“There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at a flood, leads on to Fortune;
Omitted, at the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea we are now afloat,
And we must take the current at it serves,
Or lose our ventures.”
–Brutus in Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
Anyone who knew Blas Ople could not dispute the fact that he was a class by himself. Even in the Cabinet of President Ferdinand E. Marcos, he towered over and above all of the others in intellect and his flair for sound bites coupled with an inimitable literary style. Probably the only person whom he could salute was Marcos himself. Ople was brilliant, but Marcos was more brilliant, in a sense, especially so because Marcos was a lawyer but Ople was not.
When he was the Minister of Labor in the Marcos Cabinet he defended, in a highly intellectual manner, the policies of Marcos even to the point of sounding like Marcos himself including the pauses, phrases and inflection.
I met Blas when I was a kid at the University of the Philippines, Diliman campus. It was probably Dodong Nemenzo, who later became President of the University of the Philippines, who introduced me to him because Dodong gravitated around left- oriented intellectuals and Blas was not only an intellectual of the Left but he was suspected either of being a fellow traveler or a communist himself.
Whether he was only fellow traveler or a communist himself, I really do not know; I never bothered asking him. What impressed me then until today is that he had a way with words that befuddled many a linguist. He was considered by many as a walking dictionary in English and Tagalog, coming out with words like “interregnum.” But Blas loved befuddling people in so far as the nuances of words were concerned. And that endeared him to many a young intellectual at the University of the Philippines during my time.
Dodong Nemenzo was invited by Blas to breakfast or lunch at some restaurant in Quezon City when two of the most outstanding labor leaders of their time hosted the meeting – Cipriano Cid of the Philippine Association of Free Labor Unions (PAFLU) and Ignacio Lacsina of the National Association of Trade Unions (NATU). The restaurant, a usual place of meeting, was Tres Hermanas at the corner of Roosevelt Ave. and Quezon Blvd., in Quezon City.
Other than Ople, Lacsina and Cid – all with names that registered on the national scene – the three others who attended the breakfast or lunch were young students of the university who had leftist inclinations and who, in Blas words, were young men with a promise. He was not wrong there. Dodong Nemenzo later became President of the University of the Philippines. Merlin Magallona landed as Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs. This writer became Governor of Misamis Oriental, Mindanao and Member of Parliament during martial law and very much later became Commissioner of Immigration.
In the accuracy of his prediction, Blas had the perceptive quality of the most brilliant among trial lawyers who could discern the depth of the mind of a witness and his capacity for telling the truth. This quality Blas had, even if he never went to law school or ever finished college. He had tremendous talent. As the cliché goes, Blas must have been present when God distributed talents among his flock.
One incident which stuck on my mind is that in one occasion when Blas left Tres Hermanas with Dodong, Merlin and me, Blas asked the three of us, “Kids, do you have 20 centavos? I have no change for fare to go to my office in the Roces Building.”
I was a little bit shocked to learn that a writer of his stature did not have a car or enough loose change for fare as a commuter. I then realized that in this country writing does not pay. Crime does.
It was a long way from Tres Hermanas to graduating from the UP College of Law. Even longer from law practice to later holding elected positions as Opposition public official under martial law. During that period I lost track of Blas except to see him on television, every now and then, praising the Marcos policies in his impeccable English or flamboyant Tagalog.
Then, I met him on the floor of the regular Parliament in 1984. He was no longer attired in his flowing white long sleeves polo shirt but in stylish Barong Tagalog. The first time I met him in Parliament, he greeted me: “Bon, you’ve gone a long way from your UP days.”
“Not really that long way yet, as I’m only trying to justify your prediction that I am one of the young men with a promise,” I replied.
“Well, have you met Dodong Nemenzo and Merlin Magallona lately?” He asked about the two other young men with a promise.
“Not yet but I’ll meet them soon,” I answered.
“I wish you well, Bon. Good luck!” These were his parting words before he went to the Batasan lounge.
Between that chance encounter with Blas on the floor of the Batasan until the fall of Marcos, I had not met Blas again. But in the midst of the debate in the Opposition ranks as to who should be the Opposition bearer – Cory Aquino or Doy Laurel – in the 1986 snap election, Blas pulled a surprise by telling the Opposition, through tri-media, that the Opposition should field Cory as the candidate for President and Doy Laurel as candidate for Vice-President. The suggestion, in the words of Blas, is that “it is the Opposition’s magic combination because Cory has the Holy Grail while Doy Laurel has the troops.” Probably, Blas was referring to Cory’s perceived charisma later labeled as the Cory magic and to Doy’s United Democratic Opposition, popularly known as the UNIDO. The Blas formula turned out to be the magic and successful combination of the Opposition.
While the Marcos administration was teetering at the edge of destruction, I heard from the grapevine that President Marcos sent Blas to the United States of America for Blas to transmit to the American President that Marcos needed to be saved from falling into the hands of an enraged people. The next thing I knew, reliable sources told me, that Blas told Marcos to leave Malacañang Palace immediately, and that to cut and cut clean. I could only surmise that Marcos must have shouted to Blas over the phone saying, “Et tu, Blas?”
As history would have it, I met Blas again when the group of Cory was threatening to dissolve the Parliament. The KBL crowd headed by Speaker Nicanor Yñiguez of Southern Leyte, with Blas Ople in tow as the resident intellectual of the Marcos Cabinet, met at the AIT Hotel at Commonwealth Ave., Quezon City, to decide on how to frustrate the dissolution of the Batasan.
The KBL Parliament leadership, with its full membership in attendance, held a caucus at the Grand Ballroom of the AIT Hotel. On invitation of Speaker Yñiguez, I attended the meeting of the core group with Minister of Labor Blas Ople around. Since MP Francisco “Komong” Sumulong refused the group’s offer to be the Speaker of the Parliament to replace Speaker Yñiguez, he turned to me offering me the speakership of the Parliament. I accepted it subject to two conditions – that he would turn over to me immediately the keys to the Parliament Building and he would give me one thousand Armalites with sufficient ammunition as I was sure of the possible moves of Minister of National Defense Juan “Johnny” Ponce Enrile. On the Armalites, Yñiguez said he must consult President Marcos first. On the keys to the Parliament Building, Yñiguez said: “But, Bono, I have turned over the keys to the Parliament Building to the boys of Cory.”
“Manong, where do you expect me to convene the Parliament?” I asked Speaker Yñiguez.
It was Blas, the raconteur, who answered, “Well, you can convene the rump Parliament at the lobby of the Peninsula Hotel.”
I looked intently at Blas and told him, “Blas, you don’t need a leader. You need a clown.” I immediately left the group, confounded by my immediate departure.
I met Blas every now and then at the lobby of the Manila Peninsula Hotel which became the watering place of politicians of all colors and persuasion. In one such occasion, I was seated with Ricardo “Carding” Silverio, the Toyota magnate who was one of the closest cronies of President Marcos, and Rene Espina, former governor of Cebu and senator of the realm. From out of nowhere, Blas surfaced and was beckoned by Rene to come to our table. Carding Silverio, who was a friend of Blas, kidded him about what took place in Malacñang since there were rumors in the papers that Blas was conferring with President Cory.
Carding, who was in a kidding mood, asked Blas, “What happened in Malacañang? What is the secret meeting all about?”
Blas, enraged by the suggestion that he got concessions from Malacañang, answered, “That is not a joking matter. I’ll pour this hot coffee over your head.”
I intervened and said, “What’s the matter with you? Carding is our friend and he is only kidding. As a matter of fact, Carding already ordered a bottle of wine so we can drink and enjoy. Sit down and relax.” Blas calmed down and we started drinking the wine, which Carding Silverio ordered.
Blas reacted in that manner because he was always sensitive about his integrity. Any suggestion of wrongdoing was anathema to him, especially if made in public, even if it was meant to be a joke by a friend. But if there is anything that could produce a calming effect in Blas, it is the suggestion that wine was coming.
The next time I heard about Blas was his conscription by the group of Cory Aquino to be a member of the Constitutional Commission, the group that was organized to draft the new Constitution to replace the 1973, known as the CONCOM. It was organized by an executive proclamation. This was legally valid since Cory had established a revolutionary government. Conceptually, a revolutionary government is the law and the leader is the lawgiver. Blas became one of the leading movers of the CONCOM.
When the Cory Constitution, drafted by the CONCOM, was submitted to the people for ratification, Blas was at the forefront of the campaign. Despite intense opposition to ratification, the Cory Constitution was ratified. This paved the way for the first elections since Cory assumed the presidency.
The Opposition fielded candidates from local to senatorial levels. It styled itself as the Grand Alliance for Democracy (GAD). Among the leading candidates of GAD were Blas Ople, former Minister of National Defense Johnny Ponce Enrile, former Sen. Arturo Tolentino, and former Press Secretary Kit Tatad.
The Opposition GAD had a star-studded ticket. The Cory candidates were virtually unknown on the national level except a few who had spurs in the national scene. But the boys of Cory manipulated the results of the election that resulted in the election of computerized senators by the computers of the Cory Aquino administration. Enrile had the documents and witnesses to prove it. But Blas Ople, Tolentino and Rene Espina, among a number of others, were computerized out of victory. It was the biggest dagdag-bawas (add-subtract) exercise in the history of Philippine elections.
Blas was a very serious person. He was always concerned with history and his role in it. In the course of the election campaign in the Cebuano speaking regions, Blas would always tell me before the rally started, “You know, Bon, you should be the last speaker in these rallies.”
“Why? That’s not fair. I will end up with a dwindling and sparse crowd,” I replied.
“You see, Bon, among all of us, you speak very fluent Cebuano and you are a rabble-rouser. If you speak ahead of us, we will have for an audience our security men, our drivers, our campaign staff and those assigned to tend to the lights and the sound system. That is even worse for all of us. If you speak last, the people will wait for you,” he said in his booming Marcosian voice with a faint smile.
I thought Blas was joking to lighten our spirits in the midst of a punishing campaign. But Blas hardly cracked jokes. In a few occasions that he did when I was around, he even looked serious. This time I thought he was not joking, so I willingly gave way to his request. Since most of my colleagues did not abide by the time limit – which was 10 minutes – I had to suffer in silence because of my generosity, thinking that the audience would really wait for me.
The audience did not wait. Even as the timekeeper intoned KISS – kept it short, stupid – as agreed by all of us, my companions droned on and on, especially if the applauses were thunderous. So at dawn I was left with drivers, security men, our sleepy staff and those in charge of the lights and the sound system. I did not mind as I was pleasing a friend – Blas.
Blas and I, including 12 others in our team, were not proclaimed even as the evidence given to Johnny Ponce Enrile showed that 12 of us in the ticket won conclusively. But only Enrile and Erap Estrada were proclaimed winners. It was the biggest dagdag bawas exercise in the history of Philippine elections – thanks to the computers of Cory Aquino. So the first senatorial elections after martial law resulted in the election of computerized senators.
It was after the proclamation of “winners” that the “losers” met at one of the function rooms of the prestigious watering place of the upper classes – the Polo Club. Blas, a Polo Club member, was our host. Blas was one of the earliest to arrive. I was at the side of the table that was nearest to Blas. With me were former Vice-Chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and founder Chairman of the Muslim Federal Party, Abul Khayr Alonto, and Francisco “Kit” Tatad, former Press Secretary of President Ferdinand E. Marcos and founder of the Socialist Party of the Philippines.
Kit and Abul were engaged in criticizing the Cory Constitution, heartily laughing in the process. Without our notice, Blas was listening. All of a sudden Blas stood up, told Kit and Abul, “Gentlemen, the Constitution is not a laughing matter.” Then he left in a huff. Kit and Abul were quite surprised because they knew that Blas was an intense advocate of free speech. But I knew that Blas was one of the top exponents of the Cory Constitution because of his role in the formulation of the document as one of the leading members of the Constitutional Commission and he was highly sensitive to any criticism of the document.
His sensitivity gave us a problem. None of us in the function room was a member of the Polo Club and payment for the food consumed could only be paid by a member. So I left to look for Blas. Outside the function room was seated in a corner one of the boys of Blas and I asked him where was Blas. He told me Blas had already gone to his office but he left word to him to pay for our breakfast. The group felt relieved and told each other not to criticize the Cory Constitution when Blas is around.
Tales about Blas
There are stories told me about Blas which are worth repeating to people. The first is that of an incident when Blas was a guest as Minister of Labor of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in Moscow. A dinner was tendered in his honor by the Ministry of Labor of the USSR. When it was his turn to speak, he spoke in impeccable Tagalog familiar only to Blas and Bulakeño Tagalistas. His interpreter in English was then Philippine Ambassador to the USSR, former President of the University of the Philippines Salvador P. Lopez (SP). Blas lambasted the Minister of Labor of the USSR. To Blas’ surprise, the audience, composed of USSR dignitaries, was applauding him. So Blas started listening to SP’s translation and he discovered that SP was telling the audience the exact opposite of Blas’ speech.
Irritated, Blas told SP in Tagalog that he better interpret him correctly, otherwise he would finish his tirade in English. SP appealed to Blas to finish his speech as there might be a serious diplomatic incident amounting to a scandal. Blas must have realized that his speech was not proper behavior for a guest of government. So Blas and SP left for their hotel.
When they arrived at Blas’ suite in Hotel Ukraina, one of the best hotels in Moscow in those days, Blas realized that he committed an inexcusable error, he opened the window and made an attempt to go over the ledge. SP, thinking that Blas would attempt to commit suicide, grabbed Blas and both of them fell on the floor, with SP immediately telling Blas never to do that as that would embarrass the whole Philippine government.
Blas, who was tipsy and wobbly, stood up and told SP, “What are you trying to suggest, that I will commit suicide? You must be kidding. I love life more than all of you combined.” And they both ended up laughing.
The other story is the one told me by Chino Roces of the famous Roces family, owner of The Manila Times, the most prestigious independent Manila daily before martial law. We were having a meeting at a pad in Ermita, Manila, among friends when our faith in President Cory Aquino started to wane.
“You know this fellow Blas Ople is a funny man,” Chino told us. Among those in the group was Chino and my friend, TIME correspondent, Tausog Nelly Sindayen.
“Why?” Nelly asked Chino, curious because she was a friend of Blas.
“You know when Blas was still writing for us in the Manila Times and Sunday Times, we were together in the elevator of the Manila Times Building on our way to our offices,” Chino replied,
“What’s so funny about being in an elevator with Blas?” Nelly asked Chino again.
“This is what exactly happened. As soon as the elevator door closed, Blas asked me, ‘Do you know me?’ I answered in the negative, pretending not to know him. Then Blas continued, ‘I am Blas Ople, the favorite and the best writer of the Roces family.’ I replied saying, ‘It is a great pleasure to know you, sir.’ Blas, possibly flattered by my reply, asked me, ‘What’s your name?’ Meekly, I replied as the door of the elevator was opening, ‘I am Chino Roces, sir.’ I left Blas in the elevator unable to say another word.”
The group that evening almost died laughing at the incident. Then Nelly commented, “That’s Blas, alright.”
I was not able to attend his wake and burial. I am sure he would not have minded, considering he was not interested in rituals. But I miss him – the exemplary member of the Marcos Cabinet, the scholar, the raconteur, the writer who was a class by himself, and the ebullient and intense nationalist. That’s Blas Ople to you – my friend.