Graphic: 16 Presidents: Thoughts on politics and the presidency

By Frank Sionil Jose, National Artist for Literature

Philippines Graphic

July 30, 2021–This is a personal essay, my impressions on our politics and the presidency as I have observed both from my teenage years onwards. In this my twilight, I am now 96, with memory still keen, I try to locate our country in the wider context of Asia’s past…

MANUEL L. QUEZON (1935-1944)

Manuel L. Quezon was our playboy President whose libido was heightened by tuberculosis. This was what was gossiped about in 1938 when I came to Manila. And why not? Quezon was handsome, dapper and a powerful orator.

I always attended the November 15 Commonwealth parade at the Luneta. It was dominated by Quezon delivering his usual fiery address.

His only son, Manolo, was a friend. I met him at the University of Santo Tomas where he was then a Dominican novice, and I was on the staff of the university paper. I also knew Serapio Canceran, Quezon’s private secretary from Cagayan.  From both, I was able to form a dear image of Quezon, the man.

He was born in August 19, 1878 in the Pacific coastal town of Baler, Tayabas. He was a veteran of the Philippine-American war, as aide de camp to General Emilio Aguinaldo. After Aguinaldo’s surrender to the Americans, he continued his law studies at Santo Tomas, passed the bar and joined the government service. He was elected governor of Tayabas province in 1906 and the following year, as representative of the National Assembly.

As Congressman, Quezon was very active in the independence movement. Elected to the Senate, he headed the first Independence Mission to the US Congress in 1919. In 1935 he won the Presidency as Nacionalista Party candidate. Incidentally, in these Independence Missions, he detoured to California. The late Carlos P. Romulo told me he dated Marlene Dietrich and Greer Garson.

By this time, Japan’s imperial intentions began to alarm the United States. Quezon, following American moves, decided to develop the country’s defense capability. He asked MacArthur to come to Manila to set up an Army.

Quezon attended to the agrarian problem that was seething. In 1935, the Sakdal peasant rebellion had erupted in Central Luzon. Congress passed a Tenancy Law that was flawed. He initiated the opening of Mindanao to settlers.

Quezon was very partial to his ethnic origins. He made Tagalog the National language. He was also partial to his friends. He created Quezon City as the national capital and gave choice portions of it to his mestizo friends.

As for Baler, his hometown, when I visited it in the 1950s, it seemed as if for the town, time had stopped. Quezon did nothing for it, ensconced as he was in Manila, playing poker and chasing pretty women. It was former Senator Edgardo Angara who made Baler the booming tourist destination it is today.

Quezon married his cousin, Aurora Aragon who was killed by the Huks in a mistaken ambush in Bongabon, Nueva Ecija in 1947 together with daughter Baby and her husband, Felipe Buencamino. Quezon was compassionate; he opened the country to a thousand Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany.

Quezon did not see the Philippines liberated by his friend General MacArthur. When the war with Japan started, he was evacuated to Corregidor then to Australia onwards to the United States where he formed a government in exile. His tuberculosis worsened and on Aug. 1, 1944, he died in Saranac Lake, New York. His body was brought back to Manila by former US High Commissioner Frank Murphy and is now at the Quezon Memorial Shrine in Quezon City. 

I saw only one of Quezon’s girlfriends, Amparo Karagdag. She was petite, beautiful, a movie star. They were shooting a scene before the Manila Hotel. Early enough, I had started gathering bits and bits about the affairs of our Presidents but I gave it up when I found it too messy. For all his extravagances and picadillos, Quezon towered over all the politicians in his time, and was adored by his countrymen. 

He left us some memorable quotes: “Better a government run like hell by Filipinos than a government run like heaven by Americans.” Quezon was also a prophet.

F. Sionil Jose
Author: F. Sionil Jose

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