Is Arroyo’s Reputation Salvagable?

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Is Arroyo’s Reputation Salvagable?

by Manuel L. Quezon III

Diosdado Macapagal “the incorruptible”, as his campaign biography called him, was president of the Philippines for a single term, 1961-1965, and was the father of the present president of the Philippines. He had the distinction of being the first — and so far, only — genuinely poor man to be elected Philippine president, which is why he bore with pride the corny epithet “the poor boy from Lubao” (his home town).

He was undeniably one of our brightest leaders, the only one able to complete his political memoirs, and who left behind several books as a testament to his beliefs and policies. He was considered an honest man, personally and not just financially, a distinction all the more greater because it stood out in stark contrast to his successor and political nemesis, Ferdinand Marcos. He was in many ways an exemplar of his generation of politicians, who played the game to win, but not to the extent of robbing the country blind in the interest of his family.

This is not to say that his administration was not touched by scandal — for it was, and he would eventually go down to defeat on the issue of graft and corruption. But like so many of his predecessors, the corruption in his administration could be traced to the people around him, to his being too kind to his supporters and too tolerant of officials who took advantage of the opportunities for enrichment offered by office. But as for himself, and his family, no one could say that they were corrupt. His presidency, too, was characterized by austerity, showing that presidential dignity didn’t need to be maintained by the pompous trappings of office that reached grotesque proportions under the next president.

It should be remembered that when he became the new tenant of Malacañang, the Philippine presidential palace, he found it in an advanced state of decrepitude; but instead of embarking on a fabulously expensive project of reconstruction (as would happen under martial law), he authorized his wife to engage in a general spring cleaning and redecoration which made use of what the palace already possessed, and with little cost to the taxpayer.

He was a famous campaigner, reaching almost every corner of the archipelago in his attempt to glad-handle as many voters as possible: no candidate before or since has matched his record in this regard. Of the occupants of the Palace, only a colonial governor, Leonard Wood, personally visited so many parts of the country. Macapagal was not the most charismatic of leaders, nor the most politically adept, but he was genuine in his high regard for the common man, and did his best to alleviate their condition. He was responsible for the only genuine land reform program in Philippine history, which, like his other populist programs, cost him dearly politically.

Had he chosen to forego the limelight after he was president, he would have enjoyed a reputation which would have gained in luster as the years went by, so great was the contrast between his personal probity and that of the man who replaced him. But in a conscious effort to secure one more distinction in history — for he was a man very conscious of history and the place he wanted to have in it — he ran for, and became, the second president of the Constitutional Convention, replacing the deceased Carlos P. Garcia, Macapagal’s immediate predecessor as president of the Philippines. It would be his position as President of that Convention which would reduce his standing in the eyes of many people and gain for him a more ambivalent place in the memory of his people.

Macapagal once said that “The Constitution is a temple in which free citizens worship not the pagan god of despotism but the divinity of liberty”. But when the era of despotism arrived, he proved remarkably timid in the face of Marcos’s apostasy to democracy. Macapagal did little, if anything, to resist the transformation of the Con-con to a rubber stamp assembly for the legitimization of martial law. Something the oppositionist delegates never forgot, and which served to make hollow his subsequent attempts to apply for political asylum at the US Embassy, and his effort to convene a rump assembly in the late 1970’s to nullify the Marcos Constitution. This part of his life was the supreme opportunity to become a hero — and instead, as the famous saying goes, he missed the bus.

After the fall of the dictatorship, he did get to enjoy being honored as an elder statesman and former president. In recent years much has been made of his being viewed as visionary as far as economic policies are concerned; and he lived to see the electoral successes of two of his daughters.

Ironically, he died on the birthday of his nemesis, Ferdinand Marcos. He was buried in Manila’s Cemetery of Heroes, joining his predecessor Carlos P. Garcia. He is entitled to rest there as a president of the Republic — a last honor which represents a final victory over the man who defeated him in 1965. Much as Imelda Marcos has campaigned for the honor, the Philippine government continues to refuse burial there to her husband.

I have heard people say that Macapagal’s fundamental weakness was to have authoritarian instincts, without the ruthlessness that should accompany those instincts. Still, he died a respected man. That his daughter may not leave office with hopes of a similar political rehabilitation, must haunt her.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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