THE National Historical Commission, in collaboration with the President Elpidio Quirino Foundation, is now celebrating the 125th birth anniversary of our second president with a series of lectures on a number of important topics. This piece is not about any of the lectures, which are all worth following, but about two controversial issues that continue to haunt the life of one of our greater presidents. These refer to allegations of corruption and allegedly excessive pro-Americanism.
Quirino was born on Nov 16, 1890 and died on Feb. 29, 1956. He served as vice president under Manuel Roxas from 1946 until 1948 when Roxas died, and continued as president until 1953, when he lost the election to Ramon Magsaysay, his former secretary of national defense. To more than two generations of Filipinos, who got their political education from the freewheeling and rambunctious press, Quirino’s presidency is best remembered for his allegedly expensive bed and “golden urinola” (bedpan) and his excessive kowtowing to the Americans.
No independent studies on these allegations have ever reached the public. What the press wrote at the time was simply propagated as gospel truth. Like most everyone else in my profession, I started my career as a young working student believing and often repeating these stories. But in 1969, after six short years as a diplomatic reporter for the Agence France-Presse and reporter-columnist for the Manila Bulletin, I joined the Marcos Cabinet as presidential spokesman and press secretary and eventually got hold of primary material on these stories.
A highly seasoned newspaper editor who, as a Malacañang reporter, had a hand in propagating the golden bed and bedpan story gave it to me from the “horse’s mouth.”
This came after the proclamation of martial law in 1972. With the crackdown on the media, the press was immobilized, and newsmen lost their jobs. Together with my assistant press secretary Larry J. Cruz, who later became a great restaurateur of the well-known LJC chain, I brought many of them into the newly created Department of Public Information. Some of the more senior ones chose to work abroad, while others became daily callers at my office, where they read, had coffee, or played chess.
The uncrowned doyen of them was the celebrated Celso Cabrera, former editor of the Manila Chronicle, a colorful and tireless raconteur, a dear friend. Celso was running a weekly column entitled “Inside Malacanang” in the paper he edited. It was usually spiced with fiction about imagined Palace quarrels and intrigues. But the characters implicated in these fictitious quarrels were usually forewarned. He told me one day, “Kit, you’ll like what you’re saying in your quarrel with (presidential assistant) Jake, in my column tomorrow.”
“But I haven’t got any quarrel with Jake,” I said.
“Only you and Jake and I know that. The readers don’t,” he laughed.
I thought nothing of this prank until one day, an obviously concerned reader from Bicol (my region) advised me to fix things up with Jake.
Celso had a hearty laugh when I told him about it. He then narrated how he had composed certain “immortal stories” about Senate President Jose Avelino and President Quirino, which had already survived several presidents.
First about Avelino. It appears that on Jan. 15, 1949, the ruling Liberal Party had a caucus in Malacañang on the various problems confronting the government. Celso and his colleagues had come to cover the closed-door meeting, but could gain no access. Avelino apparently dominated the meeting, but he spoke in Spanish, and although the press could hear snatches of what he was saying, they could not grasp the totality of his statement. This did not prevent Celso from fabricating his famous “What are we in power for?” quote.
Ilocos Norte Congressman Faustino Tobia tried to supply the official version of what Avelino had said. The English translation went like this: “Mr. President, is it not the truth that not addressing vigorously these problems (such as losing the Liberal Party’s insight into the postwar reconstruction, the plight of the peasants that is fueling the Huk insurgency, and the moral discipline of those who use their position or influence in government to advance their selfish ends, …), is to betray and negate fundamentally our duties as public servants? What for is our mandate from the people?”
But under Cabrera’s byline, the Chronicle quoted Avelino as saying the exact opposite: “Why did you have to order an investigation, Honorable President? If you cannot prevent abuses, you must at least tolerate them. What are we in power for? Why should we pretend to be saints when in reality we are not? We are not angels. When we die, we will all go to hell. It is better to be in hell because in that place, there are no investigations, no secretary of justice, no secretary of the interior to go after us.”
In the election that year, Sen. Fernando Lopez, whose rich brother Eugenio was to later own the Manila Electric Company (Meralco) and at the time was the leader of the powerful “Sugar Bloc” and owned the Chronicle and radio stations nationwide, was elected as Quirino’s vice president. The once powerful Avelino, who had authored so many landmark legislations, ended as a poor third among the presidential candidates, which included Quirino and Jose P. Laurel. Avelino faded from the scene, and died many years later, a broken man.
I told Celso he owed it to the truth and to history to make a personal retraction of that particular quote. But whether or not he had intended to do so, he found no time to do it.
The same happened with Quirino. The golden bed and “urinola” story was pure fiction, Celso acknowledged, but it outlived Quirino’s presidency and the man himself. It turned out that the bed which Quirino found inside the Palace bedroom when he succeeded Roxas belonged to his departed predecessor, and was a bit small for his size. It had to be replaced. He also needed a bedpan for his health. So he had one placed inside his bedroom, but certainly not of gold.
At this time, word had gone out that the Americans and the president-making Sugar Bloc were already unhappy with Quirino and wanted to put Magsaysay in his place. The order from “above,” said Celso, was to use anything that could be used against Quirino. And so he invented the golden bed and bedpan story, and it immensely pleased his bosses.
As in the Avelino story, I asked Celso to make a personal retraction, no matter how belated. He didn’t say no, but never got around to doing it.
Now, on Quirino’s allegedly excessive pro-Americanism. One short story about Quirino and Gen. Douglas MacArthur completely belies this allegation and proclaims his dignity as a Filipino statesman worthy of the highest respect. The story is told by the late General Carlos P. Romulo, who had become a close friend from the time I covered him as a reporter at the Foreign Office to the time I became his youngest Cabinet colleague in 1969. It is one of his many wonderful stories:
In the summer of 1951, Quirino arrived in New York, NY. Romulo, who was then the Philippines’ permanent representative to the UN, having just completed his one-year stint as President of the UN General Assembly, received him at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan, the most fashionable diplomatic address at the time for visiting dignitaries. Romulo was staying in the same hotel, so was Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was commander of the US Armed Forces in the Far East during the war, and had led the US forces in liberating the Philippines from the Japanese occupation forces.
Romulo told MacArthur that Quirino was in town, and that having served as Field Marshal of the Philippine Army after his retirement from the US Army in 1937, he might want to pay his personal respects to the President. MacArthur readily obliged. So together with Romulo, he called on the President at the latter’s suite. There was a brief exchange of amenities.
“It’s great to see you in New York, Mr. President,” MacArthur said. “What brings you here?”
“I’m here for a brief checkup at Johns Hopkins Hospital, but I’m actually on my way to Spain on a state visit,” said Quirino.
“To Spain? What wonderful news! So you’ll be meeting with Generalisimo Franco, who is a very good friend of mine. Kindly extend my very best regards to him, Mr. President.” The call ended on a very pleasant and warm note, and on the day of Quirino’s departure, Romulo conducted Quirino to the airport, and MacArthur also came. Before boarding his plane, Quirino thanked MacArthur for coming and shook his hand to say goodbye.
“It was great seeing you in New York, Mr. President,” MacArthur said. “But when you see General Franco, please don’t forget to extend my very best regards to him.”
Whereupon, Quirino straightened up, and, looking at MacArthur in the eye, said, “Thank you, General. But I go to Spain as the President of the Republic of the Philippines. I’m afraid, I will have no time to extend your very best regards to the General.”
Instantly, the old general bent nearly to his knees as though he had been hit at the solar plexus. “I’m so sorry, Mr. President. How stupid of me, Mr. President.”
“No problem, General,” Quirino said.
This was as good as Ferdinand Marcos telling the Americans at various stages in their relationship: Let’s reduce the term of the 1947 bases agreement from 99 years to the next 25 years; let’s call them Philippine military bases, instead of US military bases, and put them under the command of a Filipino commander, with the Philippine flag alone flying singly over the baselands, except in front of the barracks where the US forces are quartered; and let us now talk of some form of rent, after years of having a rent-free agreement.
Filipinos today are looking for a leader who will stand firm in safeguarding the country’s alliance with its best allies, but will never confuse their core interests for its own. As we face a new presidential election, we hunger for such a leader. No one until now has appeared on the horizon, and it is, for me, a great shame to read of President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya providing a sterling example.
At the end of his recent summit with US President Obama in Nairobi, Kenyatta said there are many things Kenya and the United States share, but there are also many other things they do not share. One of these is gay rights, which appears to have become Obama’s foremost global foreign policy concern. For Kenyans, he told Obama, “gay rights is generally a non-issue.”
“We want to focus on other areas that are day-to-day living for us. The fact remains that this issue is not an issue that is foremost on the mind of Kenyans,” he said.
No one has had the courage to tell Obama this, anywhere in the world. The 54-year-old President Kenyatta was but an 18-year-old youth when we sat down with the first President Kenyatta and his family at his hunting lodge outside the city of Nairobi in 1979, where Marcos delivered the Declaration of the Group of 77 to the Fourth UNCTAD in the Kenyan capital. In the space of 36 years, the young man has become worthy to be a leader of all Africa and the world. On our part, all we have produced is the puppet PNoy, and we seem to be aching to go down several notches lower as we fail to encourage anyone to show some substance and gravitas and rise above the damning and damnable mediocrity of our times.