Recto in a time of disenchantment
The unhappy state of affairs in the Senate has stirred nostalgia for an era when senators with the strength of character and moral fiber of Claro M. Recto walked its elaborate halls. Recto, whose 54th death anniversary is marked today (Oct. 2), was one of the towering minds who graced the Senate when it was the nation’s predominant deliberative council.
Deliberative, it should be stressed, because the Senate was meant to be an assembly of the thinking class. Nations, after all, live and prosper by ideas—for ideas define our ideals and identity, as well as the structure of our national life and values.
As we witness today the decline of standards in our public life, Recto’s ideas and ideals become more compelling and relevant to Filipinos who cherish exceptional competence, integrity and wisdom in our political leaders.
A true nationalist, Recto was one of the last of the great dissenters in the Senate. His advocacies sprang from deeply held convictions. He cared as much about issues of social and economic policy as he did about the Philippines’ sovereignty and its place in the family of nations.
Thriving in an era when character and intellect were a politician’s most precious assets, Recto entered colonial politics in 1919. He was first elected to the Senate in 1931 and, evolving as a transformative figure, he became the voice of an inchoate nation. He presided over the birth of our first Constitution, which framed the Filipino’s quest for political independence and wrote finis to almost four centuries of servile experience.
He chafed at that experience, and repudiated it by personifying the single-mindedness of a generation to fashion a nation out of its desperate hopes and dreams. The greatest repository of those dreams was a Senate inhabited by men of learning, culture, vision and honor. Elected mainly on the basis of character, achievement and intellect, they nourished our self-esteem and virtues as a people.
Profoundly conscious of their mandate to protect and advance the national interest, Recto and his worthy peers constantly sought to cultivate public trust. They understood that consensual government required leaders imbued with a strong sense of duty, restraint, and sacrifice.
Without these qualities, the rule of law cannot prevail. Recto warned that the enemies of the state were not only the mailed fist of the invader or the corruption of imperialism but the “criminal assaults of its very sworn defenders and protectors.”
Even in his time, he confronted the dilemma that haunts us today: How can our democracy advance when the principal institutions of government—the executive, judicial and legislative branches—undermine constitutional precepts because of politics?
Recto responded by mounting a lifelong vigil against the abuses of power, and he refused to be intimidated by the Church, Malacañang, or the White House. In 1952, denouncing President Elpidio Quirino for continuing to exercise emergency powers, Recto was adamant that “…If the men entrusted with the enforcement of the Constitution are the first to violate it, to ignore it, and to evade it, if the men who have taken public office, swearing on the Constitution, are the first to … avoid its injunctions, and disobey its mandates, then no Constitution can work.”
Today’s yearning for the likes of this statesman is a rebuke to a tarnished institution. The halls of the Senate no longer reverberate with vigorous debates that help chart our destiny. In place of soaring orations that can move us as a people, we hear from the session floor the banter of the marketplace and alibis that mock us.
The Senate was once a forum that conveyed the genius and nobility of our race. And it did so through the power of language and ideas, the most potent weapons of parliamentarians. For elegant language not only brings concepts to life but also elevates the national discourse in form and substance.
The majestic power of language has been abandoned by a concerted rise of what Recto described in 1960 as “caricatures of [a] foreign model with its known characteristics—patronage, division of spoils, political bossism, and partisan treatment of vital national issues.”
And so the Senate’s decline to an unprecedented level of depravity has come to pass. Lacking in vision and statecraft, it has indicted itself by mediocrity, by disintegrating claims about its integrity, and by mounting evidence of plunder among its own ranks.
Gazing on this sordid scene, Recto would likely lament, as he indeed lamented in 1958: “It is melancholy to feel that our rulers and leaders can no longer be depended upon. They are a lost and confused lot; their conscience is laden with guilt and their minds with avarice, and their heads are devoid of compunction. They are the social cancer in this reign of greed.”
In the rippling echoes of this truth, a nation deeply mired in conflict and corruption can only weep.
Rex D. Lores is a member of the Philippine Futuristics Society.
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