Ferdinand Marcos and Us

Ferdinand Marcos and Us

We are far from being able to take stock of his life.


( A hundred years ago today, Ferdinand E. Marcos was born. If things had gone his way, instead of mass and luncheon in the Libingan ng mga Bayani and the unveiling of a statue in Ilocos Norte, where a holiday was proclaimed, the entire nation would now be gripped by Marcos mania from Aparri to Jolo, presided over by Ferdinand Jr. who, as vice-president, would be poised to receive homage as the future successor to the office his father held for 20 years.

This would surely have included the commemoration of September 21 as Thanksgiving Day (the most enduring brainwashing of all, because even his critics who lived through it have forgotten that Martial Law was imposed not on September 21, but instead on September 23), and concluded with another commemoration on September 28, the 28th anniversary of his death.

Instead, the great debate over Ferdinand Marcos continues. But this debate, even as it gathers intensity because of the Marcoses being poised to achieve their great dream—political and social vindication three decades after they had to go into exile—is entering a new phase.

This is the phase when larger-than-life figures recede from living memory. What had formerly propelled attitudes towards them, personal like or dislike, no longer becomes the dominant factor in determining what one thinks of that person. While Juan Ponce Enrile has become a meme—a measure of time, a living example of the old adage that only the good die young—his living presence serves as a reminder that those who truly knew Marcos are mainly dead and only few are still alive. Even the unsinkable Imelda is 88 years old.

What this suggests to me is the need to understand, more fully, how Marcos was a product of his times, just as he molded the era in which he lived. There are three stories that help us figure him out. They date from his early years, when he was widely considered an up-and-coming figure but had yet to achieve the unlimited power and ability to mold his image that power granted.

The first is one that an uncle once told me about his student days in the University of the Philippines. He was an older contemporary of Marcos. He recounted how in student council elections in UP in the 1930s, the practice was for candidates to keep their voters captive, because rival candidates would not only do the same, but poach voters from their opponents. The candidates would herd their supporters to places outside the campus, plying them with snacks, until it was time to vote. Yet then, as now, the student press would thunder and shrill about democracy and the purity of the ballot.

Another story came from a retired general who took pride in his having saved Marcos’ life during his fraternity initiation. Before Marcos was a leader, he was a joiner. He joined all the upwardly mobile organizations campus life offered: sports teams (including the rifle team, which would feature in his trial for the murder of his father’s victorious political opponent in 1935), the ROTC, debating societies and of course, a fraternity. These were ties that mattered throughout life, in many ways far more important than today. Solidarity, in some cases, was fostered by brutality.

And the third story came from a gentleman who’d known Marcos well as a young man and in the early part of his political career. The young Marcos of the immediate postwar years was mercilessly teased by the well-connected friends he cultivated. A swimming party had been organized. Everyone was in their trunks, and Marcos appeared, in what were, even by then, rather old-fashioned white shoes, dressed up in a dress-down affair. His friends snickered, “white shoes” became his country bumpkin name for an intolerably long time, while Marcos just flashed his Colgate smile. He would, 30 years later, arrest many of them or harass them when they went into exile.

Together, these three stories provide insights, to my mind, on Marcos’ secret of success and why he did what he did—and how he was able to do it. He knew the difference between what people preached, and what they did. His oratory remained high-minded while he systematically analyzed every institution and every major figure in those institutions, to see not only what made them tick, but to determine what were their flaws. He mastered the methods of acquiring power—the fine speech, combined with the ruthless management of resources and people that mattered—and built the us-against-them bases of support that rewarded loyalty. He was ambitious, but he was patient; he was ruthless, but calm; he was systematic, but also, daring. He kept cool knowing revenge is a dish best served cold.

The world in which he navigated is gone yet eternal, too. Gone in that its particular modes of behavior have vanished but its rules remain embedded in our national DNA. UP no longer conducts elections in the manner of the 1930s, but our society still operates on a political culture of raiding, trading, and feasting that has been used to describe how power was gained and kept in prehispanic times: as familial, or personal, property. It is a culture that is fundamentally violent: Marcos being accused of assassinating his father’s political rival (his acquittal was widely attributed to then Justice Jose P. Laurel pleading with his colleagues to give such a promising man a chance) differs only in his having been prosecuted and convicted and then acquitted, and his performance in court, from the long, bloody catalog of local political families engaged in attempts at mutual extermination before and since. And it is a political culture in which Manila is the prize, but which is vulnerable to the ambitions of shrewd and calculating men and women from the provinces who rise up through the patronage of an establishment that surrenders and yields to the once promising men it raised up, only for those men to force the former patrons to bend the knee.

Still here, of course, is what made Marcos new: he was a political scion but in the overall scheme of things, not well established. And so he had much more in common with his classmates who were receiving a secular education in UP than their more pedigreed rivals in other schools who boasted then as they still do now, that they would be the future employers of those upwardly mobile but too earnest products of state education. Marcos could, and did, set out to prove he could rise through sheer merit. He could appeal to those who had to carve out a future that would have its fair share of success, but remain precarious enough that any danger to social order represented a clear and present danger to all of them. In other words, an exemplar of a middle class reliant on, but frankly unimpressed with, the upper class, afraid of the teeming multitudes of the undisciplined and dependent lower class, and thus, always impatient with anything getting in the way of stability and order. As Randy David has observed, “the middle class does not like elections. It prefers coups.” This is what Martial Law was, a particular kind of coup. They even have a name for it in Latin America: an autogolpe, or self-coup.

Marcos surrounded himself with self-made men who enthusiastically supported him when he set out to deprive those who’d teased them when they were nobodies, of the means that had kept them nobodies. In the process making themselves somebodies. This is the circle of life in our society, at once the thing that never changes, and which makes the present always different from the past.

It’s no coincidence that once he was in power, Marcos began to cultivate myths about his origins. All leaders do. His choice of myths was illuminating. On one hand, the claim he was descended from the Chinese pirate Limahong. On the other, that, somehow, Antonio Luna had contributed to his genes. A buccaneering spirit—piracy, not on the high seas, but in the halls of power—and a ruthless will to dominate, decimate, and thus, build anew, things Luna represented, can well summarize the negative and positive traits of Marcos. Everything else, the superficial veneer of intellectual ability, lawyerly prowess, calculating cunning combined with a gambler’s bold, brash throws of the dice, are precisely superficial because for all his ability to quote at length from his readings, and for all his mania for building a great wall of decrees that would firmly demarcate life before, and after, himself, the man’s thinking was premodern. To this day, highways and buildings are pointed out as his measure of achievement—forgetting how badly they were built, how expensively and yet shoddily they were constructed, and the fortunes he and his subordinates tucked away in the process.

Yet he knew and has been proven right, that quantity, not quality, is what matters; he also knew, as his campaign biography promised, “For Every Tear, a Victory” was not only the mantra of his life, but that of a society that knows only two ways to approach power and the powerful: with a subservient crouch when facing it, and with grimaces and contempt when it turns its back. He would do his best to ensure the crouch would become permanent and pervasive with his eyes and ears everywhere and he succeeded as only a few in our history have managed to achieve—but at greater cost, in lives and money. But even in those two things he took the measure of his people well. The many who died were on the whole, the powerless, the unknown; the money was enough so that whether chipped away at by disloyal cronies, found out by foreign governments, or seized by the governments presided over by his successors, there still remained more than enough to add a golden sheen to his kin.

A final point, on the healing balm of celebrity. When the documentary film Imelda was released, Mrs. Marcos tried to prevent the showing of the film in local theaters. The result was to make the documentary a roaring success as people ended up watching it in droves after the courts allowed the film to be shown. To my mind, there are two things that turned the tide for the Marcoses after the flight into disgrace and exile. The first was how well the heirs of Marcos—Imelda and Eduardo Cojuangco, Jr.—whose votes, if they’d only been combined, would have defeated any other rival in the 1992 elections and quite possibly all of them combined had they also managed to unite. Together, they obtained 19% of the votes. A formidable political base, six years after they’d fled, and three years after the dictator had died in Hawaiian exile. The second was the release of the 2003 Imelda documentary, because that is when she made the transition from the Achilles heel of her husband, into the matriarch of a clan in synch with the celebrity-obsessed zeitgeist of not only Philippine, but global, culture. Her grandson, Borgy, born in exile, would be the bookend to firmly establish their celebrity status.

The old and new that was Marcos is the old and the new in all of us, rich or poor, educated or not. And it is here, where, as memories fade and what was vivid in people’s minds now becomes second- or third-hand stories, that our ability to, one day, properly understand him, depends. We cannot understand our leaders until we understand ourselves: They are only the magnified versions of ourselves, neither entirely different nor entirely the same, only exaggerated.


Additional reading:

See Marcos in Retrospect, a two-part article I wrote in 2007 on Marcos and his life. See also, Remembering Marcos, a collection of contemporary articles and other thoughts on Marcos and his times—and equally importantly, what happened after he fell from power. In Retracing the events of September 22-23, 1972, I retraced, through Twitter, the lead up to, and the imposition of, Martial Law on September 23, 1972. Connected to this is Raissa Robles’ book on Martial Law, which has been nominated for a National Book Award. You can read two excerpts online: the first is on the imposition of Martial Law, and what one of Marcos’ media operatives, and later critic, Primitivo Mijares exposed; the second is on the fate of Mijares and his the son. Ateneo de Manila University has made the entirety of Mijares’ book available online. On the other hand, to understand the perspective of those who supported Marcos, you can read Leon Ma. Guerrero’s slim pamphlet, Today Began Yesterday. Connected to this is an obituary I wrote when Marcos’ chief speechwriter, Adrian Cristobal, passed away in 2007. The long period from 1973 to 1986, on the other hand, is covered by my 1996 article, The Fabric of Freedom. The long story of the wealth of the Marcoses is best told by The Guardian.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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