By Anthony Andrew G. Divinagracia
IT WAS the day Bastille crumbled before the democratic shudder of French nationalism when the emerging Zeus of post-war Philippine politics decided to unearth his journalistic promise from the mortal embers of obscurity.
July 14, 1968: 280 years after the revolutionary adage of “liberty, equality, fraternity” secured its place in the ideological firmament of history through the tumultuous French revolution, Francisco S. Tatad seemingly nonchalantly mingled with the gods of Manila’s diplomatic circle in a party at the French Embassy, his wits alert for the slightest hints of controversy from the usual party babble about political and government affairs which, later on, he would try to knit into a finely-seamed news story.
Such was Tatad’s diligence in pounding the diplomatic beat as a senior reporter of the Manila Bulletin that when President Ferdinand Marcos offered him a Cabinet post a few months before, he hadn’t taken it seriously; he had chosen instead to persist in living the exciting life of an enterprising journalist covering foreign relations.
“Why me?” was Tatad’s bemused reaction upon receiving word from Marcos that he was being considered for Cabinet placement.
But on the Fall of Bastille anniversary in 1968, Marcos renewed the offer and Tatad’s defenses fell; he had to give in.
Calling it a day as a journalist, Tatad then embarked on the uncharted waters of public service, unmindful of the petulant tide of political clueless-ness that appeared to swallow him whenever he stood beside the strongman.
Notwithstanding the circumstances that defined his new job, Tatad hardly balked at the sight of the powers-that-be.
Forty years after, Tatad continues to steer the frigate of principled statesmanship in the petulant sea of political and social tumult affecting the nation.
Dusk of youth
As a young boy who grew up in the coastal suburbs of Gigmoto town in Catanduanes off the Bicol mainland, Tatad did not mind taking kilometric walks and braving the unpredictable Bicolandia weather just to finish his primary schooling in the town proper.
“Wearing only a pair of shirt and trousers for school everyday, there were times that I had to save my uniform from being drenched in the heavy rain that I had to remove them and nakedly run as fast as I could so that I wouldn’t also get wet,” Tatad recounted to the Varsitarian.
The ordeal however flourished more than it dwindled for Tatad when he reached high school. Since the only high school nearest Gigmoto was located in the next town, Tatad tightened his belt even more just to shore up the cost of traveling to school until his third year.
With the prospects of finishing his secondary education becoming gloomy by the day due to financial constraints, Tatad, the sixth in the brood of nine, decided to shelve his final year in high school; he went to the Virac pier and tried to stow away. He sought to go to Manila to join his older brother and make his fortune in the city.
Aboard a Manila-bound ferry boat, Tatad nervously sat in one discrete corner of the vessel, hoping that the ship captain would not notice him and therefore ask for his travel ticket, which he didn’t have.
“I was so scared back then. I even tried to pretend that I was asleep so that the captain and his crew would not bother inspecting my ticket,” Tatad said. “Unfortunately, one of the crew members noticed me, despite my cramped location in the boat, and asked me to show my ticket, which I obviously did not have before boarding the ship.”
His imagination fed by stories of pirates and buccaneers and of stowaways thrown off board, Tatad said he thought it was the doom of him and the crew would cast him into the ocean. But the captain allowed him to stay.
“What I considered as the greatest torture I underwent aboard that ship was trying to enjoy the unbearable saltiness of the daing they offered me for dinner!” Tatad recalled. “I even thought that they were going to poison me for illegally boarding the ship.”
Life in the big city
Upon reaching Manila, Tatad immediately sought the help of a Dominican priest, a Gigmoto native at that, whom, according to his town mates, was residing in UST. When he arrived at the University, Tatad learned that the priest had just been assigned to the Polilio islands.
Tatad said he had expected his Dominican kababayan would be instrumental in his desire to continue his studies. But he didn’t allow the disappointing news of the transfer to let him down. He said he never wavered in his plan to finish high school, enter college, get a degree, and help his family back in Catanduanes.
Realizing that his goals would be no cakewalk, the young Tatad resolved to turn his fortune around and took on odd jobs. He sold various items, from books and health insurance to cleaning materials. He also became an advertising agent for a Far Eastern University publication. While busy doing menial jobs, Tatad enrolled his final year in high school at the Roosevelt College in Fairview. He graduated with flying colors.
Through common Bicolano friends and acquaintances, Tatad’s writing abilities reached the knowledge of Bicolano lawmakers, notably of Catanduanes congressman Juan Alberto and senator Tekla Ziga, a bar topnotcher.
“I wrote a short speech for Senator Ziga and to my amazement, she used it on the floor during a plenary session which drew praises from the audience,” Tatad said.
Aside from being a speech writer of renowned politicians, Tatad also wrote for a Malate-based business magazine.
“The magazine publisher did not ask my credentials. I was just a high school graduate who drew inspiration from the classics in substantiating my thoughts. That is my writing approach back then,” Tatad said.
Impressed by his fellow Catanduanense’s writing and intellectual abilities, the benevolent Alberto summoned Tatad right away and hired him as his official speech-writer in Congress.
Saving enough to finance his college education, Tatad entered UST as a Litt.B. Philosophy major of the old Faculty of Philosophy and Letters (Philets), which he described as the “best college in the Philippines that time.”
“Philets then was considered by many as the crème de la crème when it comes to literature and philosophy, which all the more encouraged me to enroll in its program, given my profound inclination to the written word,” Tatad said.
Tagged as a virtual old hand at the expense of his younger batchmates, Tatad preferred strolling around the campus with upperclassmen of his age.
Moreover, instead of taking the prescribed subjects at his level, Tatad enrolled in classes at the Graduate School, which raised the eyebrows from his batchmates, who called him a “boastful cat in the company of the tigers.”
“They often branded me as someone who was boastful enough to declare to everyone that he knows everything. In truth, however, I was not a know-it-all, that is why I favored taking classes in the Graduate School where I could learn more from the usual classroom discussion at my level,” Tatad said. “I thought them that I might not graduate with honors, but the important thing was for me to learn a lot by pushing my wits to the limit.”
Juggling work and study was obviously not easy. After finishing his Congress chores late in the afternoon, he had to go to school to attend classes such as Spanish until 9 p.m. at the Main Building. Then he had to wake up at 6 a.m. to report for his Congress work. The hectic schedule amounted to physical and mental flogging.
“The balancing act on my part was quite excruciating so I relayed my difficulties to my professor and asked if I could only show up in his class just to take the quizzes and exams,” Tatad said.
To his relief, Professor Zialcita, his Spanish mentor, granted his request since he was one of the “estudyante lomehore” in the class. But the covenant did not last to appease his professor who grumbled about Tatad’s frequent disappearance.
“It turned out to be mistake on my professor’s part because when I left, there was virtually no one in his class who dared to recite the way I tend to do with conviction,” Tatad said.
In 1960, Tatad assumed the literary editorship of the Varsitarian. He wrote along the existentialist vein because of the intellectual and literary dominance at that time of Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre and other writers and thinkers of the existentialist school, whose philosophical foundations drew tremendous criticism from the hardline Thomist scholars of the University.
Because of his writings, Tatad became one of the V’s leading editors, so that he was convinced by Felix Bautista, who was the student publications director of UST back then, to apply for editor-in-chief. As expected, Tatad topped the specialized examination for editors and was a cinch to occupy the V’s highest post.
But as luck would have it, Tatad was bypassed in favor of Fil-American newcomer Jean Pope, who eventually became the V’s first woman editor-in-chief.
Filled with dismay, Tatad thought of leaving the paper.
“I was offered the managing editorship to give way for Jean Pope, but I declined because I did not apply for that position in the first place,” Tatad said. “My V colleagues, however, persuaded me to stay and to continue guiding the Literary section, which I heeded anyway.”
Underscoring Tatad’s literary brilliance was the publication of a short story, which had originated from a class exercise, in the Hong Kong-based Asia magazine. He got a check of $150 for the story.
During his junior year, Tatad co-organized a symposium on university life based on the reading of Cardinal John Henry Newman’s classic work, “What is a University?” The invited speakers would be the students themselves.
But after obtaining permission from the dean’s office to use the Education Auditorium for the symposium, Tatad and company were dumbfounded the next day to see that the venue had been padlocked because of their refusal to furnish the dean’s office with copies of their supposed “prepared” speeches.
At the firing line
The next thing Tatad knew, he was already barred from pursuing his degree in the University for allegedly “insulting” school authorities after failing to present their speeches, extemporaneous at that, for “grammar check.”
With a heavy heart, Tatad left the University and practiced journalism as a wire service reporter for the Agence France-Presse (AFP). He spent three years with AFP before transferring to the Manila Bulletin as a timely replacement for Oscar Villadolid, husband of fellow Varsitarian editor Alice Colet, in the diplomatic beat.
“In our time, enterprising reports were a journalist’s crowning glory. We got our stories without the aid of a press release, just pure legwork and research from reliable sources,” said Tatad.
Backstopped by “excellent sources,” Tatad hardly worked a sweat in coming out with exclusive, hot-off-the-press stories. His fellow diplomatic reporter at that time was Antonio Zumel, who would later join the communist underground.
“Newspapermen who liked to write exclusive stories would, more often than not, steal documents from the office. Luckily on my part, I was given the private concession to the waste baskets of the foreign affairs office, thanks to my janitor-agents inside the building,” Tatad disclosed.
True to Tatad’s claim, he was able to dig a gold mine of sorts while rummaging the waste baskets of the secretary of foreign secretary Narciso Ramos. He found a carbon copy of the memorandum to the President by then Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, the foreign secretary’s son, proposing the withdrawal of the Philippine Civic Action Group (Philcag) from Vietnam for Christmas and until such time that the Unites States government would grant certain pending request from the Philippines government.
Immediately after his story bannered in the Manila Bulletin, Secretary Ramos arranged a meeting with Tatad and the newspaper’s publisher, Gen Hans Menzi. Ramos then asked Menzi to reassign Tatad to another beat. Menzi refused, saying that Tatad was only doing his job. The Swiss businessman added Ramos would have done the same thing if he were in the shoes of Tatad. Ramos angrily replied, “Hell, no!”
Beside the king
It did not take long for Marcos to take notice of Tatad’s exploits as a newspaperman. He invited the young journalist to a private audience with him in Malacañang.
“The President asked me how can he improve his ties with the media people and then I told him that he wants to establish a closer rapport with the press probably he can hold more press conferences where newspapermen can be allowed to pose questions,” Tatad said.
Buoyed by Tatad’s suggestion, Marcos then started meeting with the press almost on a day-to-day basis, expounding his agendas and policies which then underscored the President’s transparency of governance.
Six months later, while he was covering the Bastille Day celebration at the French Embassy with the Manila Overseas Press Club, Tatad received a phone call from a Marcos emissary, who reaffirmed the President’s intention of getting Tatad as information minister in place of Joe Aspiras, another Thomasian, who was planning to run for congressman of La Union.
Among those who were short-listed to succeed Aspiras were Johnny Perez, editor of the Daily Express; Jay Clavet, a presidential executive assistant; and Jean Marcial, a columnist from the Graphic magazine.
“I was surprised to know that the President is seriously considering me for that position. ‘Sino ba ako?’ I asked myself. I am just a plain newsman with nothing better to do than just write about the country’s foreign affairs, day in, day out,” he said. “Pre-occupied by work, I somehow forgot about the offer.”
Upon consulting his publisher, Menzi, and his “mentor,” Teodoro Valencia, an older Thomasian who was V editor in chief during his time, Tatad accepted Marcos’ offer and became the youngest cabinet secretary at the age of 29.
In the eye of the storm
Recalling how he read Proclamation 1081 that placed the entire country under Martial Law on Sept. 21, 1972, Tatad debunked some leftist claims that the declaration was just a witch hunt that would enable Marcos to track down his opponents, mostly of communist persuasion.
“The communist threat was real. Everyday you had big demonstrations in front of Malacañang. Remember the First Quarter Storm? Martial Law at that time was the only feasible solution to the growing chaos brought about by the domino theory of communist insurgency. It is even enshrined in the Constitution as a legitimate resort for the state to defend itself,” Tatad said.
Tatad said given another chance to read the proclamation, he would do it again if the same conditions as in the 1970’s were obtaining at the present.
“Being too young and without prior experience of Martial Law, I read the proclamation that was, in all its respect, a legitimate response to a real situation on the ground,” he explained.
Despite Marcos’ hulking reputation as an intellectual heavyweight, Tatad never hesitated to assert his views even at the cost of earning the President’s ire. He said however that he would disagree with Marcos “without being disagreeable.”
But in the run-up to the 1978 Interim Batasan election, Tatad expressed his desire to support candidates with a clean record. He explained he differed on that score with Marcos who remained supportive of political clans of ill-repute.
“I told the President that if you cannot support my nominees and I cannot support your nominees likewise, then we should have a neutral individual that we can both agree to support,” he said. “Unfortunately, that neutral individual did not come.”
Unable to settle his differences with Marcos, Tatad resigned from the Cabinet at the height of the campaign and formed his own ticket. He won a seat in the 1978 Batasan election and joined the opposition led by the Cebu bloc of lawmakers–the Pusyon Bisaya–one of whose members was Hilario Davide, who later became chief justice.
The resurgence of democracy fueled by the 1986 People Power Revolution saw Tatad running for the Senate and eventually serving the upper chamber from 1992 to 2001.
Consistent with his belief that the opposition should not tolerate political dynasties, Tatad rejected former president Joseph Estrada’s offer for him to join the Genuine Opposition’s senatorial slate in protest of the inclusion of candidates whose kin were already in the Senate. He explained that the inclusion of the senatorial relatives in the ticket smacked of abetting political dynasties and “a blatant insult to the integrity of the Senate as a law-making body.”
“I would have an interest in running again had we in the opposition worked at least in pushing for electoral reforms, to make the (electoral) process credible once more,” he lamented. “But this advocacy was undermined by opportunists in our midst.”
Until now, Tatad bewails the temerity of scions from prominent political families who continue to negate the anti-political dynasty spirit of the Constitution and ignoring the moral and social implications of perpetuating dynasties.
“If you are running for public office, you can’t just say that there is no enabling law so you can deliberately violate it to serve you personal interest,” Tatad said. “Your duty, once elected as legislator, is to supply the enabling law, not to take advantage of its absence. It’s plain and simple wrong no matter how you look at it.”
At a time when popularity is bastardized and political lineage is exploited to the hilt, Tatad said he believes that the Senate should be the bastion of Constitutional relevance. Morality should be the basis of law, and of politics in general, he added.
“It is high time we re-educate the electorate. They should not be beguiled by the scheming advances of opportunism,” he said. “To be popular, for one, is to do something in defense of justice, truth and freedom.”
Known as a staunch advocate of life and family in and out of the legislative circuit, Tatad stressed that moral corruption is the global problem hounding mankind nowadays.
“The truth about man’s priceless existence must be defended at all times against moral debauchery,” he said. “If only everyone will submit to the idea that man is pure matter accountable to God’s grace, then these euphemisms about choice will all be insignificant.”
Tatad, who is a member of the United States-based International Right to Life Federation, also lashed out at the peculiar sprouting of the Philippine Legislator’s Committee on Population and Development (PLCPD) at the Batasan Complex without any law justifying its creation.
“Its existence within the premises of Congress is unauthorized. Despite gaining support from the United Nations and other international non-government organizations, it still has no right whatsoever to attach itself the Lower House,” Tatad said. “It is a barefaced attempt to mock Filipino sensibilities.”
During the 13th Asia-Pacific Congress on Faith, Life and Family in Cebu last year, Tatad revealed that the Philippines is only one of three countries (Malta and the Vatican were the other two) in the world where divorce, contraception, euthanasia and same-sex marriage are not allowed. And one does not have to be a Catholic or Christian to recognize the fiction behind these immoral acts, Tatad added.
“The Malthusian thesis (on overpopulation and the need for birth control) has long been discredited,” Tatad said. “Morally, even scientifically, it has no justification. Poverty is not in any way connected to population control.”
Tatad also asserted that mediocrity is the cause of our economic, moral, spiritual, and political woes nowadays. Being accustomed to the culture of materialism is another thing.
“The poor should help themselves first,” Tatad said. “It is sad to note that every time I come to visit them, ineptitude of various sorts greets me,” Tatad said.
During his campaign sorties, Tatad would chance upon homeowners who either tolerate disorderly households or submit themselves to ceaseless droning.
“Indolence jeopardizes one’s future. One should not be limited by his own circumstances,” Tatad said. “Sometimes it is helpful to prick the ire of the lazy for him to realize his shortcomings. People are entitled to rectify their mistakes.”
Finding a universal antidote to the venomous curse of moral dissipation and political corruption might be a Herculean task, perhaps a cry for the moon. But Tatad, given the need to salvage the dignity of life from the rubble of despair, is willing to take the Ithacan journey on short notice.
Like the boy who became a stowaway in a vessel taking off from Virac to Manila many moons ago, Tatad will continue to brave the waters, guided by the moral compass and God’s benevolence.