No matter the skeletons that former presidents would readily attribute to each other's closets, all of them had—in their own way—tried to live up to their notions of what it meant to be presidential. Four stood out with more panache than the others, bringing an individuality that reflected their image and style.
Manuel L. Quezon, who dominated colonial-era politics until the Commonwealth era, exemplified the Castilian-Filipino sensibility of his time. But, as he rose to power, critics derided his cabaretista leadership, a description that made fun of his fondness for dancing while simultaneously referencing the disreputable dance halls of the time. In this period of drill suits, Quezon stood apart with his elegant, but also showy sartorial sense. His conceits included polka-dotted ties, an occasional flower on his lapel, and his dandy walking stick—truly, a metrosexual of his time. Teodoro M. Locsin called him "the greatest show on earth."
Quezon's immediate priority was to impress upon the people that an official Filipino leader was actually residing and working in the Palace. According to Malacalian Palace: The Official Illustrated History, the "face of the Palace" became "Quezonian." He expanded and refurbished the rooms and halls, added skylights, drapery, Czech chandeliers, barrel-vaulted ceilings, wrought-iron work, and precast ornamentation on palace walls, entrances, and windows.
In contrast, Ramon Magsaysay rose to national prominence at a time when the Philippines was beset by a ferocious communist insurgency. The renowned guerilla was appointed defense secretary by President Elpidio Quirino in 1950. Magsaysay ran an efficient counterinsurgency campaign, earning him the nickname, "The Guy."
When he ran for president, Magsaysay junked the stuffy, ornamental style of his predecessor, Quirino, and ushered in a modern era. The ceremonies leading to Magsaysay's inauguration on Rizal Day in 1953 were a scene of poignant contradictions. As president-elect, Magsaysay made the unprecedented sartorial choice of arriving at the palace in a Barong Tagalog. He was welcomed by Quirino, a throwback to colonial Manila in his white linen suit.
As president, Magsaysay adopted an informal style that was Quezonian in many respects, but differed sharply in that The Guy was averse to the honorific "His Excellency." Magsaysay also emphasized the details that accentuated the Filipino identity, such as his restoring the "g" in "Malacalian" to jibe with the phonetic Tagalog pronunciation.
The spiffy Quezon would also not have approved of Magsaysay's penchant for wearing loose, tropical shirts, even if the cabaretista himself liked to roam around his private quarters in just his undershorts.
When it came to Ferdinand Marcos, his image would be shaped by two very contrasting periods—the atmosphere of the swinging sixties and the radical mood of the early 1970s. There is Marcos as a modernizer of the nation's infrastructure, his bold-striped sport shirt clearly mod, and Marcos as an effigy that caricaturized him as "Hitler, diktador, tuta." The democratic Marcos was a portrait of confidence and vigor, complemented by his wife, Imelda, who contributed her inherent glamour to her husband's presidency.
But after his historic and controversial reelection in 1969, Marcos finally carried out his long-standing threat of martial law and brought in the darkest chapter in Philippine history. The overriding theme of that period was "Bagong Lipunan," a quasi-fascist anthem with a Filipino touch that complemented the collarless, stylishly clever, Mao-like Barong Tagalog that Marcos had introduced in that period.
When the end came for Marcos, following the People Power uprising that carried Corazon Aquino to power, he was whisked away to Hawaii bloated in the face and broken—wearing a jacket and what looked like a fisherman's hat.
Joseph "Erap" Estrada came to power in an era of stability. That he should jeopardize it two years after his election by being driven out of office under charges of plunder showed that he matched the flamboyance of Quezon but not his vision, and the mass appeal of Magsaysay, but not his compassion. Erap insisted on wearing the badges of the characters he played in his movie star past—wristband, sunglasses, jacket.
Self-styled as being part of the masa he chose to defend, Erap jabbed the air when he delivered his speeches, which delighted his Cabinet and supporters who chose to look past the contradictions in his lifestyle. Unfortunately, businessmen grumbled when Estrada and his friends began venturing into their interests. It didn't matter, of course, that Estrada fancied wearing a tie now and then, in keeping with the dress code of his actual social class. He was as brazen as his movies and his fall came hard and fast—becoming the first president to be impeached in our political history.
Yet no matter this dubious distinction, Erap's star power remains strong; he was able to win the mayoralty seat of the country's capital. Indeed, Erap's greatest accessory is his charm, comparable to that of Don Manuel and The Guy.
This story first appeared in Vault Issue 2, 2011.