Austere Laurels

by Juan L. Mercado

The kind of ancestors we’ve had is not as important as the kind of descendants our ancestors have. This axiom is apt for the 135th birthday of President Sergio Osmeña on Monday, September 8.

The observance rites in his native Cebu and elsewhere honor Osmeña who shepherded a war-ruined country into a new republic. But today (Tuesday), it will be back to business as usual.

Osmeña’s  delicadeza was so fine-tuned that he once prohibited his son Sergio Jr. from accepting honoraria for lecturing at the University of the Philippines.

What does that life mean to Vice President Jejomar Binay? He lusts to pad into Malacañang as the country’s next president. Does he work by Don Sergio’s exacting standards?

Binay’s credentials are crumbling in the controversy over the P2.3-billion Makati City Hall parking building, which he built as mayor. “Without mountains, one would not see the plains.” So the Inquirer documented the contrasts.

Zuellig built its skyscraper at half the cost of the Makati parking building. Its 33 floors of offices and floor area dwarf that of the latter’s 11 floors. Zuellig is serviced by 21 elevators plus four escalators, while Makati has two. A Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certified Zuellig. Makati settles for, well, Mayor Binay Jr.’s word.

The parking building does not host a bakeshop that dispatches cakes to senior citizens on their birthdays. Qu’ils mangent de la brioche, Marie Antoinette said of the starving citizens of France. “Let them eat cake.” She was guillotined.

Now, Binay courts telecommunications magnate Manuel V. Pangilinan to sign on as vice-presidential candidate in 2016. That’d be hilarious, if it did not insult. Why not MVP for president? Or choose a woman like Corazon Aquino—say Sen. Grace Poe?

Today, is Osmeña Sr. just an image on the P50 bill? “The memories of men are too frail a thread to hang history from.” Eight out of 10 students barely recall former senator Benigno Aquino Jr. or why he was shot dead, surveys show.

“We have little collective memory of the past,” Bienvenido Nebres, SJ, then president of Ateneo University, told a “Legacies of the Marcos Dictatorship” conference. “We tend to live in a perpetual present. Thus, we cannot see well into the future.”

“We forget at the cost of betrayal. Amnesia over past crimes reflects a weak sense of the nation and of the common good,” sociologist John Carroll wrote in “A Nation in Denial.” He added: “Unless [the country reaffirms] those values, it may be condemned to forever wander in valueless power plays among the elite.”

“Remembering with undiminished intensity over time does not make us curators of our ancestors’ grievances.” Instead, it buttresses against corrosive national amnesia.

Osmeña Sr. was bar topnotcher, journalist, governor, speaker of the National Assembly, senator, then vice president. He played key roles in major issues like the Tydings-McDuffie Act on independence.

One of his finest moments came in World War II’s government-in-Washington exile. The 1935 Constitution  mandated that the term of the then TB-wracked President Manuel Quezon would end on Dec. 30, 1943. Quezon dug in at this constitutional crossroads. “A local issue,” said US President Franklin Roosevelt, steering clear of it.

It was Osmeña Sr. who cobbled a way out—at his expense. Ask the US Congress to suspend the presidential succession until after the Japanese occupation had ended. Congress agreed on Nov. 10.

“Of his  great services, none surpassed voluntary relinquency of the presidency,” former Free Press editor Frederic Marquardt wrote. “That office was the goal of his political life. [Yet] he gave [it] up… and signed away his right…

“All he had to do was remain silent and the mantle of power would have fallen to him. He gave up what was rightfully his, in the interest of unity during time of war.”

On Oct. 20, 1944: Osmeña Sr. waded ashore with Gen. Douglas MacArthur at Red Beach in Palo, Leyte. With him were Generals Carlos P. Romulo and Basilio Valdes, and other key officers. He went on to restore the Commonwealth government.

In 1946, Osmeña Sr. refused to campaign for reelection. Filipinos knew his record, he said. Like Winston Churchill he misread our fickleness as voters. Manuel Roxas won.

Without rancor, Osmeña Sr. retired in Cebu. Late afternoons, he would  take long walks without bodyguards, seeking no recognition. He died at 83.

“Civil authority is not personal but public,” historian Horacio de la Costa, SJ, wrote. “It belongs to no one either by right of birth or by virtue of some real or imagined excellence over other men, whether it be wealth, intelligence or power.

“It belongs to the people, who may entrust it to whomsoever they freely choose. Neither does it endow the man to whom it is entrusted with any special gift of impeccability or infallibility. He may not claim thereby ‘the divinity that doth hedge a king.’

“His is a burden, not a privilege. He must spend himself in the public interests as though they were his own. Yet he may not derive any personal profit from his position. He is held accountable always for the authority he holds in trust.

“When his mandate is revoked, he must be willing to relinquish that authority and return, a private citizen, to the ranks from which he came. Let him not expect any reward but the consciousness of having done his duty and served his people and his God.

“Often he will get no reward but this. Nay, he may find in the end his name vilified, his motive misrepresented, his deeds misjudged. Austere are the laurels of the republic.”

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