No Philippine president looms large as a revered figure in the national memory. This is probably the reason we have no Mt. Rushmore, no memorial for a president on a grand, towering scale. The satraps of Mr. Marcos tried to carve a false tribute on a very public part of a mountainside up North. But like the felled statues of Stalin, the faux tribute to our homegrown despot was demolished by the wrath of history.
But this is not saying that we have had no presidents of real consequence.
Men of a certain age remember Manuel Luis Quezon, the Commonwealth president. The fire in the belly, his uncompromised nationalism, the efforts to promote a national language that would be our lingua franca and our cultural soul were complemented by a larger-than-life image and his colorful governing expletives.
Did he deal with the dissidents of his time via his surrogates to promote the grand bargain of peace? Did he use Congress to pass BBL-like legislation to secure the peace?
No. Our undying memory of Quezon was his trip to Arayat, Pampanga to talk peace and about peasant insurgency with the leading Socialist leader, the mayor himself, Casto Alejandrino. Did he engage in empty talk about securing the peace? No. He turned over to Casto the 100 hectares of his own land – for redistribution to the peasants – very near the foot of the dormant volcano in an act of supreme sincerity and selflessness. That was a time feudalism was in full flowering, an era bereft of a rough draft, a seminal concept even, of a land reform policy.
Casto had a term for what Quezon did, praxis, the glorious merger of theory and practice.
In another scene, in the capital town of San Fernando, we had Perico (Pedro Abad Santos), the founder of the Socialist Party, personally confronting Quezon about the unjust agrarian structure prevailing then. Perico harangued Quezon while his brother, Quezon’s trusted aide Jose Abad Santos (later to be martyred) watched helplessly, afraid to rein in his agitated brother. Imagine for a minute that scene: The president of the republic and the head of the major dissident group arguing about social and economic justice, with the dissident scolding down the president.
Then, there are still old men still holding on to their keepsakes – pins and buttons which simply said “Magsaysay is my Guy.
So cherished was RM’s memory that a brother ran on nothing except his cluelessness and the revered name of his president-brother and was overwhelmingly elected senator of the realm. Senator No Talk, No Mistake ended up a sorry bust but he was not run out of town because of the people’s respect for The Guy. There is still a healthy debate on whether the greatness of RM was for real – or a Landsdale-manufactured thing. But that has yet to dent the fact that Ramon Magsaysay is a president deeply loved and remembered.
Question. What do you think will be history’s verdict on Mr. Aquino?
His last SONA on Monday was notable for two things, the fantasy statistics and his plea to history. He wants a secure place in history as a game-changing leader who, in his own words, tried his best to change the corrupt culture of governance and succeeded against overwhelming odds. And made life better for his people in the process.
Ok, will this generation and the next regard him as such – a game-changing leader?
The quick answer is this. No. As a leader, he will be listed under these two categories. A president of little or no consequence. Or, neither here nor there.
Contrary to Mr. Aquino’s deeply-held belief, glowing statistics do not make a great president. Growth rates, credit upgrades, the jailing of crooked rival politicians are good for newspaper headlines and are of supreme interest to parachuting foreign journalists who want to write, for a change, about the transition of the country from a “ failed state” to one “open for business.”
But when all the gains from these economic upswings are vacuumed up by the top economic brackets, and when gains from labor are meager and just enough for basic survival, those statistics are meaningless to ordinary lives.
To be well-remembered by history, a president has to be two things: larger-than-life in the hearts and minds of his people or a president with life-changing policies. After Mr. Aquino delivered his SONA, I went around the areas in and around the Commonwealth Avenue Batasan neighborhood. I asked the magti-tinapa, mag-papandesal, magtataho, those struggling for survival under the downpour, about Mr. Aquino’s last SONA.
I was met with terrifying indifference, with blank stares, with why-would-we-care –about-the-SONA treatment.
Inside the Batasan, Mr. Aquino indeed preached to his choir, the small body that represented the business and political elite. The enthusiastic and genuine applause, the expression of gratitude for the Aquino presidency, this was duly noted by the papers, came from Big Business.
Outside, under the gloom of the overcast skies, the last SONA had two tragic images of Mr. Aquino’s presidency. The president barricaded from his people and protected by the anti-riot police and the giant effigy of Mr. Aquino set on fire and readily engulfed by the raging flames.
In 2010, in the first BS Aquino SONA, the protesters were gingerly about their every move, afraid that the citizens themselves would lynch them should they do something over-the-top.
Five years later, the crowds cheered as the Aquino effigy was consumed by the raging fire.