Kit and Larry: The boys in the back room
By Quijano de Manila
July 1970–THE boys in the back room will have been there a year come August and they’re moving towards their first anniversary amid distressing rumors that the first shall be the last.
The back room is the Malacañang Press Office and the boys supposedly besieged there are Kit and Larry—or, to give them their official titles, Press Secretary Francisco Tatad and Assistant Press Secretary Lorenzo Cruz. From their back room come the Palace bulletins on what’s happening in the front room, for their job is to report on the President, as well as hand out the chronicles on the Palace gathered for the front page. Their other job is to act as liaison between the press and the President.
How well have they been doing their twin job?
There is said to be some dissatisfaction with the President’s image these days and, of course, the Press Office gets part of the blame. Discontent with its work has been read into two recent happenings: the removal of the press secretary from the cabinet, and the appearance of Government Report as the publicizer of the executive office.
On the other hand, the newsmen whose regular beat is the Palace are also said to be not quite happy about how the Press Office facilitates their coverage and this has led to a guessing game on who among possible replacements could work more harmoniously with the press. Until recently, the name of Sweepstakes Chairman Nereo Andolong was most loudly dropped—but it now seems to have been dropped for good. No new names have cropped up; the names that plague the back room are mostly of old grudges spreading scareheads.
Last month, an interviewer even told Larry Cruz the exact date on which the Press Office to be revamped: June 23. The day has come and gone, but Kit and Larry are still in the back room. Nevertheless, there are people who go on insisting that a “big revamp” there is in the offing.
“It seems they are more sure about that,” smiles Larry, than the President. I think only the President knows when we are to be booted out, or if he wants to. I don’t think he wants a revamp. As far as I know there are no plans to revamp the Press Office. We have not had any inkling at all.”
As Larry sees it, the current intrigues are not news; they are merely the sequels of the power struggles that erupted last year when the ten press secretary, Joe Aspiras, decided to run for Congress and a number of people began jostling for the position about to be vacated. Since the contenders were veteran newsmen, the selection of so young an unknown as Kit Tatad—prematurely announced in Joe Guevara’s column—could not but arouse antagonism. The vets had been passed up for a little pup of an “interloper.” Larry Cruz happened to come on Tatad at the MOPC at around this time and he asked Kit if he really had been offered the Press Office. Kit Tatad said yes, but he had not yet accepted. And if he should accept, would Larry be willing to join him as assistant press secretary? It was Larry’s turn to flip. Kit was compounding his chief crime: he was only 28 and he would take on as assistant secretary somebody who was only 27! Together, Kit and Larry as the boys in the back room would be the Children’s Hour in the Great Again Society.
Not that Larry Cruz was a greenhorn, whether as deadline byliner or as political drumbeater. His father is the Daily Mirror editor and from college (FEU, liberal arts, unfinished) Larry had passed to the news desk of DZMT, later became news director of Channel 5. In 1961, during the last months of the presidential campaign, he worked briefly for the NP propaganda. “I had a very minor role preparing radio news; it was merely a technical job. When Garcia lost, we disbanded. We went to the office one morning and fount it abandoned: no more air-conditioners, no more typewriters.” Larry moved on to the news directorship of the Herald radio station, then to an associate editorship on the Graphic. In 1965 he became the Manila bureau director for Asia Magazine. After the 1965 campaign, Larry was introduced to Blas Ople, who was scouting for talent. “It was Blas Ople who actually ran the 1965 campaign; his was the strategy group. It was so effective the President decided to retain it. Blas got a bigger office, a bigger staff, and he was doing all the speeches of the President, major and minor. Actually his writers’ group was a technical service—Blas Ople & Associates—but after the 1965 campaign they had only one client: the President. And Blas Ople said to me: ‘Why don’t you join us? So I joined him on a part-time basis. In the 1967 campaign I was backstopping for Ariel Bocobo, who was NP spokesman. Just before the 1969 campaign I thought of resigning from Asia Magazine and I told Blas I could work full time for him. So I was deeply involved in the 1969 campaign.”
Larry had married young, in his teens (he’s the father of four), but the need for security was out-itched by a liking for new horizons. The Blas Ople group was such a frontier; now, in mid-campaign, Kit Tatad offered another.
Kit and Larry had known each other since the time they had covered the foreign office for their respective news agencies. A pioneer campus reb, Kit Tatad had left the UST without graduating, went to work for Agence France, then shifted to the Manila Daily Bulletin, where he became a columnist. Something he wrote attacking Kokoy Romualdez brought him to Kokoy’s attention. ’Tis said that Kokoy had known the young man only a few months when he proposed Tatad for the press secretaryship.
The move to revamp the Press Office, to gear it to the campaign, started in the summer of ’69. Joe Aspiras was still nominally the press secretary, but it was his assistant, Jake Clave, who was doing the work. Aspiras would have liked Jake to succeed him as press secretary—which would have meant that Johnny Tuvera, the “brain trust” of this group, the Ilocano bloc, would have been the assistant press secretary. Unfortunately, Jake Clave was not acceptable to the Waray bloc, which opined that “si Jake masipag, pero ang estilo niya nagsisilbe ng café.” The complaint was that no new ideas were coming from the Press Office; a new-idea man would have to be put there, preferably a young man with imagination.
Andolong clearly wanted the position, other names in the running were newsmen Johnny Perez and Gene Marcial. Then out of the blue dropped the name of Kit Tatad—and his backer was the Waray bloc. This almost united the other contenders in an effort to stop the “interloper” and “upstart.” Then Joe Guevara jumped the gun by revealing that Kit had already been offered the position.
“That was,” relates Larry Cruz, “when we met at the MOPC and I asked Kit how true was the rumor. He said: ‘It’s true. The President had me called to the Palace and he told me they were thinking of asking me to become press secretary and would I accept. I told him I felt very flattered and would consider the job a challenge. But first, I would have to talk to my publisher (Hans Menzi of the Bulletin).’ But before Kit could do that, the news came out in Joe Guevara’s column and Menzi was mad. Kit had to resign at once from the Bulletin.
“Then he found himself in a very embarrassing position, jobless for about two months. Andolong was campaigning hard to get the Press Office. So, nabitin ang appointment ni Kit.
“At that time I was working full time with Blas on propaganda. I was editing a magazine and a tabloid. Kit said: if he got the appointment, would I come in as assistant secretary. I told him the President didn’t know me; I did not know how the President felt about me. But Kit said: “Sigue na, if I take the job I would like to have somebody I can work with.’ We had worked together, we went around together. I read him, he reads me. We have the same likes and dislikes. I told him I would have to talk with Blas Ople.
“I explained the situation to Blas around June. ‘Blas,’ I said, ‘Kit is in a dilemma because he was offered his job, nabibitin, and he would not like to work with Gene Marcial [then rumored as a possible assistant press secretary], so there’s a problem. Blas said: ‘Let’s work for you.’ Afterwards, Kit asked Blas: ‘What about Gene Marcia?’ Gene Marcial was close to Kokoy but it was Kokoy who had named Kit for the Press Office. Then it was intended that Gene would take over at the Graphic when Luis Mauricio became NP spokesman. But when Mauricio was named the party spokesman he didn’t resign from the Graphic, he just went on leave. So, Gene Marcial was out again. According to the talk, he was so disgusted he had this rift with Kokoy and then he joined Osmeña.”
Meanwhile, in mid-campaign, he Press Office was becoming demoralized because the question of he secretaryship was still up in the air. Since the anti-Kit forces would not yield, a dark horse was sought.
“Blas Ople talked it over with the President on the telephone: ‘How about Johnny Gatbonton?’ [Gatbonton is the ex-editor of Asia Magazine.] Said the President: ‘Sound him out.’ So Blas called up Johnny, who was in Hong Kong, and Johnny turned it down flat. Then somebody said: ‘Why don’t we try Chitang?’ But Carmen Guerrero Nakpil said: ‘I don’t think I’m cut out for that kind of job.’ So, Kit na. Blas told the President: ‘Mr. President, you have to decide one way or the other soon.’ And the President asked Blas: ‘Whom do you support?’ And Blas said: ‘Kit, because we know how he works and we read him and he’s not so bad.’
“That meeting was in the morning. That afternoon I went to the movies and didn’t come home till ten in the evening. I found an order to report to the Palace at four the next afternoon to take my oath. Kit and I had already been appointed. We came in on August 16.
“What Jake Clave can’t forget is what Kit said in an interview just before his appointment. Kit said he wanted to invest the Press Office with a new style, a new image. Jake Clave said to Johnny Tuvera: ‘Tang na! What style and what image!’ They have not yet forgiven Kit. Terrific ang intrigue, which lasts up to now.”
The back room the boys took over in August of last year had been in crisis for two months and they waded into chaos.
“We were lost,” shrugs Larry. “We didn’t know how things were. Clave stayed just long enough to give me the key to his drawer ad brief us, but we found out later that there were so many things he failed to tell us. So, for the next three months we were groping. But the important thing was to get the stories across; the problem was how to handle the newsmen.”
Setting the back room in order had to wait while Kit and Larry concentrated on the task at hand: to report on the President’s campaign and to help the press cover it.
“The press was sounded out before our appointment and they had no objections to Kit. They had objections to Andolong and they still have up to now. The impression he tries to create is that he’s financing the radio commentators—and newsmen will be just as well off once he is press secretary.”
The appeasement of Andolong was to cost the Press Office some prestige and funds.
“Andolong was told: ‘Nering, paciencia ka na muna; we have a commitment to Kit.’ So there was this compromise. Inalis sa amin ang National Media. Before, the National Media was under the supervision of the Press Office. Its funds were taken away from us, they did not trust us with the money. So it’s now under the Office of the President. Aspiras, since he’s a favorite there, was the only one who really controlled it—which means Clave and Tuvera also, since they are with Aspiras; and the money was used during the campaign. You see, there’s inter-action.
“As Andolong told me, Kit was to be given pen and paper, no money. Anyway, Kit and I were glad that campaign funds were not to come from us. We would have, not money, but talagang press work, and that’s what we consider the challenge. Nering was in charge of the provincial press and the radio. Jake financing and Blas was in charge of special projects, of which we were a part. But Blas had to account for all our expenses—for example, if we ordered a thousand Imelda pictures. In other words, malinis ang pasok namin, clean slate.”
No extra funds, aside from its own budget, were transferred to the Press Office?
“A little, but not a fraction of what Aspiras and Clave had. We only got that little extra when we went out on campaign trips—say, five thousand for one week’s expenses.”
The expenses were bedding and boarding the newsmen who went along on the trip—and here Kit and Larry learned of a sly practice of the Press Office, the same practice exposed by Kerima Polotan in a recent article. Besides the legitimate bed and board while on the road, he newsmen might be treated to a night on the town and provided with the usual entertainment—but the Press Office kept an account of each newsman’s special entertainment: what it was and how much it cost.
“Why should you take a fellow out, say, to a night club and then keep his chit to use against him later on? That is foul. But it was the practice before. Kerima was not talking about us, she was talking above Clave. It was Clave who kept the chits. So, everyone is attacking the Press Office for doing such a thing.”
Another thing the new back-room boys learned was that certain newsmen who went along on a trip received a “baon” from the Press Office.
“When we came in, that was the system. On every trip the newsmen were given an allowance of a hundred pesos a day; so for five days that’s five hundred. We asked: Is that necessary; shouldn’t we try to remove a system like that? But it was accepted fact, inherited practice, and we could not change it during the campaign. That wasn’t possible then, but certainly we chose the people na bibigyan. They expected it, no longer as a bribe, but as part of the standard operating procedure.
“Then we discovered that, apart from these regular dole-outs, some newsmen were getting five hundred pesos a month from the Press Office. After the campaign we said: ‘Ihinto na ’yan at masama; dapat ma-stop.’ No more of these news photographers who, when they take a picture, tumataga. No more libre this and libre that. They don’t look on it as bribes any more but as our duty to them.
“We have stopped the regular dole-outs. Now when we go on a trip, our fund is very small, only for transportation, board and lodging. Night clubs, all right we take them out. I don’t want them to feel that nagmamalaki o nagmamalinis kami, no. When we are out in the provinces, we live together, we sleep in the same room, it’s my job to be with them.”
Though the new arrangement has caused gripes, Larry feels he can stomach the gripes better than he could stomach the system he inherited and had to continue during the campaign.
“That’s what we didn’t like about the job at first: to be party to corruption. That’s why we said: After the campaign, wala na, clean slate.”
The first year of Marcos II has, however, turned out to be more grueling than the campaign. Young, mod, restive, unconventional, and supposedly liberal and progressive of ideas, Kit and Larry were both to find themselves, during the demos, on the wrong side of the generation gap, an anomaly made flagrant by the kind of hair and habiliments the press secretary affects. The boys in the back room look as if they belonged behind the barricades instead.
“People who know us,” says Larry, “ask how we can take it—but they don’t know the situation from inside. We do. We know the President is not fascistic, definitely not. Pinagmumura si General Raval; pag ang military ay nagexcess, pinapatawag—but that’s not printed. We know what his instructions were on the students, on the activists: no shooting. When some students were killed, talagang masama ang loob namin, but these were individual actions. We knew what the President’s instructions were. So, no quarrel. The students say he is a fascist; we don’t think that the people are saying he is. The students make a mistake in thinking that their minority opinion is the majority opinion. I think the President has been held back a bit in his progressive policies (like trade with the socialist bloc) because of the troubles. He has to stop the anarchy that’s threatening the country and this can’t be done with wishy-washy stands. So I think he can’t help but abandon his liberal policies to firm up against the Communists.”
And against the Now Generation.
Would this explain the removal of The Hair from the cabinet?
“Two months before the actual de-cabinetization, Kit was told about it. The President called him and said: ‘There’s a move to reduce the cabinet.’ There were originally twelve cabinet positions created by law. In Magsaysay’s time, because then Press Secretary J.V. Cruz was so good at press releases, a cabinet position was created for him by executive order. Then, one cabinet position after another was created. President Marcos elevated some offices to cabinet rank, like the PACD, the SWA, the Panamin. One reason was to give them emphasis; another reason was political. For example, the PACD and the Panamin, if they’re not of cabinet rank, they could engage in politics; if they are of cabinet rank, they have to work in earnest.”
But the result was a swollen cabinet: 27 positions. After the elections the attacks began. Could a cabinet position be created by executive order? And there was pressure on the Palace to return the cabinet to the original size defined by law.
“The President asked Kit: ‘How do you feel about it?’ This was around February. Said Kit: ‘The rank is not important, Mr. President, except as it affects our operations. For instance, if we want other government offices to help us in disseminating information, we can summon the necessary people because we have cabinet rank.’ So, Kit submitted a position paper on why the press secretary should be retained on the cabinet. The President read it and said: ‘Okay, you stay.’ The original plan was to remove from the cabinet only those positions created during the campaign—and the Press Office was not one of them. But Maceda wanted us to be decabinetized. He had started this long before the attacks on the cabinet as a whole. He was singling out the Press Office.”
Why was then Executive Secretary Ernesto Maceda so hostile to the Press Office?
“Maceda wanted to be all powerful,” replies Larry. “He wanted to control everything under the executive department. Can you imagine an executive secretary going over the overtime operations of another office? One day he returned some overtime statements we had sent for his approval. Imagine an executive secretary writing our administrative officer to say: ‘Do you mean to tell me that all these people actually rendered overtime on holidays like Christmas and New Year? I can’t believe such patriotism. They should be given the Pro-Patria Award!’ But our office is manned 24 hours a day, even on Saturdays and Sundays. Of course, because walang hinto ang balita. It’s just like a newspaper office or a radio station. The drivers, the messengers, the typists, they work on holidays. So, Kit wrote Maceda: ‘Such remarks are uncalled for, are unbecoming to a person of your high position, are not fit in the company of gentleman.’ Kit pointed out that it was for him to decide whether the people in his office should render overtime or not. Then Maceda replied: ‘It may interest you to know that according to such-and-such a law or administrative order, your office is under my office.’ That was published. In other words, nagkaroon ng personal enmity. A very lively quarrel, and Kit had the upper hand because we proved that the people whose overtime Maceda questioned had really worked overtime.
“Then one day the President summoned the cabinet to what was supposed to be a meeting. One by one he called to a small room those who were to be removed from office. Kit was not called. But Maceda was called. He had no inkling at all he was to be removed as executive secretary. It was like a thunder bolt. He went into that small room and he came out broken.”
Maceda had a week more as executive secretary and during that week, if Larry Cruz is to be believed, he worked to get back at the Press Office. The President was warned that Pelaez was about to launch an attack on the validity of cabinet positions created by executive order. So, though the President had originally intended to de-cabinetize only those positions he had created during the campaign, the press secretary’s cabinet rank got included in the ax.
“Among the last acts of Maceda as executive secretary was to sign the de-cabinetization orders, which included the Press Office. I said to Kit: ‘Well, Maceda died fighting!’”
The current troubles are chiefly three.
First is the, until recently, continuing Andolong campaign to get the Press Office. When Andolong went on leave from the Sweepstakes, it was assumed that this was a terminal leave and that he had finally got what he wanted—but it now looks as if he has been told, more or less once and for all, that he’s not going to be press secretary.
Larry Cruz observes that if Andolong were appointable he would have been appointed long ago—like when the Press Office was revamped during the campaign.
“And after the campaign, with all the pressure, he should have been appointed—if the President thought he was competent. He was not appointed. Then the press began to hit him for how things were at the Sweepstakes. Matagal nang gustong alisin si Andolong, wala lang mapaglagyan, because he wanted the Press Office.”
Why was he so set on that?
“For prestige. He felt that, as press secretary, he would be strong with the President, he could get back the special funds. We don’t have those funds because of our attitude: that the Press Office is not to be the doler out or giver or money. But Nering believes he can make the same money at the Press Office that he’s making at the Sweepstakes and have more prestige besides. He said to me: ‘Bibirahin ko si Kit.’ He went on leave thinking he was going to be appointed. Now it seems he cannot get it, not even as a matter of saving face. So: ‘I’ll just ask for the PNB,’ he tells me now. Director of the PNB, that’s his new target.
The talk is that, whether or not Andolong has given up on the Press Office, he certainly has not dropped the grudge fight against Tatad: he is still set on getting Tatad yanked out and will back anybody who can topple Kit.
Trouble number two is the supposed animosity of certain newsmen toward the press secretary. It seems there’s a belief that the Press Office has a P10,000 fund for newsmen that it’s not spending on the newsmen. The resentful may be spreading the rumor that, even if Tatad is not replaced, the job of liaison between press and Palace will be removed from him and a special position created to take care of that.
Larry Cruz believes, of course, that the basic grievance is the stoppage of handouts. And he thinks that newsmen in general, especially those who resented the Andolong campaign line, are all for the new policy at the Press Office.
“But if you ask somebody who was getting money before and now wala, if you ask him: ‘Are you happy now?’—naturally he will say he’s not happy. In other words, if that’s to be the measure of our competence, then we are incompetent.”
Trouble number three is the feud raging between Tatad and the Clave-Tuvera group, who, says Larry, have never forgiven Kit for displacing them, though they were moved up to the President’s office as executive assistants.
One irritant is a body of research materials gathered by the Clave-Tuvera group while still at the Press Office, and which they still hang on to. Though the materials were gathered for the Press Office and continue to be housed in a Press Office room, the folk there say they have no access to those materials and have had to establish a research library of their own.
Another irritant is the Tuvera-edited Government Report, which, however the boys in the back room may pooh-pooh it, is a thorn in their side. Something that, logically, their office should be doing is being done by the competition. Tatad, in fact, is supposed to have claimed that he thought up the idea first and this has led to an amusing war of words between him and the Tuveras.
Larry Cruz says that he and Kit were really planning to put out a regular report on the doings of the government (a tentative name for the gazette was Ang Bansa) when, without their having been notified in advance, the Tuvera Government Report began appearing in March. The back room had to scuttle its project.
“What we were thinking of putting out was an information bulletin. Press work, not propaganda. We have done away with propaganda in the Press Office. Our work is legitimate press work; we are press officers. But Government Report is not an information bulletin. It is a pugnacious and combative publication. It is intended to answer the attacks of newspapers on the administration and to defend what image of the administration it feels has been distorted, even putting out distorted and malicious reports. But what we wanted was something more informative, like the bulletin the German government puts out, or the Scala of the Italians. We see ourselves as the legitimate information office of the Office of the President.”
Or as Kit Tatad puts it:
“What I did say was that I had an idea of government newspaper which would put forward government policies and/or positions before they were misrepresented, distorted or perverted by any sector; without, however, promoting an editorial policy of anger, superciliousness and intolerance.”
The boys in the back room weren’t just being envious.
“It is an injustice to me,” says the press secretary, “rather than to Mr. Tuvera to say that I should wish any part of Mr. Tuvera’s Government Report.”
Larry thinks this is an old fight.
“It dates back to our being ‘interlopers,’ because their ambition was thwarted, that of Jake and Tuvera. They saw it as a personal affront, that they were removed. I know this for a fact because every time I go up there they publicly shout that they’re supporting me and that they want me to be the press secretary—para mag-away kami ni Kit. But Kit wants this to remain a battle of words, and that it should not affect the President. This is a battle of personalities, but our role should be larger, beyond personalities.
“Kit and I are the type who will not remain a minute longer in office if we know we are not wanted. Actually, the President trusts us more than some people think. For example, we make recommendations for press releases: what should be said, what action on what problem should be announced. In a press release it’s the President who speaks. Therefore, we know how much the President appreciates our work from how much of our suggestions he uses. It was Kit who prepared three of the President’s most recent major speeches, including the Asia one.
“If the President feels we are competent enough, no mater what the intrigues, they will have no effect. Now, if the President feels we are not competent…Nobody is fighting for us, not even ourselves. Kokoy helped Kit get the appointment, but Kokoy has never influenced the Press Office in any way whatsoever. This is a very independent Press Office. He may fight for us—baka hindi. If we need a supporter at all, I would like to think we have one in Blas Ople.”
Asked how he sees the position of the boys in the back room, Ople replies:
The Press Office has an annual budget of P1,300,000 and geographically, has moved closer to the Palace. It used to be in an outpost way out near the edge of the Palace compound, it now occupies a building (wasn’t it a cantina before?) right beside the executive offices.
The new location is swankier but it still feels like the kind of scene where Marlene Dietrich says to go see what the boys in the back room will have.