Pacific Odyssey: the Manila Presidential Palace

This article is Part I of a new series that describes a journey from the Philippines to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

Manila, The Philippines: The Presidential Complaint Center, near the Malacañang Palace. Photo by Matthew Stevenson.

The Manila airport, named after Senator Benigno NinoyAquino Jr., (who was gunned down on a Manila runway in 1983, after arriving on a flight from the U.S.), still has pockets of the 1960s where the air conditioning has failed or the luggage carousels have the look of ferris wheels that have toppled on their sides.

Since I was toting my small backpack (a variation on a hobo’s handkerchief and stick), all I had to do after landing was clear immigration and change some money. Then I was at the mercy of the local touts, who assume arriving passengers are more eager to engage in a few hands of three-card monte than to move along to their hotels.

In the heat of the Manila night, and tired from all the flying, I was shuffled between all sorts of front men and con arts who wanted to sell me bus tickets, hotel rooms, Thai massage, tour packages, and cars that were billed as having Uberish qualities.

In the end I went with a metered taxi (although the driver never switched on his meter) for the thirty minute ride (mostly we sat in midnight traffic) to my nearby Airbnb.

From having little to say, the driver and I finally connected on the subject of professional baseball, which, when the driver was younger, he had played for the Philippine national team. As if boys trading baseball cards in a schoolyard, we spent a happy half hour comparing the likes of Barry Bonds and A-Rod (“they loved their juice…”) until we pulled up to my high-rise apartment building. I had booked a studio on the 37th floor—for the simple reason that it came with an unobstructed view of Admiral George Dewey’s Manila Bay, from the days when he was sailing for the Yankees.

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If Asia has a more unpleasant city than Manila, I have yet to find it. The climate is that of a humid rain forest, although instead of trees it has traffic—Carmageddon, in many ways. Walking anywhere in the city has the feel of a death march (such are the motorbikes weaving along the curbs), and while vestiges of the old colonial quarters have survived, much of new Manila is a variation on mall design and bumper cars.

At least on my first morning in the city, I had an appointment at the presidential Malacañang Palace. I didn’t arrive in a stretch limo, but climbed out of a small tuk-tuk, as if I was delivering pizza to President Rodrigo(aka Rody)Duterte(yes, the one who executes drug dealers and users, and has had good things to say about rape and adultery). Actually I hopped out in front of the Presidential Complaint Center, although I didn’t see many citizens crowding around the suggestion boxes.

In my endless wanderings around the internet in search of connections to Papua New Guinea (one of my goals on this trip), I had happened on the program at the Malacañang Palacethat, free of charge, welcomes visitors to tour the presidential buildings. All I had to do was submit to a security background check and show up in long pants.

I realize that it reflects poorly on me that I passed the Philippine security check, but I was pleased to discover, when I rolled up for the 10 a.m. palace tour, that the officer at a small desk in the presidential garden had a copy of my request letter. In these Pacific travels, it would turn out to be one of the few reservations that actually worked.

I was the only foreign tourist who had registered that day for the visit, and I was asked to join a large company of Manila police officers, all of whom were wearing dress blues and glistening patent-leather shoes for their palace tour.

The cops were good-natured and, at least here, well-mannered, and during the rest of my stay in Manila I would occasionally, when crossing a busy street, come upon a smiling police officer who would remind me that we had gone around the Malacañang Palacetogether.

The tour began with an exhibit devoted to all the men and women who have run for president in the Philippines. The room was located off the main entrance to the palace, and it was filled with campaign leaflets and posters. The ones that caught my eye were those of Ferdinand Marcos, who first ran in 1965 (“Forward with Marcos”) and who left the presidency in the mid-1980s, after allegations of election fraud marred his re-election in 1986.

Corazon Aquino (widow of the opposition leader gunned down at the airport) took his place and served out the balance of his term, although, officially, she was never elected president. She had run and lost in 1986, when Marcos stuffed the ballot boxes, but still needed help from the military to serve as president.

The American occupation of the Philippines began after the defeat of the conquistadors in the 1898 Spanish-American war. During the years of American hegemony, various governors, including William Howard Taft and General Leonard Wood, ruled the Philippines. A commonwealth was proclaimed in 1935, when the first local presidential election took place. But it wasn’t until the Japanese occupation ended in 1946 that the United States allowed the Philippines to become independent.

Manuel Quezon was the first elected Philippine president, and when the Japanese invaded the Philippines (at the same time in 1941 as the attacks on Pearl Harbor) he fled with General Douglas MacArthur (the supreme U.S. military commander in the Far East) to the island of Corregidor, where the two of them holed up in a bunker command center until PT boats evacuated the top brass before the Japanese overran (in spring 1942) Bataan peninsula and the island fortress.

In each room on the palace tour, there was a parable that accompanied the explanation about the Czechoslovak chandeliers and the china service in the display cabinets. In one office we were told about Marcos’s 1972 declaration of martial law (no doubt Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger gave him the green light for Proclamation№ 1081), which since has been preserved and engraved into metal, and sits in front of the ceremonial desk, from which Marcos addressed the nation on TV.

The order came down in September 1972, when Nixon was facing re-election and peace with honor was proving a tough nut to crack in Vietnam. The last thing either Nixon or Marcos needed was a coup détat in Manila.

In reality, although martial law was lifted in 1981, many of the presidents with posters in the Malacañang Palace Museum ruled the country as if they were Marcos, if not American Governor-General William Howard Taft. That said, a few presidential candidates were ex-rebels and a handful, including Aquino, were philosopher-kings. Overall in the Philippines brutality usually trumps ideas.

The small room devoted to the American governors had a board table and on the surrounding walls a number of portraits of white-suited Americans, signing off on what look like earlier drafts of martial laws. The picture of Leonard Wood in the governor’s ornate chair reminded me of the line of succession that ran from Theodore Roosevelt and San Juan Hill to colonial rule in the Philippines.

In 1898 Wood was the senior officer of the Rough Riders (nominally Teddy Roosevelt was second-in-command), who made it up San Juan Hill in Cuba. After the Spanish-American war, the United States treated itself to an empire. Teddy became president (after McKinley was assassinated), Taft became the American governor in Manila, and, then, in 1921, Leonard Wood moved to the Philippines, which for a long time functioned somewhat as the minor leagues for men running the American government.

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In his excellent book The True Flag, Stephen Kinzer writes that Teddy Roosevelt and Mark Twain represented two schools of thought on the pros and cons of establishing an American empire in the ruins of Spain’s overseas possessions.

Roosevelt was an unabashed imperialist. During his presidency the American army, under his orders, shot down Philippine insurgents (not Spanish conquistadors) as if it was hunting big game in Africa. Kinzer writes:

By countenancing three years of intense counterinsurgency in the Philippines, Americans lost whatever national innocence had survived slavery, anti-Indian campaigns, and the Mexican War. News of atrocities did not set off anti-war protests. In fact, it stirred patriotic backlash. Republican newspapers and magazines defended the war and the honor of the United States Army.

Kinzer goes on: “The Philippine War lasted forty-one months. A total of 120,000 American soldiers participated. Commanders later estimated that they killed about twenty thousand Filipino insurgents. Hundreds of thousands of civilians also perished.”

Twain voiced an opposing opinion, explaining the Philippine occupation in an essay entitled “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” (as quoted by Kinzer):

“There have been lies; yes, but they were told in a good cause. We have been treacherous; but that was only in order that real good might come out of apparent evil. True, we have crushed a deceived and confiding people; we have turned against the weak and the friendless who trusted us; we have stamped out a just and intelligent and well-ordered republic; we have stabbed an ally in the back and slapped the face of a guest; we have bought a Shadow from an enemy that hadn’t it to sell; we have robbed a trusting friend of his land and his liberty; we have invited our clean young men to shoulder a discredited musket and do bandit’s work under a flag which bandits have been accustomed to fear, not to follow; we have debauched America’s honor and blackened her face before the world; but each detail was for the best.… And as for a flag for the Philippine Province, it is easily managed. We can have a special one—our States do it: we can have just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.”

Kinzer notes that “Twain pronounced Roosevelt ‘one of the most likeable men that I am acquainted with’ and also ‘far and away the worst president we have ever had.’”

Another room in the Malacañang Palacewas devoted to the secretaries who were in charge of the state dinners and other formal occasions, and these glass cabinets had pictures of many American presidents on what looks like the Grand Asian Tour.

One picture shows Bill and Hilary Clinton, hands over their hearts (although Bill’s languid hand is dangerously close to his Napoleonic mid-section), at a state reception with Corazon Aquino. Except that the American ambassador is holding a glass of wine, I would have guessed, from their grim expressions, that all of them were attending a wake, perhaps one for Filipino-American relations.

Another palace photo shows Vice-President George Herbert Walker Bush, dressed in what looks like a Nehru shirt (as if he came ashore from a cruise ship), giving a toast during a state visit, in which he said to the Marcoses (this after almost ten years of martial law): “We stand with the Philippines. We love your adherence to democratic principles and democratic processes. We will not leave you in isolation.” File under: Heck of a job, Ferdie.

It was around this time that one of the cops on the tour asked: “What happened to Imelda’s shoes?” Apparently many of them are in the local Marikina Shoe Museum. In the palace, however, she left behind 15 mink coats, 508 gowns, and 888 handbags, but the baggage restrictions on flights to exile are worse than Ryanair.

On the second floor—keep in mind, everyone on the tour was police—we were free to wander through some smaller rooms and the presidential library. In a room set aside for “political secretaries,” I came across a picture of what is called Marcos’ “Official Family” (his cabinet). Then serving as the secretary for General Services was one Vicente Duterte—father of the current president. Not far away was a chalk blackboard (as if from a Knute Rockne football locker room) showing the last days of the Marcos presidency, when one of his military aides would draw up the formations of the opposition lining up in the streets.

Nearby was another room displaying the various gifts that Duterte (the son) has received as president. Homage is also paid to the fact that on his inauguration day in 2016 (this was before he called Barack Obama “a son of a whore” or admitted to “extrajudicial killings”), Duterte invited a group of street demonstrators into the palace and served them an improvised lunch. (I noticed that few demonstrators had much of an appetite.) The caption to the picture might well read: “A funny thing happened on the way to the Presidential Complaint Center.”

No doubt Duterte’s meals with his American admirer, President Donald Trump, are cozier affairs. At one ASEAN meeting Trump said to his friend crush: “Rodrigo, I would like to commend you on your success as ASEAN chair at this critical moment of time. The show last night was fantastic. And you were fantastic.”

Trump loves to boast of their “great relationship,” much the way that the Philippine president likes to brag about how many members of the opposition he has killed. (In one speech, Duterte said of the Catholic church: “But these bishops, kill them, those fools are good for nothing. All they do is criticize.”)

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The presidential library, where the tour ended, is a catch-all of books, memos, and portraits of various Philippine presidents. Near a picture ofPresident Elpidio Quirinois a copy of his 1953 proclamation pardoning the Japanese for their war crimes during the occupation (1941-45). He wrote, generously, I think:

I should be the last one to pardon them as the Japanese killed my wife and three children and other members of the family. I am doing this because I do not want my children and my people to inherit from me hate for people who might yet be our friends for the permanent interest of the country. After all destiny has made us neighbors.

Apparently one of his children died when Japanese soldiers lanced the baby with a bayonet, having tossed the child in the air, but he governed without bitterness.

Longer than many of the cops walking the beat on the palace tour, I browsed among the collection of books in the presidential library, noting that Marcos himself published an upbeat tract, Strength Through Crisis, Growth in Freedom. And President José P. Laurelcame out with a book called Thinking For Ourselves. The title might well have been: “At The Beck and Call of the Imperial Japanese Army,” such were his wartime collaborations. To be fair to Laurel, for the most part being the Philippine president has meant carrying water for some extrajudicial power.

Laurel’s book is on the shelves near a worn copy of a school textbook, Our New Possessions: Four Books In One Volume (first published, naturally, in 1898). The subjects are the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Hawaii, and the book is a primer of empire, one that was especially popular in fifth grade classes in the Philippines and the United States.

The author, Murat Halstead, was a Republican war-horse of a correspondent who later wrote many ballads of American imperialism, including The Illustrious Life of William McKinley: Our Martyred President, which to my knowledge never became a reading group staple.

Omitted from the inspirational textbook is a quotation from an editorial published in the Springfield Daily Republican (as quoted by Kinzer, when he writes about Senator Albert Beveridge’s upbeat 1899 report on the U.S. military occupation of the Philippines), which states: “If his Americanism is now the true brand, then indeed the Republic is no more.”

Next up: To the Manila Hotel, once home to the American General Douglas MacArthur.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.