Chapter 12: The End of the Beginning
Manila awaited anxiously as the coast guard cutter Anemone, steaming at full speed from the Visayas, made its way to the capital. The two days of a nation deprived of a president were about to end. The man who thought he was in danger of succumbing to heart disease was now disembarking as the successor of Manuel A. Roxas, dead of a heart attack two days previously.
At last, on April 17, 1948, the Anemone docked at Pier 13, and Elpidio Quirino, in white sharkskin suit, with a black arm band, disembarked.
Where once hardly anyone had been present to see off Quirino, who had steamed to the Visayas to recuperate and gain strength, fearing he had a weak heart, now a large crowd officials were present to greet him. The Presidential Guard was on hand; the entire cabinet was lined up; Senate President Jose Avelino represented the legislature.
Car Number One brought the man who was still officially Public Man Number Two directly to Malacanang.
Quirino climbed the main stairway of the Palace, passing by Luna’s Pacto de Sangre, turning right to enter the main hall of the Palace.
Passing beneath the glare of the three enormous Czechoslovak chandeliers, brilliantly alight even thought it was early in the day, Qurino made his way to the ceremonial room. There, in that room, as two years before, was a bier; on the bier was a casket; but now in the casket were the mortal remains of Manuel Roxas. Elpidio Quirino approached the casket. History does not recount if the people in the Palace reception hall, went silent at the sight of the soon-to-be president, surrounded by officials already jockeying for preferment and position in the new administration, pass them by, about to pay his respects to his predecessor. But posterity has recorded that Elpidio Quirino went up to the bier, gazed at the face of the first president of the independent republic, and then knelt – and wept.
Fearing his health was breaking, here he was, now, sobbing over the mortal remains of a man whose health had broken first, and at a time when his country needed him most.
Homage done, duty beckoned: Senate President Jose Avelino and Senate President Pro Tempore Melenecio Arranz gently led Quirino away to an anteroom, where former First Lady Aurora A. Quezon and Dona Rosario Acuna de Picazo, President Roxas’s mother, were. Quirino apprached the two ladies and kissed their hands; sat with President Roxas’s mother; then asked to be taken to see President Roxas’s widow.
Dona Trining Roxas was still in shock, and was in bed in the room of her daughter, Ruby. Since acknowledging the death of her husband the First Lady had refused to stay in the room of her husband. Quirino was ushered Ruby Roxas’s bedroom. The new President gently told Mrs. Roxas she should stay in the Palace as long as she felt necessary. Quirino then went to the Executive Office Building, and was sworn into office by Chief Justice Ricardo Paras in the Council of State Room. The Republic now, at last, had a new president: the second President of a Republic barely two years old. The time was 9:45 a.m.
From there, Quirino went to his own home, to be pestered, gawked at and bothered as only man, suddenly elevated by fate to the presidency, can.
The Roxas era had passed; the Quirino era had begun. But still, a nation had to pay final homage to its first independent head of state.
THE day before the funeral, the Philippines Free Press published an editorial concerning the man it had covered and criticized for so long:
“Into the setting sun, merging into the shades of night, goes the spirit of President Manuel A. Roxas, bound for ‘the undiscovered country from whose born no traveler returns,’ leaving behind a sad and sorrowful and anguished people. For him no more the breaking of the dawn, the call to the day’s pressing duties, the cares and burdens of the State, the sleepless hours in the silent watches of the night, or the occasional happy mingling with the thousands whom he serves”
“Yes, Manuel Roxas, President Roxas is dead, and a nation bows its head in grief. Less than four years ago it was robbed of its beloved son, Manuel L. Quezon, and now again it is sorely afflicted, the hand of Death is laid heavily upon it. It bears its cross, but:
“No more for him life’s stormy conflicts,
Nor victory, nor defeat – no more time’s dark events,
Charging like ceaseless clouds across the sky.”
EARLY on the overcast and gray morning of April 25, 1948, a final religious service was held; and it was after this service that Claro M. Recto delivered what many believed was one of the finest orations of his career.
The man who had opposed Roxas as a fierce and sarcastic Democrata in the 1920s, had presided over the Convention in which Roxas had played a leading role; who had been brought with Roxas to Baguio by the Japanese, now spoke over the bier of the man he had worked against and then with for so long, to pay tribute and summarize the life of a President.
Normally of a sardonic, at times impish, expression and frame of mind, this time the pugnacious face of Don Claro was somber, his words firm, his Spanish, poetic. His slightly rough, even raspy voice, did not soar to exaggerated heights; there was no attempt at declamation; this was a funeral oration, but an intimate one.
THE end, the final procession. The cortege, dozens of cars long, preceded by soldiers -Filipinos in war-surplus American olive green, with black arm bands; a contingent of American soldiers; a small honor guard of British sailors in tropical shorts- the Philippine Army band with muffled drums. From Malacanang – right to Aviles (now J.P. Laurel), left to Mendiola, onward to Azcarraga (now C.M. Recto), the cortege proceeded, slowly, then turned right, on Lepanto Street in Sampaloc, to a Philippine Congress squatting in a former school house. There, the Congress of the Republic paid tribute to the man who had once been master of both its houses, as Speaker and Senate President.
From Congress, the coffin was once more placed on the caisson pulled by a Philippine Army vehicle, preparatory to the last journey – to the North Cemetery.
The funeral procession proceeded along Lepanto; turned left at P. Campos; left to Espana; right to Lerma and then left on to Quezon Boulevard, right to Azcarraga, right to Avenida Rizal, right to Blumentritt, and finally reached the cemetery. The car bearing Mrs. Roxas went ahead of the cortege, and parked by the side of the rotunda where the tomb was. Mrs. Roxas did not alight from her car, but watched the funeral from inside the car.
At high noon, after the final benediction was given by the Apostolic Delegate, the last military honors were rendered, and at exactly high noon, the remains of Manuel Roxas were placed in a tomb identical to – and almost neighboring – that of Manuel L. Quezon.
The epitaph on Manuel A. Roxas’s tomb was simple, dignified, distilling into a few sentences the substance of career already receding into history:
Soldier, Statesman, Patriot. Friend of the Common Man. Champion of Democracy. Architect and Builder of the Nation.
REFLECTING on the state of the nation whose stewardship he had inherited, Elpidio Quirino would write, “I found assurance in what he had accomplished under our common dedication, and in the thought he had looked upon me as a partner. When he took his oath as President of the Republic, the nation was in shambles, the public coffers were empty; on the faces of the people were cynicism, the effects of cruelty, and the deprivation wrought by the grim struggle for survival. The cries of women in distress, the protests of men dragged from their homes by dissidents and kidnappers almost drowned his ringing voice.”
“At the time that he left, new homes and shops had replaced much that had been rubble; the production of basic crops had doubled and, in some cases, quadrupled; the value of money had increased to more than twice its purchasing power; the prospect of a balanced budget had brightened; and the enrollment of school children had doubled in two years. In a world still bleak despite valiant efforts to recover from the terror and destruction of World War II, this country’s face had taken on a happier aspect. Older countries were extending their hands to seek the goodwill and friendship of our young Republic, Roxas having given it renewed strength and prestige.”
THE evening of Manuel Roxas’s funeral, Jose P. Laurel addressed a despondent nation, and asked, “When a great and good man like Roxas is taken from us, we who are left behind wonder how we can ever do without him, that is, without the faith, the hope, the goodwill, the fearless devotion to justice and righteousness, the clean-cut principles, the loyalty to truth, to country, and to God, as were exemplified in his life. We cannot but say, ‘How can we go on without his inspiration and leadership.'”
What Laurel asked a country, a people would continue to ask, and seek. Within four years, the three men credited with the rebirth of an independent Philippine Republic were now gone. Manuel L. Quezon had died in 1944; Sergio Osmeña had been defeated in the elections of 1945; and now, Roxas, the youngest of the triumvirate, which had charted and led the fight to political independece in 1946, was dead. Who would lead?
Elpidio Quirino would try to lead; indeed history has judged him separately as having led competently, honestly, and sincerely. But he suffered from the burden of being the leader of a nation deprived of the three it had followed for almost two generations; and a new generation was coming of age, that sought a new kind of leadership – eventually handing down the historic verdict in 1953 that the era of Quezon, Osmena, Roxas and Quirino was gone, and that a new leadership as exemplified by Ramon Magsaysay was what was needed to take its place.
But until that time, there remained the memory of Roxas, the last of the triumvirate. At his death, he had left a nation that had begun the first tentative steps toward rebuilding the damages inflicted by the war. Alliance was firmly made with America; America, in turn, had committed to helping the Philippines back on to its feet. Roxas had gambled, politically, on the partnership remaining durable and even stronger, even to the extent of amending the constitution of his country as the price for the rehabilitation that he knew was the country’s by right, but which the United States had determined, after the war, could only come with a price.
His death found a Republic facing agrarian revolt; but with the means to eventually crush that revolt. His death found a nation still in ruins, but finding itself slowly finding the means to rebuild those ruins. His death found a nation on a firm course of alliance and cooperation with its former colonizer, a course that would remain fixed for many administrations to come.
He had assumed the Presidency of a nation bereft of hope; he left a nation bowed in grief, but filled with hope that would endure and finally blossom with populist royalness again in the personality of Ramon Magsaysay.
Soldier, Statesman, Patriot. Friend of the Common Man. Champion of Democracy. Architect and Builder of the Nation.
The epitaph is still there. The deeds the epitaph pays tribute to have long passed; but perhaps, now, those words may be understood, re-remembered: remaining as true today as they were felt to be when first inscribed as the summation of the life of the First President of the Third Republic of the Philippines.