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How Ford, Nixon solved the Imelda problem

Martial law babies like myself remember being force-fed with reports about the travels of Imelda Marcos, and having to locate far-off places on a map for Araling Panlipunan as well as memorizing capital cities, population, GDP, and political leaders.

When I was invited into the former first lady’s cluttered apartment over a decade ago, Araling Panlipunan flashed back as I looked at the framed photographs displayed in her living room.

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Scanning the mugshots of Chairman Mao, Fidel Castro, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gadhafi, Prince Charles, and Donald Trump, I realized, faster than you could spell Ceausescu, that it was an international rogues’ gallery.

So, before Mrs. Marcos came out to welcome us, my mother’s voice rang in my head, saying: “Show me who your friends are, and I will tell you who you are.”

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Believe me, watching Lauren Greenfield’s “The Kingmaker” (2019) or Ramona Diaz’s “Imelda” (2003) is as close as you would want to be with Marcos’ version of history, a story that needs much fact-checking. Over the quarantine, surfing the New York Times and the US Foreign Relations websites for Filipiniana, I learned much that was not in my college history textbooks.

In November 1974, for instance, the deputy assistant for National Security Affairs sent US President Gerald Ford a memorandum that stated: “The Philippine First Lady, Mrs. Imelda Marcos, has asked to call on Mrs. Ford sometime next week.

Mrs. Marcos’ current visit is another of her annual informal trips to the US. During each of these, she has exerted considerable effort to see the President or the First Lady.

In late 1970 she was received by President Nixon and in 1971 Mrs. Nixon gave a small tea and President Nixon dropped by briefly. In early 1973, Mrs. Marcos did her best to attend the Inauguration as Philippine First Lady.

Because she did not think the seat given her at the Inaugural ceremony sufficiently prominent, she stayed away from that and the Inaugural Ball, and instead attended a counter inaugural party with Jack Valenti.”

Tea between first ladies avoided a snub on the part of the White House and politely put Mrs. Marcos in her place according to protocol.

She was not, after all, a head of state. After presenting the pros and cons of an Imelda visit, the president’s preference was sought following this recommendation:

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“Mrs. Marcos can be counted upon to use a meeting and anything said at the meeting for her own political purposes (which are not invariably identical with those of her husband). Her record in this regard is such that the State Department and NSC Asian experts unanimously recommend against a meeting.

The problems which such a meeting might bring, however, are not likely to be of a deeply serious or lasting nature. In other words, while the hazards of a meeting appear to outweigh its benefits, a decision either way appears manageable.”

Ford disapproved.

Three years earlier, in October 1971, after attending the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire hosted by the Shah of Iran, Mrs. Marcos passed by the United States and requested a meeting with the president and other high-level officials. Richard Nixon’s chief of staff consulted on the matter on Oct. 19, 1971, at the Oval Office:

“H. R. Haldeman: ‘Marcos, do you have to see her when she comes?’

“Nixon: ‘Oh, hell, I don’t know. I don’t really think so.’

“H: ‘What they’re [Department of State] suggesting is an option if you don’t see her.’

“N: ‘Yeah. She’s here for what good?’

“H: ‘She’s here to try to assess the extent of US Government support for she and her husband’s—her and her husband’s fight against communism in the Philippines is—’

“N: ‘Oh, is she?’

“H: ‘—the way she puts it.’

“N: ‘Well—’

“H: ‘He intends to retain control until communism is defeated, either by extending his term of office or having her replace him as President—’

“N: [unclear]

“H: ‘—’til the end of his term.’

“N: ‘I think I should stay out of it.’

“H: ‘He’ll have to revise the Constitution to do that.’

“N: ‘What do they [Department of State] suggest?’

“H: ‘They say we should treat her with reserve. At the same time, we don’t want to give her cause to feel rebuffed. And I—’

“N: ‘I think she’s got to be seen some way but I don’t—’”

Nixon met Mrs. Marcos for 30 minutes on Oct. 22, 1977. These materials suggest that Ferdinand and Imelda were tolerated to serve US interests, and abandoned otherwise. Marcos wisely sent Imelda abroad to get her out of his hair, owning her successes and then blaming her for failures.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: GDP, Imelda, marcos, martial law, Nixon, Population
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