Austere laurels — or pork?

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“To forget one’s ancestors is to be a tree without a root.” This Asian axiom is apt for the 135th birthday of Sergio Osmeña on Sept. 9. As the fourth Philippine president, he led a war-ruined country into a new republic.


Monday, officials honored President Osmeña. His  delicadeza  was so fine-tuned he prohibited son Sergio Jr. from accepting honoraria for lecturing at the University of the Philippines, some recalled.

Tuesday, it was business as usual. With President Aquino having trashed the Priority Development Assistance Fund, could congressmen slurp into the P12.7-billion road users’ tax? Deputy Speaker Sergio Apostol wanted to know. At a hearing on the Commission on Audit budget, pork-starved House members instead flayed “errors” in audits. Wasn’t “Vampires Strike Back” the title of a B-grade horror flick?

Legislators break into a cold sweat when denied slush. A “withdrawal syndrome” is uncoiling. Glimpse this in five “notebooks” of detained Janet Lim-Napoles. They record doles, bank accounts, etc. from 2012 up to August 2013—and tag legislators who funneled pork to sham NGOs.

Sen. Jinggoy Estrada is dubbed “Sexy” and Sen. Ramon Revilla “Pogi.” Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, 89, is known as “Tanda.” The COA unearthed the pork donations by Senators Loren Legarda and Ferdinand Marcos Jr. They denied being on the take. Is Don Sergio today just a line-etched image on the P50-bill for congressmen? Does his life of integrity speak to citizens?

He 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. As Japanese troops advanced in World War II, President Manuel Quezon, Osmeña and Gen. Douglas MacArthur slipped away from embattled Corregidor Island. From Cagayan de Oro, they were to be secretly evacuated to Australia.

At Del Monte airport, MacArthur saw the shabby B-17 that landed midnight—and blew a fuse, recalls William Manchester in his book “American Caesar.” The “decrepit aircraft … would endanger the party,” he cabled the US secretary of state. “I could not undertake such responsibility.” He demanded the three best planes. The cable worked and two of three new B-17s made it.

“We were roused in the dead of night and drove to the airfield where two Flying Fortresses waited,” the late Manuel Quezon Jr. wrote in his unpublished memoirs. “We were in one plane and Vice President Osmeña in the other… My father and mother sat on a mattress on the floor…

“Osmeña’s Fortress did not land after us. My father announced that we would not continue until the Vice President arrived.” The search

DC-5 returned, followed by the missing Fortress. “Don Sergio continued with us, to Adelaide.”

One of his finest moments came during World War II’s government-in-Washington exile. The 1935 Constitution mandated that the ailing President Quezon’s term lapse on Dec. 30, 1943. Quezon dug in over this constitutional crossroad. US President Franklin Roosevelt stayed aloof from a “local issue.”

Don Sergio crafted a way out at his expense: Ask the US Congress to suspend presidential succession, until after the Japanese occupation ended. Congress agreed on Nov. 10. “Of his many great services, none surpassed his voluntary relinquency of the presidency,” former Free Press editor Frederic Marquardt wrote.

“That office was the goal of his political life. [Yet] he gave up the presidency after having been, in effect, elected to it. He signed away his right … when 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.”

After restoring the Commonwealth, Don Sergio refused to campaign for reelection in 1946. Filipinos knew his record, he said. Like Winston Churchill after the war, he misread our fickleness. Manuel Roxas won 54 percent of the vote.

Without rancor, Osmeña retired in Cebu. We still recall the silver-haired statesman taking afternoon walks—without bodyguards. He died at 83.

Two years after Osmeña retired, a stroke cut down President Roxas. Historian Horacio de la Costa, SJ, delivered a homily at Washington’s National Cathedral. It shows the bedrock of what anchored public service by men like Don Sergio:

“Civil authority is not personal but public,” De la Costa  said. “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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