of the campaign. This was a politically fatal situation in comparison to the younger and extremely vigorous Magsaysay, whose every leap over a ditch served to underline the difference in health between the incumbent and himself. And yet, Magsaysay, healthy as an ox, died in a plane crash before his fiftieth birthday and the end of his first term.


There is nothing wrong with electing a person with an ailment. It is preferable that the electorate knows of the ailment, but an argument can be made for keeping it secret if it won’t affect the leader’s judgment or abilities. Or if there is a commitment on the part of the leader to relinquish power should his health prove detrimental to the public good. Unfortunately, human nature and power being what they are, rules must be in place to make sure that hard-headed leaders don’t insist on clinging to power when their health gets in the way of responsibly wielding power. That is why our Constitution adopted similar provisions in the U.S. Constitution that permits the cabinet to put the president on forced leave, so to speak, in the case of illness or mental or physical incapacity. The Americans were reacting to the case of Woodrow Wilson who suffered a stroke and clung on to power by being sequestered in the White House, leaving his wife to run the government.


In our case, there is the example of Ferdinand Marcos, who, as dictator, had no vice president to make acting president the way Quezon made Osmena acting president at various points in 1943-44. Our national trauma under Marcos, who disappeared from view at various crucial times due to failing health, but who refused to clearly spell out a line of succession (out of fear it might worsen the infighting between the Imelda-Ver and Enrile camps and so on), has made the public paranoid about the state of our president’s health.


This is a paranoia born of the past but irrelevant in the present. The Constitution clearly ordains a line of succession, and there is a designated substitute for the president –the vice president. To my mind, therefore, the state of a candidate’s health, or that of a president, is more about what the handling of health issues says about the character of a leader, than it does any real political issues. Sick people are living longer and longer, if they have proper care; and we all know many cases of extremely healthy people suddenly dying due to freak accidents or strange diseases. Any person elected president could die at any time; while the stories of leaders throughout history are full of examples of leaders who have benefited from the introspection that chronic illness can bring.

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Manuel L. Quezon III.

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