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Diosdado Macapagal: Man of the Year, January 6, 1962

MAN OF THE YEAR

January 6, 1962

by  NAPOLEON G. RAMA

MACAPAGAL’S “LOVE AFFAIR’ WITH THE POOR ENDS IN MALACAÑANG

HE has been called a colorless politician and a vote-getter, a weakling and a dictator, a demagogue and a crusader, a poor man and a snob, a compulsive puppet and a patriot, simple-minded and shrewd.

That so many so actively disagree on what manner of a man is Diosdado Pangan Macapagal points up the fact that the new President is little known and widely misunderstood. Despite his long years of public service, he cares little for publicity and public relations. He is as old-fashioned as the way his hair is parted — in the middle — which was a fad in the 1930s.

Whether or not President Macapagal possesses the conflicting characteristics attributed to him by friend and foe, he is admittedly an unorthodox politician.

Many times he was a bore on the campaign platform, mouthing all the cliches in the book, except “Friends, Roman, countrymen. . . .” And yet on election day he dismantled one of the mightiest political machines in the postwar era. If he didn’t capture his audiences on the town plaza, he corralled the votes at the polling places.

In Congress he sometimes failed to display moral courage or take a clear cut stand on some controversial and politically explosive bills. But within the confines of his own party, he is Big Daddy; he alone makes all the big decisions. He would not allow his  to choose for him his candidates for senator — or recently his appointees to the Cabinet. This right he reserved for himself.

His main and monotonous theme during the campaign was that he was a poor man. He knew abysmal poverty, he said, and therefore understood the plight of the common man. He was the common tao’s authentic champion. His use of the poor-man theme verged on demagoguery. And yet, none had crusaded as fervently as he for a change of moral and political values. There is a ring of sincerity in his campaign for a better life for the people and a better government for the country.

No one in our history has risen so high in the government service from so humble beginning. His father, a poet and a peasant who lived in a leaky shack on a lot that didn’t belong to him, could hardly feed him. To this day he does not own a house or a lot. He has stuck to simple living. The fare on the Macapagal dinning table is frugal. His polo shirts  (short sleeved) are at least one year old; his long-sleeved polos are of 1957 vintage. It is not hard to catch his wife, Evangeline, puttering about the house in faded duster. His San Juan residence belongs to his wife’s family.

And yet Spanish is the language in his household and often during the campaign he entertained at his friends plush homes in Forbes Park. he is a poor man, say his friends; he is only a status-seeker, say his critics.

He has a strong admiration for America and welcomes American aid and protection against Communist aggression. Oftentimes he was overly fervent in stating his stand for Free Worldism. He wanted the Filipinos to stand up and be counted when it was fashionable to be neutral and safe. On foreign affairs, some say, he sounds like a puppet. Others say he is for what is best for the country.

He can be both naive and shrewd. Some of his utterances while abroad made even his ardent admirers wince and left his political leaders wretched with embarrassment. After Macapagal’s performance abroad, as reported by the press, President Garcia thought him a silly man.

His insistence on stressing the poor-boy campaign theme even before the sophisticated voters of Manila was regarded by many as the height of naiveté and simple-mindedness.

Up to the day before the LP convention, President Garcia, bothered by the 1959 election reverses, harassed by widespread criticism against his administration and worried over his recent heart attack, was still vacillating on whether he should seek re-election or not. But when the LP convention declared Macapagal the LP standard-bearer instead of Senator Marcos. President Garcia decided to run for re-election. He thought Macapagal was a pushover, and Marcos a much stronger and shrewder candidate. If Marcos had won the LP nomination, said one of Garcia’s closest lieutenants, the President would have chosen to retire from politics.

But there, too, are a great number of people who regard Macapagal as one of the shrewdest politicos of our time. Almost single-handed and without funds he resembled a despised party that had been discredited and dismembered. He wooed and won the opposition groups — the Grand Alliance men, Mayor Arsenio Lacson and on election eve, Rogelio de la Rosa—all political prima donnas. By sheer political craftsmanship, he forced his strongest rival within the party, Senator Ferdinand Marcos, to capitulate and endorse him at the start of the LP convention. And throughout the campaign, he tool all these political virtuosos in tow without any one of them giving him any trouble or disputing his leadership. By campaigning for four years in almost every town and barrio of the known NP bailiwicks, he pulled the rug from under President Garcia on election day.

Outside of those who have been in contact with Macapagal, few really know the man. Until now he is still a nebulous public figure who, despite his years in public life, has left no clear-cut imprint of his personality. For sure, he does not have the effervescence of President Quezon nor the charisma of President Magsaysay.

So uncertain were the people of his true image that when the black propagandists mounted their operations, they came close to spoiling his four years of campaigning and personal appearances. In the first of months of Operation Torpedo, Macapagal himself fretfully admitted that it was the biggest threat to his candidacy. He had to rely on Mayor Lacson and step up his campaign tempo to counteract the black propaganda which held him up as a bungler, a murderer, a puppet, an enemy of the common man and a status-seeker disguised as a peasant’s son.

Indeed, even many intellectuals, believing they had uncovered his true nature, scornfully denounced him during the campaign as a demagogue, a simpleton, or, at best, a fake. The pundits, for all their sensitive political antennae, declared him a weak candidate and a sure loser. “Macapagal let the pundits down by winning,” quipped a columnist in an election postmortem.

Macapagal, the man and the politician, is clearly as complex as the latest IBM machine. There are many facets to his character and only those who are close to him or who have had the patience and opportunity to study his private and public life can assess him with some degree of fairness and accuracy.

There are, however, three facts about which there is little dispute: One, Macapagal has been a scrupulously honest government official; two, his was one of the poorest families in Pampanga; and three, he has not enriched himself while in public office, despite the fact that he was a bigwig in the old LP administration at the apogee of its power.

These facts should give us an insight into the nature of the man. They testify to his strength of character.

During the entire campaign, the high-paid professional researchers of the NP turned upside down all records of his public life but they couldn’t find so much as a breath of scandal linked to his name. Neither could they find a piece of land nor house owned by him. He is the first president of the Philippines who is homeless and landless.

It was the poverty of his parents and the suffering that he endured during his youth that endowed him with a sense of mission, tremendous drive and a consuming ambition to be president.

This is the little-known fact about Macapagal: he had made a career of preparing himself for the presidency. Few men in our generation have set their sights on the presidency as intently as had Macapagal — and did something about it.

No president had schooled and disciplined himself for the big job as deliberately and conscientiously. He didn’t mind telling his friends that he forced himself, even after he became a congressman, to go back to school to earn doctorates in economics and in law precisely to prepare himself for the presidential task. To fill the job with competence, he believed, one must be highly skilled in economics as well as law, for the big problems of the country are economic in nature.

Since his school days, recalled a classmate, Macapagal acted as if one day he would be the chief of state. “I will be president some day,” he confided to a close friend, “I can feel it in my bones.”

To his friends his ardent ambition was a fantastic dream. To his enemies this unbridled aspiration made him a dangerous man. His close associates swear that Macapagal’s relentless drive to the presidency was free from the taint of greed for naked power or money. His upright public life and his frugal living, they point out, are ample evidence that he is not saddled with such debauching motives. Back of his presidential ambition is his sense of mission, if you will, a messianic ardor to give the millions of poor in the country a better life, to chart the country’s path to progress and greatness, Because he knew abject poverty, he feels very strongly about redeeming those in the grip of want. He feels that in the presidency he will find such power and authority. This ambition drove him as a young man to Manila to take up law, to excel in his classes, to top the bar examinations.

First Big Break

In pursuit of his big dream, no odds appeared unconquerable to him, even his own wretched poverty. He took all kinds of jobs, including that of writing letters for the unlettered for a paltry compensation, to enable him to finance his studies. After two years in college, his health broke—from under nourishment! He was too poor to support himself and his education at the same time. For two long, disconsolate years he was out of school trying to mend his health and save up for the next school year.

Then his first big break in life came. Don Honorio Ventura, then secretary of the interior, an authentic patriot and philanthropist, took him along with other promising young men, under his wing. He financed his law studies. Now dead, Don Honorio belonged to the noble breed of wealthy Filipino ilustrado of prewar days, now an almost extinct tribe that has been, alas, replaced by a new group of insensitive Filipino multimillionaires who would sooner exploit than help their fellow Filipinos.

There is no way of knowing or understanding Macapagal — his outlook in life, motivation, ideals and political doctrine — without knowing exactly what kind of poverty he endured in youth. His own personal combat with poverty was to color his philosophy in later years and shape his behavior in life.

This seems to be the explanation why, against the advice of his closest friends, he never tires of telling the story of the poor boy from Lubao at the drop of a hat. His experience with poverty has become the source from which he draws inspiration, courage, determination.

He is apt to grow sentimental when he recalls his youth. “I belonged to one of the poorest and most wretched families in Pampanga,” he told an audience in Iloilo. “In my boyhood, I often knew hunger. I remember when we children would ask mother for food at noontime. Instead of feeding us, she would make us go to sleep so that we would make us go to sleep so that we would not feel our hunger while she went out from neighbor to neighbor, from relative to relative, asking for a handful of rice. Many times we would have our lunch at four or five in the afternoon, after mother had gathered rice for us.

“I remember when as a boy I used to play by myself along the rugged road of our barrio, wearing torn and shabby clothes, so pauperish in appearance that I could not play with the sons of the rich in the neighborhood. I didn’t even dare to approach the fences of their tall and big houses.

“As a boy and a young man I knew what it was to live in a nipa shack. When a heavy rain fell at night, the roof leaked. We moved our tattered mat from one sot to another for a dry place on the bamboo floor. But soon there was no dry spot left and we could not sleep the rest of the night.

“I remember as a young student in Manila when I walked daily three kilometers back and forth from the slums of Tondo where I lived to the state university. When it rained at the close of classes in the evening, I would wait for the rain to stop, because I didn’t have money for fare. Many times I had to wait until midnight and walk home, starved and sleepy. I dreamed of a better life for me and for all the poor children of countless miserable families in our country.

“I plead the cause of the common man because I am a common man. I suffered to acquire an education in the manner of a man bearing a heavy cross up a hill. . .with eyes riveted on an ideal radiant on the hilltop. Having acquired an education I could have escaped the rugged life of the poor, leaving it behind me forever like a nightmare, but I chose the status of a common man where I could continue to struggle. . . .

“Deep in my heart I know that for me there can never be a sense of redemption from poverty while countless countrymen live in the misery that was my lot as a child and as a youth. I shall feel released from the shackles of the poor man’s life only when the masses of our people shall have cast aside the chains of poverty and found a decent living for themselves and their children.”

This was the main burden of his message to the people during the entire campaign.

To many the message was much too melodramatic, too mushy, to be taken seriously. It was said during a campaign by a politician seeking a public office. Both his motive and sincerity were suspect. But he is a breed apart — all who know him intimately swear to this. He apparently meant every word he said in that message.

Thus, it was no surprise that soon after he won the election he announced that his top priority program would be a crash project designed to push down and stabilize the price of rice and create job opportunities for many.

Brightest Virtue

Sincerity, according to Senator Raul Manglapus, is the brightest of Macapagal’s virtues. Take, for instance, his promise to the Batanes people—that he would visit them. There are only a few thousand voters in Batanes. On the scheduled day of his visit, the sea was rough. The motorboat captain told him it would be a dangerous voyage. His lieutenants pleaded with him not to take the risk. Macapagal was unmoved. He had promised the Batanes people and he would make good his word. Half way to Batanes, the motorboat was getting out of control; the captain ordered it back.

Undaunted, Macapagal wired some friends in Manila to send a plane. He took off for Batanes the very next day. He fulfilled his promise. But it almost cost him his life for the plane, buffeted by rough winds, developed engine trouble. It limped back to an airport in northern Luzon.

Those who didn’t know Macapagal were baffled by his behavior. Those who have been close to Macapagal were not surprised.

Many dismiss Macapagal’s pledge to renounce a second term as empty political talk. But the men who know him — and some of them are seasoned politicos—entertain no doubt that Macapagal will keep his pledge.

In an interview with Macapagal, the FREE PRESS pointed out the dilemma he would have to face just before his four-year term is up: The problems of the country are tremendous. A four-year term is too short for his administration to solve the problems or complete his program. Thus, wouldn’t he be forced to seek another term to enable him to finish his program? On the other hand, if his administration achieved a great deal during his term or completed its program, wouldn’t the people themselves insist that he serve another term in office?

Macapagal replied that he realized that his administration’s program would not be fully implemented in four years. He would not solve all the problems in so short a period.

It would be achievement enough for him, he said, if he could divert the ship of state from its present disastrous direction and put it on the right path toward progress and greatness.” I am concerned with moral and political values in not seeking re-election. I would like to set an example for those who come after me. I don’t believe in re-election for a president. It is a curse on the presidency. I would like to show everyone that a Filipino president has enough self-abnegation to refuse a second term.”

The new President believes that it is hard for a president who seeks second term to keep faith with the people and the public…

… He has pulled many surprises in the last elections. But the biggest surprise that he has in store for his critics is yet to come. He intends to give the country the best administration it has ever had. he aims to be the best president the Philippines has ever had. He has the courage, vision and patriotism to fulfill his plans.

The new President once told the FREE PRESS:

“I will work myself to the bone to give the country a good government and the people a new life and new values. I will fulfill my promises. I don’t care if I have to work 24 hours a day. I don’t care if at the end of my term I leave the presidency a broken man, an invalid. My only happiness will be the thought that I have done what I could to make my country great and my fellow countrymen prosperous and happy.”

Diosdado Pangan Macapagal, the new President, has a book entitled The Common Man, a compilation of his speeches, his program of government and his philosophy in life. He picked the title himself. He hopes to be remembered as the common man who became president.

The FREE PRESS’ Man of the Year —he had previously earned the title in 1957 — proved himself a dedicated and resourceful campaigner in giving the entrenched and corrupt NP administration the licking of its life. He may or may not prove a great president, but one thing is certain: He was the most uncommon man of the year 1961.