“Vaya con Dios,” she replied, her eyes crinkling in silent laughter. “How’s my pronunciation?”
“Not bad. But I’m not going on a long trip,” he chided her. “By the way, your teacher’s fee is due today. Hasta luego.”
The coachman stood by to help Taft on to the horse-drawn carriage. Taft hoisted himself on the splashboard, swiveled, and slumped on the leather seat. The springs of the calèche creaked under his weight.” Damn buggy is too small,” he muttered under his breath.
The cochero waited to be told what to do next.
“A la oficina,” Taft growled.
At the gate of the Ayuntamiento, his secretary, Bill McVey, helped him dismount. It was nine o’clock on the dot.
Before entering the building, Taft combed his bushy handle-bar moustache with his fingers, patted his sideburns into place, pulled the sleeves of his linen jacket to straighten the creases, arranged his face in the stern look of authority and then began to waddle on the scrubbed tiles of the foyer to his office at the far end of the ground floor, his secretary keeping pace, a step behind.
His nostrils flared at the fragrant smoke of Tubacalera cigars. Six men, all dressed in identical white drill suits with black string tries, except General Arthur MacArthur who wore his usual field gray uniform with brass buttons and decorations, sat around a heavy, intricately carved table made of dark wood, on straight-back chairs on which it was impossible to slouch.
The previous occupant was the Spanish governor-general Camito de Polavieja, who was known for his arrogance and love of symbols of power. On the stone walls were coats of arms, all manner of bladed weapons, portraits of past governors general, regimental flags and pagan artifacts—souvenirs of past campaigns of suppression—that the present Governor-General chose not to remove because they had all been paid for in American dollars, a transaction that grated on the sensibility of proud Spaniards that was assuaged only by the obtuse language of the Treaty of Paris, Taft never forgot that.
Everyone rose.” As you were, gentlemen. I shall be joining you shortly. Give me a little time to go over my mail.”
He scanned the letters that had been arranged on his desk in order of importance by McVey. Taft pinched the topmost—a note from the Secretary of War to remind him that in the next fiscal year, the budget for the Philippine Islands would be with the Department of Insular Affairs. “Would the Honorable Governor-General kindly account for these funds and return the balance, if any, to the Department of War?”
Taft scowled. He disliked being reminded of his duties, particularly on matters of money. He let the moment of irritation pass before calling McVey who he instructed in detail on how to draft the answer to this impertinent letter. He kept his voice low and even in order not to betray his pique.
The widest and biggest chairs in the Ayuntamiento were reserved for the Governor-General. Only one was wide enough for his girth. Carefully, he fitted himself between the arms and slowly lowered his bulk on the seat. It will do, he told himself.
“Let’s get to work. Mr. McVey are there outstanding matters for the commission?”
“Are there any comments on our agenda?”
No one spoke.
“Very well. As we agreed in our inaugural meeting, we will take up today the last paragraph of President McKinley’s instructions to the Commission as the last item in our program of work. We also agreed, if you recall, that this item will be for the Commission alone and will not be exposed to a public hearing. Nevertheless, in case we might need advice or additional information I decided, without consulting you, to invite Señor Trinidad Pardo de Tavera and General Arthur McArthur, both of whom you know well enough, to be resource persons. I hope you agree.”
He looked at each of the Commissioner to judge if they were offended. They were impassive.
The Secretariat, two male stenographers, and Bill McVey were behind him at a separate table. “Mr. McVey, the minutes of this meeting should be explicit on every point.”
He picked up a sheet of paper that McVey had put on the table before the meeting began.
“Before I open the floor for observations and discussion, I think it might be helpful to refresh our memory on the relevant paragraph and for the record.”
Taft cleared his throat, reached into the inner pocket of his jacket for his eyeglasses. He put them on ceremoniously.
“I quote: ‘The Commission should bear in mind that the Government which they are establishing is designed not for our satisfaction or for the expression of our theoretical views, but for the happiness, peace and prosperity of the people of the Philippine Islands, and measures adopted should be made to conform to their customs, their habits and even their prejudices, to the fullest extent consistent with the accomplishment of just and effective government.’ End of quote.”
He took off his glasses, put them back in their leather case and slipped it back into the pocket of his jacket.
Henry Clay Ide raised his hand. “You have the floor, Mr. Ide.”
“Haven’t we done all that? A society and its government evolve over time. It is impossible to know how well—or how badly—the Filipinos will carry out the kind of government that we have designed for them. In any case, constitutional democracy takes time to take root. Perhaps we should leave the question open for them to decide at some future time,” Ide offered.
Without waiting for the Chairman to recognize him, Dean Conant Worcester interposed. “It’s too soon to write the history of the Philippine Islands. There are so many gaps. The American occupation of these Islands is probably the most important episode. As Dr Schurman put it ‘only through American occupation . . . is the idea of a free, self-governing and united Philippine Commonwealth conceivable.’ I suggest that instead of an eminent person or persons, we consider an Institute of Philippine History”
Taft replied diplomatically: “That’s a thought but an Institute is hardly the rallying symbol that President McKinley had in mind. Maybe Señor Pardo de Tavera can enlarge on the proposals on the table.”
Pardo de Tavera put down his copy of the agenda and stood up. He was not very tall but because he was lean, patrician, and wore a goatee, he towered over the Commissioners.
“Thank you, Señor Taft. It’s my honor to contribute to the work of the Second Commission.
“I incline to the view that the personification of the values and aspirations of all Filipinos is much needed. Las Islas Filipinas hardly make up my, or perhaps your, idea of a nation. Our peoples are diverse in both language and tradition.
“Antonio Luna and Jose Rizal, were exceptional Filipinos. But they, unlike Andres Bonifacio and Apolinario Mabini, were educated in Europe where they imbibed the ideas that became the ideological basis of the movement against Spain. But while Rizal was for peaceful evolution, Luna was trained to prefer an armed rebellion. Both had hoped for a united Philippines, for a nation with a common culture.
“Rizal, who was literate in over 20 languages, had predicted that English would be the dominant language of the world in the 20 century. It was for that reason that in the school for boys that Rizal established in Dapitan he included English in the curriculum. Also for the same reason, I supported during the public hearing the proposal of Commissioner Bernard Moses to make the language of Britain and America the language of instruction in our schools.
“Finally, Señor Taft, I don’t think that Emilio Aguinaldo, despite his personal sacrifices should be in the Commission’s list of possible models for young Filipinos. Dan Emilio had shown, unlike Rizal, Luna and Mabini, a tendency to gather power in his hands.” He sat down and took a sip of water.
“Thank you, Señor Pardo de Tavera for your thought-provoking contributions. You mentioned General Luna alongside Jose Rizal. I wonder, if General McArthur could give us an idea of his personal and intellectual qualities?” Taft inquired.
Like Pardo de Tavera, MacArthur stood up to speak. There were beads of sweat on his forehead.
“Mr.McVey, please switch the electric fans to full power and put the carafe of water within the General’s reach. Please . . .”
MacArthur came straight to the point.
“Before I assumed command I sought out General Wesley Merritt and General Elwell Otis. We are professional soldiers, trained to assess the martial qualities of both ally and foe.
“In our judgment General Antonio Luna was an exceptional commander. He knew how to use the resources available to attain both tactical and strategic objectives.
“For example, the major deficiencies of his—and Bonifacio’s—troops were armaments and food. The bolo knife is of no use against the Krag or the Springfield. Luna’s troops were armed with antiquated rifles. He had a few modern ones but inadequate supply of ammunition. Provision of food and water was haphazard. As Napoleon said, armies march on their stomachs.
“To overcome these deficiencies, Luna organized his best men into sharpshooters and guerrillas that infiltrated our lives. I don’t want to say this but most of the casualties we suffered were inflicted by these small groups. They included the veterans of the Indian Wans. Antonio Luna was a competent general.”
“Was he a hero, in the usual sense of the word,” Taft asked.
MacArthur paused to collect his thoughts. “Let me answer it in this way to his men, he was a strict disciplinarian. He was not well-liked. To his officers, he was a leader who was not rash in making decisions especially under fire. To the politicians, he was a rogue soldier who was difficult to control.”
After digesting the General’s remarks, he turned to Luke Wright.” “Would you care to share your thoughts with us, Mr. Wright?”
“As you know, Mr. Chairman, I’m an engineer and a town planner. My heroes are those who have accomplished engineering feats.
“My choice would be Jose Rizal. I have not read any of his novels, poems or essays. But I have seen what he had built in Dapitan. During his exile he motivated the townsfolk to build a water system, a school building, a hospital, and a public park. Considering that he did not have a budget for any of these public works, they were all well-planned and built to last.
“Rizal had vision and the ability to make that vision real. His achievements in Dapitan were not monumental but they were useful and cheap to maintain. He had imagination and an orderly mind to make do with what was ready to hand.
“Everyone on our list has sterling qualities. But Rizal was well-liked by the townspeople.
“I talked to some of them and they all said that when they heard about his execution, they felt a personal loss. They marked his death with a period of mourning.
“My choice would be Jose Rizal.”
Wright’s heartfelt, unadorned speech touched William Taft. To disguise his feelings, he was silent for a good 10 minutes.
“How about you, Mr. Moses? Don’t you want to say something,” Taft taunted him. He was very shy and needed to be coaxed to speak his mind. But he was a deep thinker unlike Ide or Worcester, both of whom Taft despised.
Bernard Moses blushed and in a pipsqueak voice said: “I am for Jose Rizal. Unlike the others he’s a complete person.”
They all waited for him to say more. Nothing. Taft sighed.
“I would like to thank Señor Pardo de Tavera and General MacArthur for finding the time to help us. Mr. McVey, please escort them out.”
He looked at his pocket watch. “It’s eleven o’clock. I promised Helen, my wife, that I would join her for lunch. I also do not want the cocido that she had the cook prepare grow cold.
“How then should we conclude our somewhat rambling discussion?”
Henry Ide asked, “We have not heard from you. Don’t you owe us a word or two?”
Taft smiled. “I’ll tell you what. Let us have a secret vote—one name, no more. Mr. McVey, cut up a foolscap into five strips. Give each of us a writing instrument—a pen, a pencil or even a quill. Each of us will write down his choice, fold his ballot, and give it to Bill McVey. He will then read everyone’s ballot, except mine. After I have said my piece, my vote will also be read out. How’s that?”
There was a murmur of assets. It took only a couple of minutes. McVey collected the folded strips of paper and glanced at the Chairman.
“Read them,” Taft ordered.
“Jose Rizal, Dr. Rizal, Jose P. Rizal. Rizal.”
Slowly, Taft spoke. “Your unanimous vote will be contentious. The Catholic Church, though deestablished, will be aghast. All of us know that the issue of Rizal’s retraction is the subject of heated debate not only between the clergy and the masons but even among laymen. No matter. It would make Rizal a man of mystery.
“Then there’s the question of Rizal’s love life. The prudes might not welcome your vote of approval. I hear that it’s common for Filipino males to have two or more concubines. In Rizal’s case he had mistresses. Again, no matter. Masculinity is a trait that both men and women prize, sometimes overtly, often covertly.
“Among politicians and men of action, Andres Bonifacio, Emilio Aguinaldo and Antonio Luna were the heroes. Rizal’s refusal to take a direct role in both the rebellion and the revolution was seen by them either as cowardice, or more, kindly, ambivalence.
“Apolinario Mabini is the enigma. More than Rizal who provided the impetus, Mabini provided the strategic direction for the armed revolution. And more than Rizal, Mabini had a fuller idea of a Filipino nation.
“The Malolos Constitution could have been written only by someone who had thought long and hard about a national polity. Rizal only wished for the Philippine Islands to become a province of Spain.
“Mabini never accepted American colonial rule. He distrusted us. I don’t think that he ever believed President McKinley’s promise of full independence. Benevolent assimilation meant only limited home rule to Mabini.
“If Mabini were not a cripple, I would have been hard put choosing between him and Rizal.”
Taft handed his ballot to McVey.
“As the civilian Governor-General of the Islands and as the Chairman of the Philippine Commission, I have two responsibilities. First, as proconsul of a territory that we bought and two, as the surrogate of President McKinley, to prepare the Philippine Islands for eventual independence.
“The Commonwealth status that we will be recommending to the Executive and Legislative Branches of the Government of the United States will allow us to recoup, certainly with interest, the money that we paid Spain and at the same time fulfill our President’s promise to the peoples of these Islands.
“Rizal, as the symbol of peaceful, orderly transition, will be the instrument of our policy. By releasing Rizal’s ghost, however, we lay ourselves open to the accusation that we preempted the right of the Filipinos to choose their national hero. No matter. Jose Rizal will be forever a reminder that these fair islands were once the colony of the United States of America.”
Addressing Bill McVey, William Howard Taft, ordered the preparation of an Act proclaiming Dr Jose Protacio Rizal the national hero now and for all time.
He was back in Malacañan at twelve o’clock on the dot. Helen met him in the sala. Hand-in-hand they walked to the comedor.
“How was your meeting?” Helen asked.
Taft shrugged. “We made a Filipino named Jose Rizal a hero.”
“Who was he? Do I know him?”
“You will, mi querida.”