ORPHANED at a young age, poor, worse still, diffident by nature and far from good looking,Jejomar ‘Jojo’ Binay was a nobody living in a tough part of Makati.But he was clever. He put himself through law school and became a visible critic of the Marcos regime by specializing in human rights cases, defending political detaineesgratis during Martial Law. In 1986 President ‘Cory’ Aquino appointed Binay as officer in charge of Makati pending elections in 1988, which he won by a landslide. It was his first taste of political power. He also protected Cory from the coup attempts that imperiled her administration and the fragile new democracy. He went about carrying an Uzi submachine gun. Previously without influential connections, he had now found his top-level patron in a grateful Cory.
Binay’s rise to the vice-presidency and his current presidential bid would be inspiring — a hard-scrabble background, early pro-democratic leanings, a savvy intellect– were it not so muddied by long-standing allegations of corruption and nepotism.
“Call me Monching”
Ramon Magsaysay’s beginnings were just as inconspicuous. His parents were ordinary folk. He studied engineering, supporting himself doing odd jobs such as chauffeuring, until he was hired as a mechanic, later promoted to superintendent, at the Try-Tran bus company. When Japan invaded, Magsaysay became a guerrilla fighter and closely aided US Colonel Gyles Merrill who was holed up in Magsaysay’s home province of Zambales. After the war he capitalized on his exploits and managed to win a seat in Congress representing his province.
In 1950, he was appointed Secretary of National Defense after submitting a plan to President Elpidio Quirino for suppressing the Communist-led Huk guerrilla forces.
Quirino’s administration was venal and thuggish. His brother and trouble-shooter, Judge Antonio Quirino, was said to employ goons to intimidate political foes. Unrest in the countryside intensified. Into this jittery scenario entered Colonel Edward Lansdale, a skilful CIA operative, sent by the US government to keep the former colony firmly on side.
Lansdale quickly identified Magsaysay as a man the US could work with. He was brashly extrovert, charismatic, malleable, and unquestionably pro-American. It didn’t matter too much that he was not very bright. Claro M. Recto, the great nationalist senator and lawyer who was to be Magsaysay’s arch critic, later recalled how the Americans had thoroughly and shamelessly used the man for their own ends.
Lansdale was adept at getting along with Filipinos. He was affable, polite, a good listener, and he liked to eat. He and Magsaysay became close. Shortly after they met, Magsaysay invited Lansdale to come round for dinner and meet his wife and children. The two men had much in common and hit it off. The informal tone of their relationship was quickly set that very evening. “Call me Monching,” said Magsaysay. On the pretext of stepping up security, Lansdale suggested Magsaysay share his quarters at the US military compound and send his family away to the province.
For the next three and a half years the two were inseparable, united in the fight against Communism. Magsaysay confided his innermost thoughts to the American. They traveled together to the Huk heartlands of central Luzon in a blaze of publicity, and to the US and Mexico to solicit donations. At the height of the operations, 50,000 military troops were mobilized against 15,000 Huks. Lansdale made sure Magsaysay ate properly while on the road and was well supplied with his favorite breakfast foods (canned corn and oatmeal); the American punched him now and again, in a “brotherly” sort of way, just to show who was really the boss, and was privy to the secrets of an independent nation.
Lansdale was a king-maker. Taking his orders only from Washington, he masterfully orchestrated Magsaysay’s triumphant 1953 presidential campaign. Monching was an exuberant and energetic presidential candidate. The Americans scored a double victory.
The Communist insurrection was crushed, and the US got the Philippine president they wanted. To celebrate, the two spent a few idyllic days in Magsaysay’s provincial home, feasting on fish-fries and roast corn, enjoying the locals’ nightly serenades, and lazily skinny dipping together in a sun-warmed river.
Magsaysay was killed in a plane crash in 1957, prematurely ending what many consider as the country’s most popular presidency. His ascent to power can be directly linked to Lansdale and, ultimately, to the US, then the mightiest nation on earth.
The political economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz recently calculated that, among American baby-boomers, the son of a senator was 8,500 times more likely to become a senator than the average man. Belonging to a political dynasty has always conferred spectacularly unfair advantages: dense and extensive fund-raising networks, and brand recognition, crucial for instant name recall and harnessing social capital. Neither Binay nor Magsaysay had these advantages. Instead, they acquired powerful patrons. By laying their stories side by side, we can see how a couple of nobodies were able to gain footholds in the dynasty-dominated Philippines to become somebodies.