CURRENTLY going on at the Ayala Museum is an exhibit on President Elpidio Quirino, the third postwar President of the Republic after Sergio Osmeñã and Manuel Roxas. Its title is “Defining Quirino” and after 125 years (born November 16, 1890) in Vigan, Ilocos Sur, it has the neutral, factual, perspective-imbued review of a president who was reviled in his time for certain media-sensationalized incidents while in he was in Malacañang.
The media pumped up stories of a P5,000 bed which was big money in those days and a so-called golden chamberpot. The bed was left in Malacañang when Quirino’s term ended and seems to have disappeared some time during Martial Law. The golden chamberpot has never appeared as its glittering definition. Which brings out the fact that not everything one reads in black and white is necessarily true or in perspective, specially when it comes in the daily paper that is covering politics exclusively by personalities rather than issues.
Elpidio Quirino was a true self-made man that came a long way from the Vigan Jail quarters where he was born, his father being the jail warden. He studied the first years of high school in Ilocos at the same time teaching in a nearby town. He earned enough from teaching to get himself to Manila and study the last years of high school at the Manila East High School from where he went to law school and, in the traditional road to politics here at the time, was a bar topnotcher.
He joined government service and from there distinguished himself as an ambitious and accomplished public servant who caught the eye of President Manuel Quezon, the first Commonwealth president, who became his mentor. He rose to Cabinet status in the Commonwealth and became a public figure described by top-ranked visiting American journalist of the time, John Gunther, as “ambitious and dictatorial.”
World War II caused his incarceration in Fort Santiago for a while and then brought him unspeakable tragedy when during the Battle of Manila his wife and three of his five children were killed by gunfire as they traversed streets of Manila to escape the house-to-house burnings and killings by retreating Japanese forces.
After World War II, a humbled and changed Quirino was back in public service and together with Manuel Roxas became a founding member of the Liberal Party. He ran with presidential candidate Roxas for Vice President and won in the first postwar elections. He served as Foreign Affairs Secretary.
Manuel Quezon III gave a lecture titled “Elpidio Quirino in Retrospect” last Saturday afternoon using films, photographs and musical interludes coming from Quirino’s political era. It was a different world where radio was the communications tool, Spanish was still spoken among the political elite where the men wore the traditional white suits with not a barong tagalog in sight.
But it was also changing. For the first time the campaign for the presidency led them to campaign from the North to the South of the country showing the people their leaders in the flesh. Media became a factor with newspapers bringing out news, rumors, political and personal attacks particularly on the rising issue of corruption which came with the looting of war surplus, the backpay scandals, the Chinese quota systems given to legislators, among other things. It was in Quirino’s tenure that television came to the Philippines and he was the first president to be televised, if briefly, at a social gathering.
Quirino endured the vicious attacks regarding the expensive bed and the phantom golden chamberpot which is now seen as having been blown out of proportion by repetition so as to become a recurring issue whenever he was criticized after he became president when Roxas suddenly died close to the end of his term. It seems at this time that there was no other issue that he could be attacked for in the matter of corruption.
Yet in retrospect as Quezon pointed out, Quirino was a good president who presided over the postwar rehabilitation of the Philippines with intelligence, experience and integrity. He was the gentleman widower of Malacañan who balanced the budget, allowed thousands of anti-Communist Russians fleeing their country to come to the Philippines on their way to asylum. He was also a nationalist who early on (1937 and 1946) filed claims to the Spratlys and studied the Philippine claim to Sabah via the 1878 lease of the Borneo lands by the Sultan of Sulu.
As Secretary of Foreign Affairs he is credited with the professionalization of our foreign service. He was a studying, learning and analyzing statesman who influenced others like President Diosdado Macapagal who eventually followed up the claim to Sabah in his own time.
He also reached out to the rebellious Huks and accepted the surrender of Luis Taruc, bringing him back to the fold of the Republic. He accomplished this by gestures like going out to the hinterlands to meet the disgruntled peasants and assure them that his government was inclusive and concerned about every citizen.
Quirino was known for his gallantry in victory or defeat. When he lost to Magsaysay he conceded and graciously vacated Malacañang in his white suit while Magsaysay entered in his barong tagalog. Times were changing.
He spent his retirement quietly writing his memoirs, setting an example of leaving public service with honor and the acceptance that his time had passed, his service was done and a new generation had the mandate to continue. He introduced no political dynasty in the process.
The Ayala Museum Exhibit is fittingly titled “Defining Quirino.” It is for the elders among us to remember, for the youth now to know and for all of us to look back at a different era.
But as Quezon remarked in his lecture, “What is the power of memory in a nation that has forgotten? What are the lessons of history for a people who live only in the present? When you have lost the past, how can you dream of the future?” Reverse that by seeing the Defining Quirino exhibit at the Ayala Museum and attend the coming lectures on aspects of his presidency in the coming weeks till November 28.