The Explainer: Marcos in retrospect

That was a scene from “The King and I.” As Mongkot found the world, so too do we find to this day, power and those who wield it. Such a puzzlement! And no one remains more puzzling then Ferdinand Marcos.


Tonight, Marcos in retrospect. I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.




The picture you’re looking at, is the cover of a book. It’s taken from a painting –a portrait of President Ferdinand E. Marcos by the great painter Manansala.

From the time publisher Hans Menzi gave it to President Marcos in 1970, it hung in the presidential palace. It disappeared in 1986, and hasn’t been seen since.

Contrast that portrait with the one most schoolchildren know, the one probably most familiar to you and I: the Marcos of the Colgate smile, the portrait that now hangs in the Palace. The vote-grabbing grin aside, the portrait tells us nothing.

But go back to the Manansala portrait. The picture you choose to display, says something not only about who you are, but how you want others to see you.

It seems clear what Marcos wanted us to think: here is the President as a kind of philosopher-king. He doesn’t look at us mere mortals, he looks towards the horizon –the far-off look of the tired, but dedicated visionary. The background is muted; the only bold colors from that of the flag. His barong is simple, elegant, rumpled; his surroundings are spartan but there is the gold band of marital dedication and a gold watch that is the only sign of the successful professional.

This is the Marcos posterity wanted to remember, but is this how you think of Marcos? Or let me ask you, since media, at least every February, won’t let you forget there was once a man named Ferdinand Marcos: can you imagine a Philippines where Marcos doesn’t matter?

You’d have to be over forty years old, and closer to 50, to remember a time when Marcos hadn’t already been president. If you were born in 1965, the year he became president, when he finally left the palace you would have been 21 years old, much of it spent listening to government propaganda telling you he was the greatest Filipino ever. If you were born when Marcos fled, you’re now 21 years old: much of it spent being told that Marcos was the worst Filipino, ever. Both you and your parents have grown up in the shadow of one man and his wife.

Just recently, the Comelec accredited a party list group called The True Marcos Loyalists, and there will be candidates running under the movement he founded, the KBL. Marcos’s widow, Imelda, enjoys celebrity status: loyalists and Imelda amuse us; but not too long ago, they enraged a country.

Marcos was not a smoker, he was not known as a drinker, he didn’t swear –the strongest expression of irritation people would hear would be for him to say “Lintik!” And he was not much more of a womanizer than most men of his generation and macho culture like to think themselves to be. He was not tall, but trim and athletic for most of his life: a marksman, orator, armed with a photographic memory. Surely we can agree he was a man of talent; we continue to disagree whether he used those talents for anything larger than his own ambitions.

The dull biodata of his life, the one we copy and paste for reports, doesn’t force us to try to make sense of his life. Perhaps the most perceptive effort to do this that I’ve encountered was written by an American, Lew Gleeck. He wrote a slender, often quarrelsome book, titled “President Marcos and the Philippine Political Culture.

The life of Ferdinand Marcos can be divided, said Lew Gleeck, into phases. Those phases mirrored chapters in our nation’s development, and that of the culture in which leaders and the led operate.

Phase One was Marcos the law student who gained fame. While standing trial for the murder of his father’s political opponent, Julio Nalundasan, Marcos became the bar exam topnotcher. The Supreme Court summoned him because his grades were so high, they were convinced he cheated.

He convinced the justices he had passed. Soon afterwards, he faced some of the justices again, when his conviction for murder reached the Supreme Court on appeal. He won his appeal on September 21, 1940, a date he would immortalize 32 years later.

Phase Two is also the most mysterious: Death March survivor Marcos; the guerrilla Marcos. How much of it, as demonstrated by his medals was true? At least part of it, as this picture of young veteran Marcos shows.

Those are pretty impressive decorations on his chest: a Distinguished Service Cross, a Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart. Any veteran with those indisputable awards would be considered a hero –except that Marcos wanted to be the most-awarded veteran, and some of his claims would become, to put it midly, controversial.

This phase, I’d like to suggest, contains a period often overlooked in the debate over his war record. That period is Marcos’ intellectual, even philosophical development. In this he was surely influenced by a statesman to whom Marcos felt he owed his acquittal by the Supreme Court, Jose P. Laurel.

Here’s something President Laurel said in 1943:

The whole history of government shows that public affairs would be better administered and the welfare of the people better subserved in the hands of a moral and intellectual aristocracy. The people cannot be governors and governed at the same time… On the other hand, a good and efficient government, a benevolent government, may exist and continue indefinitely to function with admirable harmony, when men of superior moral and intellectual endowments are in control of the state.


Laurel also said that the rallying center of our national unity were four: the Flag, the Constitution, the National Anthem, and the Presidency. Marcos in his day would try to leave his mark on all four: he changed the color of the flag; he unveiled a modern arrangement of the anthem during one independence day; he almost single-handedly wrote a new constitution; and he made his office, and thus himself, the Alpha and Omega of our government and society.

The third phase was Marcos the elected politician: as congressman from 1949 to 1959, first in the Liberal administration, given his first big break as a presidential assistant by President Roxas, then supported in his candidacy by his fellow Ilocano Elpidio Quirino,

and then in opposition to the Nacionalistas;

then Marcos the Senator from 1959 to 1965, including being Senate President from 1963, and President-in-waiting after Macapagal promised to support him in 1965. The power base of Marcos the up-and-coming politician were three: his generation of the UP Cadet Corps, and the guerrillas, the fraternities, and the Ilocano vote.

The fourth phase was the President Marcos of 1965-69, and the incumbent President who achieved a landslide re-election in 1969, only to be embattled from 1969 to 1972 on all fronts. This was a time of social upheaval, where our deeply-divided society tried to figure a way forward.

As Leon Ma. Guerrero, “Today Began Yesterday,” wrote:

The experience of the Filipinos… had been of parties that were not parties but unprincipled coalitions of the rich, the powerful, and the unscrupulous; of elections that were essentially meaningless exercises in fraud, terrorism, bribery and demagoguery; of politicians who represented no one but themselves. The people’s capacity for self-government had been trapped in a political mechanism they had not learned to work or control, and their capacity for indignation and generosity, sacrifice and service to the country, left to wither and decay.


The solution, to Marcos’s mind, was martial law. This was the fifth phase: the reformist Marcos: the one who’d written “Today’s Revolution: Democracy,” ; and who was, let’s not forget, widely supported by his people from 1972 to 1975.

It was a time when, to borrow a phrase made popular today, many were prepared to give up some of their freedoms to move the country forward. Never mind that a conservative estimate is that 20,000 were rounded up when Martial Law was imposed on September 23, 1972, but backdated to September 21 for its symbolic value. Thousands would remain in jail for years. Thousands more would die in the hills, be psychologically and physically maimed in torture chambers.

The Metrocom said it would cut the long hair of hippies. Most parents applauded. My father didn’t let me have haircuts, as a symbolic protest. No one noticed. Toddlers aren’t capable of bearing placards.

It was a time whose officially theme song, proclaimed was the era of a New Society:

May bagong silang
May bago nang buhay
Bagong bansa, bagong galaw
sa Bagong Lipunan
Nagbabago ang lahat
Tungo sa pag-unlad
At ating itanghal Bagong Lipunan

And boy, did everything change. The barrio, he decreed, would once again be known by its ancient name, the baranggay. The government was reorganized. Private armies disbanded. Rice and Corn lands subjected to land reform, and the entire country proclaimed a land reform area.

Dissidents were locked up, the press carefully controlled, Congress padlocked, a curfew from 12 to 4 am imposed, and the streets cleared of crime. The old oligarchy was crushed; old dynasties deprived of power and privilege. Miracle Rice was introduced. Infrastructure ranged from roads, to bridges, to wells and electric grids –and cultural, tourist, and governmental structures. A new constitution was imposed, with the voting age lowered.

Gleeck says this reform phase ended in 1975, with the firing of Executive Secretary Alejandro Melchor. It gave way to the sixth phase, the dictator who set aside reform and increasingly concentrated powers in his own hands from 1975 to when Marcos combined in himself the offices of President and Prime Minister 1978…

…and who then presided over massive corruption from 1979 to 1981. Marcos’s New Society became the New Republic, officially, our fourth. Marcos staged a gigantic, lavish inaugural. He was brought to the Quirino grandstand by a cavalry escort; took his oath before dignitaries that included the American vice-president; and topped it off with a choir singing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus:


And He shall reign forever and ever,
|: King of kings! and Lord of lords! 😐
And He shall reign forever and ever,
King of kings! and Lord of lords!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!


Gleeck says this inaugural ushered in the seventh, and final phase of Marcos’s political life. Marcos as the ailing dictator whose regime began to unravel from 1981 until, from 1983 until his fall in 1986, he finally lost touch with reality, was ousted, and exiled.

Oddly enough, these are seven stages for a man whose lucky number was the number 7. But how should we view Marcos? Contrasting views, when we return.




That was a scene from “The Last King of Scotland,” in which the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin says what all leaders say: I will make your life better and our nation stronger. In countries of widespread poverty, the leader always aspires to be the chief.

The other, we can assume, personally-approved image of Ferdinand Marcos was this bemedaled one.

It forms part of a pair: a portrait of husband and wife by the Indonesian artist Bazeki Abdullah. I remember them from the Rizal Memorial, where they were prominently and permanently displayed after Manila hosted the Asian Games.

Like all good propaganda, these portraits are based on a kernel of truth: Marcos certainly could boast of many decorations, and loved his medals. So did his wife. And like all propaganda, the portraits magnify this fact even if it contradicts reality: for example, would it be physically possible to wear so many heavy medals with a baro or on a terno?

The pictures of Marcos we have as bemedaled world statesman are in Western dress: here’s a color one of the first couple.

And here’s another one, of Marcos with Thailand’s King Bhumibol and Imelda with Queen Sirikit, who has been irreverently called the Imelda of the Thais. Look at this picture with Thai royalty and our then democratic first couple-

And contrast it again with the portrait of the First Couple in their role as the conjugal dictatorship.

No wonder then, that foreign observers such as Ian Baruma would say this, quoting a shrewd observer like Adrian Cristobal along the way:

…what Marcos and the First Lady wanted more than anything else was to be king and queen. They wished to shape the kingdom in their own image; like the Sun King, Louis XIV, Marcos wanted to be able to say, “L’etat c’est moi.” According to Adrian Cristobal… “Marcos sees the Philippines as a society of tribes.” And he sees himself as the great tribal chief, the Datu of pre-Spanish times. He destroyed much of the old network of family and regional loyalties to become the one and only patron, the king of Maharlika…

Do you remember the quote we earlier used from Laurel? An intellectual and moral aristocracy inevitably requires a monarchy.

But how did Marcos see himself? We tried to look at pictures; let’s now listen to words.

Last year, the The New Kyoto Review of South East Asia: put on line, a recording of an interview. In it, George M. Kahin, asked President and Mrs. Marcos their views in a private interview granted six months before the Edsa Revolution.

Let’s listen to President Marcos describe himself as a leader:


[play marcossml3 interview 16:10 to 17:15 “all those who are liberal minded…” to “losing hold of the people…” credit]


And let’s listen to the first waxcing philosophical. It’s a great chance to see the couple interacting in conversation:


[play marcossml3 interview 22:12 to 23:17 “I don’t think we can finish…” to “true liberal democrat…” credit]


But let’s return to the book I used to frame our discussion for tonight. Lew Gleeck argued, convincingly I think, that to understand Marcos –his strengths and weaknesses- requires understand the culture in which he operated. A culture he tried to master, but which ultimately mastered him.

This is how Gleeck described our political culture:


The Philippine political culture is… personalistic but violent, religious but superstitious, corrupt but tolerant, hierarchical but distributionist, solicitous of form but not of content, legalistic, but careless of equity, media-obsessed and nationalistically vociferous with respect to rights but negligent to obligations.


President Marcos also once said that Filipinos “will accept any kind of radical reform provided it is constitutional and legal”; whatever he might do, he did under the cloak of legality and proper form. Never mind if the substance came to be eroded by ill health and cronyism; until late in his regime’s life, many were content to ask, “what is your alternative?” and “who will you replace him with?” to justify their continued support.

It was only when the economic gains came crashing down in 1982-84, that the public decided it was fed up with having no freedom and no more economic gains.

Lew Gleeck wrote, bluntly, that Marcos’ strategy was “steal first, buy later.” He did it so well, people came to admire his daring. Nothing breeds success like more success. The question of Marcos’s plunder is one that’s still being fought out in the courts. It was one Marcos initially lost in the court of public opinion.

By way of analysis, let’s take a look at what James Hamilton-Patterson quoted an unnamed associate of the President saying:

I sometimes think he became bored… he was very greedy. Yet it wasn’t ordinary greed… I think he became bored a year or two after martial law because he didn’t really have that much daily governing to do… I quite favor the idea that crony capitalism as they call began… when some of those cronies began to work out cunning schemes with him he was seduced by the intellectual challenge of it… He really wanted to know what he could get away with. It’s a Filipino trait, this constant testing to see how far we can go. He loved all that.

In the end, as Marcos’s health and grip on power weakened, he came to validate what is said to be the fundamental weakness of all strong man regimes: as the saying goes, nothing grows under the shade of a great tree. Marcos could not, would not, provide for a successor; and it was on the fundamental question of what should come after Marcos, that his regime began to crumble, and fell.

When we return, a distinguished scholar and witness to the Marcos era’s reflections on Ferdinand Marcos.


My View


Why do we look back at the lives of people like Ferdinand E. Marcos? As long as humanity is around, a fundamental question will always be, how is power gained, maintained, and ultimately, for what purpose is it wielded?

There are dozens of books about Marcos. Dozens, thousands more, need to be written and most of all, read. We assume many things about him, but a basic assumption shouldn’t escape us.

And that is, his virtues –and he had many: love of country, love of learning, discipline, loyalty- and his defects –confusing form with substance, ignoring how the means power is acquired is as important as how you use it, tolerance of his supporter’s mistakes, and his using armed force to compensate for some political weaknesses- are as much about our society’s strengths and weaknesses, as they were about his own.

In the end, Marcos died in exile and with him died the chance for an ultimate reckoning with his rule. Those who served him and fought him are senior citizens now. But the problems that led some to serve him and some to fight him, live on. And we must now confront those problems for ourselves.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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