Sitting at my computer this morning, desperate for a newsletter topic, I came across a remarkable story in The New York Times: Ferdinand Marcos Jr. Is Bound for Presidency of the Philippines.
I honestly sat gape mouthed. I was aware the son of infamous dictator Ferdinand Marcos was making a run at the presidency this year. But like many both inside and outside the Philippines, I thought it was a long shot. I was wrong.
With ballots still to come in, the son of one of the most infamous dictators the world has ever known, a man known to his followers as “Bongbong,” had already amassed an insurmountable lead in an election where more than 80 per cent of registered voters turned out.
As I read about one of the most remarkable political comebacks in human history, I was transported back nearly a quarter of a century to a day that I have come to call, “my brush with Imelda.”
It was May 1998, and I was in Manila for the Free Press to cover the Philippine elections. It was my second assignment in this vibrant, utterly enigmatic island nation and my first experience with a national election.
Only a few hours after landing in Manila, my photographer (and brother of another mother) Lyle Stafford and I to get to a mysterious electoral press office to get credentials to cover the election. Located in Old Manila, the distance from our hotel in Makati district to the press office as the crow flew was only about five kilometres. But with the perpetually gridlocked morning rush hour to contend with, it had already taken more than an hour.
Approaching our destination, the driver of our non-air-conditioned taxi slammed on the breaks as a convoy of police cars and limousines hurtled through an intersection. The driver seemed unimpressed. “Imelda,” was all he said.
“Imelda, like Imelda Marcos?” I said incredulously. I knew the widow of dictator Ferdinand Marcos was making an improbable bid for the presidency. The driver told me she was going to formally withdraw from the campaign rather than be declared ineligible because she and her husband had been convicted of a variety of criminal acts following the 1986 People Power Revolution.
I threw a handful of cash at the driver and Lyle and I started running through the traffic to catch up to the motorcade. It had stopped outside the Minor Basilica and Metropolitan Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, otherwise known as the Manila Cathedral. Imelda had come to the cathedral for maximum media coverage as she made the ultimate sacrifice and withdrew from the race.
We pushed through a throng of supporters to get inside the cathedral, where we were drawn to the sound of women shrieking. Not weeping or sobbing, but a full-throated howling by a group of about 50 women who had surrounded Imelda and were pleading with her not to withdraw. She stood like a statue in the middle of the frantic mob, arms up in the air in martyrish statue, shaking her head and baying that she had no choice but to abandon the campaign.
After what seemed like an eternity of this garish act of political performance art, she began to make her way outside for more howling, bawling and baying. Like good journalists, Lyle and I put ourselves directly in her path at the bottom of the cathedral’s front staircase.
As the crowd descended upon her, we held our ground. Lyle kept firing the shutter on his camera while I kept a firm hold of the photographer’s utility belt around his waist. Before we knew it, we were right beside Imelda.
Photographer Lyle Stafford and Dan put themselves directly in the path of Imelda Marcos during a trip to the Phillipines in May 1998. (Lyle Stafford photo)
The memories are a bit fuzzy from that point on. I remember the oppressive heat. I also remember Imelda’s Gucci sunglasses. Nice touch.
It seems almost impossible to imagine the Marcos family going from that act of overwrought hysteria to, now, Bongbong’s ascension to the presidency. Still, in some ways, it was predictable; the Philippines has a long-standing tradition of multiple generations of political families dominating elections at every level.
So, it comes as little surprise that even as Ferdinand Jr. becomes president, one of his sons, Ferdinand Alexander Marcos III is also poised to win a congressional seat and his cousin, Matthew Marcos Manotoc, is expected to be re-elected as Ilocos Norte governor.
Not a bad result for the extended family of a dictator believed to have stolen billions of dollars from the government treasury for his own wealth, while also imprisoning, torturing and killing thousands of political opponents.
I know most of us love a come-back story. But this is really testing that theory.
Journalist, Heal Thyself
Each May, both the National Newspaper Awards (in Canada) and the Pulitzer Prizes (in the United States) are awarded to acknowledge the best in journalism over the previous year. I usually post lists of the winners as compelling proof of the continuing value of traditional media, particularly newspapers, in an age where social media dominates the flow of news.
Please take the time to read both the NNA winners and honorable mentions and the Pulitzer winners and please ask yourself this important question:
Can you imagine a world where professional journalists were not uncovering corruption, explaining complex issues and challenging authority on a daily basis?
If you are like me and cannot imagine a world where journalists are not doing this work, then perhaps you would find a way to support it by subscribing to the newspaper of your choice.
Again, read the stories and then ask yourself: what would our lives be like without this noble work?