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In this corner: Lacson, May 11, 1957

In this corner: Lacson

By Quijano de Manila

May 11, 1957–THE belief that the late President Magsaysay started the strenous style in Philipine politics is more affectionate than accurate, for long before the guy attracted notice, another, younger fellow was already startling the nation with his loud shirts and louder mouth his high leaps and fast pace, and his general air of roughness, toughness, youthfulness and vitality.

To post-liberation voters, Arsenio Lacson of Talisay, Negros Occidental, seemed completely new kind of politician, a brute wind hurtling through a wasteland of old men. Quezon had fixed the type of the old-style politico, who was elegant, eloquent and imperious—and a rather jaded man of the world. Politics, before the war, created the only real aristocracy, in the country; the Commonwealth was purely a governmetn by cronies: the affairs of the nation wer in the hands of an elite whose members also laid down the law in fashion and manners. When Quezon combined a white silk suit with a dark-blue shirt and a pastel tie, he launched a style that became almost a uniform throughout the country in the late 1930’s. when his cabinet members took up the tango, every social-climber started dipping and sliding in the Argentine manner. The so-called stability of the prewar world was based on this feudal admiration that the country had for its leaders as rare beings set apart by talent and breeding and ability to direct the destinies of people of lesser clay. A phenomenon like Magsaysay would have been impossible during the Quezon era; everybody would have noted uneasily that he just didn’t “belong,” for the old political aristocrats valued gentility almost as much as they did money.

Government in the grand manner tried a comeback after the war—but the authority had vanished with Quezon and suave manners no longer awed the commonalty. Mr. Osmeña had valid reasons for not campaigning  for re-election; besides, begging for votes smacked of the vulgar. His wife gauged the postwar temper more accurately. Mr. Roxas was of the true Quezonian stamp—courtly and polished and vaguely jaded – but when he attempted Quezon’s grand manner he was rudely rapped by the rowdy new age in the person of Arsenio Lacson.

Lacson symbolized the postwar world almost too perfectly: he was not only a newspaperman and a columnist, he was also a radio commentator. He looked and talked like a stevedore; he was a gaudy dresser; and he didn’t dance the tango. He had no respect for political parties and no great liking for Americans—and he said so, in his newspaper column and over radio. When President Roxas barred him from the air on October 4, 1947, Lacson became the first popular idol of the postwar era. It became inevitable that he would enter politics. A generation that disliked everything old had found a voice.

Lacson was youth itself – noisy and brash and violent. Legends sprang up about his virility and sexual prowess until he became identified in the popular mind with the traveling saleman of every stag story. His physical courage has been equally blazoned. A famous instance is the incident on Pier 7 in 1948, when college students jeering a departing group of senatorial junketeers were threatened with shooting by the senators’ bodyguards. Lacson, then still a newspaperman, strode right up to the drawn pistols, shoved them away with a sweep of his hand, and ordered the students to resume their derisive despedida.

A man among men

From those wild early days when “Lacson stories” were the chief laughing matter of the nation, he has displayed what is known as “the common touch.” He is no folksy man of the masses but one look at him and the man on the street knows that here is a fellow he can talk to with his mental fly unbottoned. It’s a Manila joke that the Tondo goons respect only two beings in this world—Mayor Lacson and the Señor of Quiapo. Lacson has sedulously cultivated the Yahoo manner, the siga-siga style, but one suspects that the bristles on the surface do not go all the way down; for this guy with a pug’s battered nose comes from a “good” family and went to the right schools; this character who talks like a stevedore is a literate, even a literary, man; and this toughie who has often been accused of being too chummy with the underworld belonged to the most “idealistic” of the wartime underground groups: the Free Philippines. One realizes how much our violent times have shaped him into their young face in the old photographs—a gentle, almost ethereal face, quite good-looking, and with a fine lordly nose.

As a candidate—first for Congress and then for the mayoralty of Manila – he manifested the same kind of spontaneity and exuberance with which Mr. Magsaysay was later to bowl us all over. When he won the nomination for the congressional post, he leapt from the floor to the stage and acknowledged the plaudits of the delegates in boxer style – hands locked above his head. As a campaigner, he abolished the era of eloquence and instituted the person-to-person approach, leaping down from the granstand, after having introduced himself, to mingle and make merry with the crowd. Even the barrio-to-barrio strategy had already been anticipated, somewhat cynically, by Lacson with his bar-to-bar campaign tour to Tondo – where, as any Manila policeman will tell you, the distance between any two bars is at least as perilous as the distance between two barrios in the more alarming provinces.

Public office was not to mellow the young Terror from Talisay. His friends say that the enemies at whom he sticks out his tongue perish completely from popular esteem, so fatal is the Lacson venom, and they cite such fearful examples as Valeriano Fugoso, Manuel de la Fuente and Elpidio Quirino. The Quirino-Lacson feud forms one of the most entertaining chapters of our political history and it was climaxed by Lacson’s suspension as mayor of Manila—a “martyrdom” as profitable for Lacson as his 1947 suspension from the air by President Roxas. On both occasions, Lacson found popular opinion, both side and against the President of the Republic. (In 1947, one of his defenders was famed columnist Walter Winchell, who assailed Harold Ickes, then U.S. secretary of the interior, for defending the Roxas ban.) Lacson’s popularity, in fact, disproves the Dale Carnegie rule; he wins friends by making enemies.

Relegated to the background during the Magsaysay era, Lacson has come back with a bang into the center of the limelight: he has announced that he is joining the scrimmage for the presidency. He says he made this decision even before Magsaysay died and that he did the deciding while he was in the hospital for a sinusitis operation.

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