Arsenio H. Lacson, the Best President the Philippines Never Had

Mayor Arsenio Lacson (Source: Life Magazine)

Mayor Arsenio Lacson (Source: Life Magazine)

He took Philippine politics on his own terms. Had he lived long enough, Arsenio H. Lacson, Manila mayor for 12 years, had a good chance of becoming president in the rambunctious world of Philippine postwar politics.

Had he survived the stings and arrows and trials and tribulations of the postwar political era, the detested dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos could not have happened. Lacson had no respect for Marcos, whom he considered a murderer. He treated him with complete condescension.

Marcos avoided being confrontational with Lacson; he deferred and even avoided him because the latter knew his secrets. Marcos rose to the presidency after Lacson died of a heart attack in 1962 at a relatively young age of 49.

Who was Arsenio H. Lacson?

Lacson, or “Arsenic” to friends and foes alike, but “Mambo” to many journalists, could be regarded as a “Renaissance man” who excelled in sports, arts and letters.  Born to a land-owning family on December 26, 1912 in the idyllic province of Negros Occidental which, at the time, had a monocrop economy based on sugar, Lacson grew up tough and fearless, as his father feared he would turn soft and sissy because he was the youngest of four kids, the first three of whom were all girls.

He boxed and fought with the kids in the neighborhood, but he discovered he loved football, a game where he loomed high and powerful in the midfield. Lacson played in the football team of Ateneo de Manila, where he took his high school and pre-law education, and the University of Santo Tomas, where he finished his law education. He captained the Philippine football team in the 1930s.

In 1932, Lacson married Luz “Luchie” Santiago, 18, scion of a well-to-do family in Sampaloc, Manila. His marriage opened the door of politics to Lacson because Geronimo Santiago, his father-in-law, was a respected political leader, who knew practically every politician in Manila. The Lacson couple had four children.

Lacson finished law and passed the Bar in 1937. Working in the law office of Vicente Francisco, the intrepid and pugnacious lawyer considered the Philippine version of the colorful Clarence Darrow, Lacson worked in the legal team that successfully defended Marcos in the celebrated September 20, 1935 murder of Julio Nalundasan.

A lower court had earlier convicted Marcos of murder. Through the efforts of the legal team, of which Lacson was a key contributor, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision and acquitted Marcos. According to Arsenio H. Lacson of Manila, a book written by Amador Brioso Jr., Lacson knew the details of Nalundasan’s murder, implying that he was convinced that Marcos was the trigger man.

Lacson later transferred to the Department of Justice, where he worked as one of state prosecutors. On the side, Lacson pursued his career in journalism by writing a weekly column. He immediately gained a following from readers, who were enthralled by his skillfully crafted prose and mastery of the English language. Lacson had the gift of language. As shown by his written works, he appeared deeply schooled in the classics.

Lacson did resistance work during the Japanese occupation in the last world war. He was a recognized guerilla, who did intelligence works to pave the way for the return of the U.S. liberation forces in 1945.

Lacson immediately rebuilt his journalistic career after the war. As a hard-hitting columnist and, a little later, an irreverent radio commentator, he gained a big readership. Brioso described his journalistic ways in the following words: “Lacson would take on anyone and anything. He launched tirades against the high and mighty. He [ridiculed] any character, who took his fancy. His style, his language is pure Lacsonesque: profanity-laced, rough, replete with ungrammatical niceties, fraught with flowery prose. And the subjects he covered ranged from the powerful to the not-so-powerful, the mundane to the inane, the filthy and the unsoiled.

Lacson, the Arsenic, on his radio program (Source: Xiao Time)

Lacson, the Arsenic, on his radio program (Source: Xiao Time)

“It was the start of a new Lacson – as the tough and fiery newspaperman, Lacson the fightingiest (sic) columnist, Lacson the Arsenic.”

Lacson opposed the Bell Trade Act, which the U.S. government sought to provide equal rights to American entrepreneurs in the exploitation of the country’s resources. He called it a “big joke” and its acceptance a “sellout” by the government of Manuel Roxas, the first president of the independent Philippine Republic.

He did not spare U.S. point man Paul McNutt from his criticisms, as he took notice of the latter’s machinations to include in the U.S.-initiated Philippine Rehabilitation Act a major provision that tied U.S. postwar aid to the approval of the Bell Trade Act. In fact, American leaders mistook Lacson for being anti-American.

His huge following was his ticket to a political career. In 1949, he was elected representative of the second congressional district of Manila, a big part of which included the Chinatown district, defeating established politicians.

In the House of Representatives, Lacson joined first termers who rose to national prominence: Diosdado Macapagal, Lacson’s classmate in law school, who rose to become vice president and eventually president; Ferdinand Marcos, eventual president and dictator; Emmanuel Pelaez, who became senator and vice president; and the likes of Arturo Tolentino and Jose Roy, who became senators.

Just to show that he was about to spring some surprises in Congress, Lacson, on December 30, 1949, or the start of the six-day special session, which Quirino called to enact pending bills, stood on a question of collective privilege to ask if Speaker Eugenio Perez was fit to lead the House of Representatives because of the latter’s alleged involvement in immigration quotas. It was his first official act as a lawmaker, but Lacson was firm about the existence of a scandal, where elected officials cornered and sold quotas for immigrants, mostly Chinese.

The first two years of Lacson’s four-year tenure as lawmaker proved his mettle as oppositionist in Congress. He opposed sending Philippine troops to Korea, worked to reduce Chinese immigration quota from 500 to 50 annually, called for an independent foreign policy while supporting the Philippine claim of sovereignty over the North Bornean state of Sabah, and stood against corruption in government. Journalists representing 10 publications ranked him as one of the “ten outstanding lawmakers.”

Brioso narrated two vignettes about Lacson’s separate tussles with two future presidents – Marcos and Macapagal. In a fiery debate with Marcos on the floor, Lacson took notice of how the former kept pointing his index finger during the interpellation. Lacson protested and asked for “protection” from the chair because Marcos’ use of his index finger reminded him of the trigger finger used in the Nalundasan murder. Marcos got angry and shouted an invective against Lacson.

In another instance, Lacson, irked by Macapagal’s frequent objections to the issues he raised on the floor, challenged him to a fistfight outside the plenary hall. Macapagal obliged and they went to an unoccupied committee room to settle the issue. Their colleagues tried to stop them, but to no avail. As they reached the room, the two stopped momentarily and sized up each other. Then, they broke into laughter and hugged each other. They had taken their colleagues for a ride.

Although judged as “the most colorful lawmaker,” Lacson was not happy to remain in Congress. He did not want to remain enmeshed in all those debates and lawmaking tasks. In 1951, he ran and won to become the first elective mayor of Manila, besting his arch-enemy, Manuel de la Fuente of the Liberal Party. Now, Lacson had the unique chance to improve Manila, which was badly damaged in the last world war.

Lacson improved Manila’s financial position, police work and visibility, cracked down on criminals and cleaned the city of its garbage and mess. He uncovered anomalies in City Hall, earning the enmity of councilors, most of whom belonged to the Liberal Party. Lacson, who belonged to the opposition Nacionalista Party, quarreled with his vice-mayor, Bartolome Gatmaitan. His flamboyant ways did not sit well with his colleagues.

A monument to Lacson at Manila City Hall (Source: Urban Roamer)

A monument to Lacson at Manila City Hall (Source: Urban Roamer)

Lacson took extra effort for the city government to pay its debts, stopped the practice of political appointees who received salaries without working, personally led raids of the underworld and broke the links between criminal gangs and the police. He captured the national imagination. Shortly before the run-up to the 1953 presidential election, Lacson was bruited as the possible running mate of Ramon Magsaysay, who resigned as defense secretary of President Quirino to run as the standard bearer of the Nacionalista Party.

It was during Lacson’s first term as Manila mayor that an incident became a controversy even after he died. It happened on March 23, 1953. A tall lady from Leyte went to his office “on the strength of a previously scheduled appointment.” Imelda Romualdez, who later became the wife of Marcos and the other half of what was termed the “conjugal dictatorship,” appealed to Lacson that she should be the winner of Miss Manila, not a certain Norma Jimenez, who was earlier declared winner by the pageant’s board.

By that time, Lacson had established the nasty reputation of being a chain smoking, hard-drinking and womanizing politician, who lived fast. Over the years, the fateful meeting became a favorite topic of gossiping coffee shop denizens, who said that Imee Marcos, the eldest of three Marcos children, is not Imelda’s daughter by Ferdinand but Lacson’s. They based the rumor to what appears to be the similarity of Imee’s face to Lacson’s. But it is a rumor that has remained an urban legend, unverified until now.

Lacson rejected his possible nomination as Magsaysay’s running mate. He did not feel that he was ripe for national office. He supported Sen. Carlos P. Garcia instead. The Magsaysay-Garcia tandem easily won in 1953. His decision to decline Magsaysay’s personal invitation for him to become his running mate had profound effects on him. His popularity could have won him the vice presidency. He could have been the president after Magsaysay perished in a plane crash in 1957. Instead, Lacson ran for reelection as Manila mayor in 1955 and easily won.

In a fiery debate with Marcos on the floor, Lacson took notice how the former kept pointing his index finger during the interpellation. Lacson protested and asked for “protection” from the chair because Marcos’ use of his index finger reminded him of the trigger finger used in the Nalundasan murder.

At the run-up to the 1953 presidential elections, Magsaysay believed that Lacson had better chances than Garcia. Lacson was a gifted public speaker; he could enthrall the public with his bombastic speeches. Moreover, he could reap votes from the Visayas and Mindanao. But it was not his destiny to become president.

On March 15, 1957, Magsaysay was among the visitors of Lacson, who had a four-hour surgery for his sinus condition two days earlier at the Manila Doctors Hospital. It was the last time he saw Magsaysay, as the latter perished with 25 others in a plane crash two days later. 

Lacson could not help but feel wistful that he could have been president had he acceded to Magsaysay’s invitation to be his running mate. He felt Garcia could not continue Magsaysay’s works. In his view, Garcia was too old school. Garcia believed in dividing the spoils of victory. He was inclined to grant favors to families and friends, who helped him in his political career.

Lacson contemplated running either for president or vice president in the 1957 elections. Sometime in March 1957, Marcos, an ambitious congressman, visited Lacson in his Earnshaw residence in the Manila district of Sampaloc to propose what he described as a “dream team”: Lacson would leave the Nacionalista Party and join the rival Liberal Party to run as its president with Marcos as his running mate.

Lacson rebuffed Marcos’s advances, saying half-jestingly that he would not want to run for president with a running mate who was a murderer, because he could plot his death to replace him.

Although Lacson was seen as a strong and viable contender for either the presidency or vice presidency, he did not figure prominently in the 1957 Nacionalista Party convention. His expose against Garcia before the national convention did not gain enough momentum to catapult him to prominence. It somehow backfired, as he lost the vice presidential nomination. The year 1957 proved bad for him.

Mayor Arsenio Lacson, President Diosdado Macapagal and Senator Ferdinand Marcos

Mayor Arsenio Lacson, President Diosdado Macapagal and Senator Ferdinand Marcos

Garcia won over Jose Yulo of the Liberal Party in the 1957 elections. But his running mate, Speaker Jose Laurel Jr., lost to Yulo’s mate Diosdado Macapagal, giving the country a mixed combination. Garcia lost in Manila, prompting Lacson to resign his post as mayor. But Garcia and other Nacionalista leaders prevailed on him to stay.

This time, Lacson pursued several projects which could be regarded as his legacies for Manila. He initiated the lighting of Dewey Boulevard, later renamed Roxas Boulevard, established the Manila Zoological and Botanical Garden in Harrison Park and built the Quiapo Underpass, later renamed Lacson Underpass, as well as the modern slaughterhouse in Vitas, Tondo.

In the 1959 midterm elections, Lacson won for the third time, besting seven other mayoral candidates. But the surprise came with the election as vice mayor of Antonio Villegas of the Liberal Party. Lacson and Villegas had acrimonious relations characterized by frequent fights that bordered on the ridiculous.

For instance, Villegas insisted and actually assumed the post of acting mayor whenever Lacson left to attend some speaking engagements in the provinces. Lacson was never happy with Villegas’ public display of enthusiasm to become the acting mayor. But it was in 1960 when the colorful Manila mayor was embroiled in a controversy that became the talk of the city, even the entire country.

On March 16, 1960, Lacson filed charges against Marcelino Calinawan Jr., whom Garcia appointed as presidential assistant to look into the alleged corruption at the Bureau of Customs. Lacson alleged that Calinawan received a salary as lieutenant commander, when he was not commissioned in that military position. This provoked Calinawan, prompting him to issue pubic statements that attacked Lacson personally.

Knowing that Lacson had the goods on him, Calinawan alleged that since Lacson’s father was an illegitimate child, he did not have the right to use the surname Lacson. Calinawan claimed that the mayor’s father was listed as Ledesma in the Talisay Church’s baptismal registry, but somehow managed to change his surname to Lacson. Ergo, the mayor did not have the right to carry the name Lacson, making him “the biggest fake.”

In Lacson’s view, what Calinawan did was below the belt. He did not have to drag his parents’ name and honor to the controversy. This pushed him to challenge Calinawan to a gun duel, of which the latter obliged because he felt he was younger and bigger. Lacson sent him a note specifying the place, date and time of the gun duel. Capt. James Barbers, Lacson’s aide, personally delivered the note to Calinawan.

The ballyhooed gun duel was set to take place on the following Monday, at 3 p.m., in front of the Rizal Monument in Luneta Park. Many political leaders tried to stop the two protagonists mainly because dueling is illegal. But the two persisted in what appeared to be their final appointment with destiny.

From his suite at the Filipinas Hotel (it burned down in late 1977) along Roxas Boulevard, Lacson and his aides went the Rizal Monument at exactly 2:50 p.m., bringing with him a .357 Magnum revolver as his weapon he felt uncomfortable seeing a huge contingent of media men waiting to cover the duel.

Defense Secretary Alejo Santos and Brig. Gen. Antonio de Veyra rushed to the scene to stop Lacson, but the latter was adamant, telling them that Calinawan went too far by insulting his parents and ancestors. Calinawan was a no-show. At 3:15 p.m., Lacson left, hitching a ride in Santos’ car, which took him to the Manila Zoo, where the mayor later acted as guide to show the new animals.

But Calinawan arrived a few minutes after Lacson left; he stayed in an area near the Rizal Monument, as a contingent of the paramilitary Constabulary officers stopped him. He was unarmed. He told the Constabulary officials he did not bring any firearm because he thought the duel would be with bare fists because a gun duel was against the law. He lamented that Lacson made a “public show” of the supposed gun duel.

Lacson spent the rest of 1960 and 1961 feuding with Villegas, although they later reconciled. He declared he would not support Garcia in his reelection bid in 1961. In the run-up to the 1961 presidential election, Lacson supported Senate President Eulogio “Amang” Rodriguez, who openly feuded with Garcia after the latter reneged on his earlier promise that he would not seek a reelection. But Garcia outmaneuvered Rodriguez and Lacson within the Nacionalista Party.

This prompted Lacson to resign from the Nacionalista Party. Lacson chose to assume the post of campaign manager of the Liberal Party ticket of Vice President Diosdado Macapagal and Sen. Emmanuel Pelaez. Macapagal and Pelaez won over the tandem of Garcia and Sen. Gil Puyat.

Lacson campaigned vigorously for the winning ticket, wowing the public with his oratorical skills during the political campaign. In fact, Lacson was always the last to speak in every political rally because people waited for his fire and brimstone. 

The Nacionalista leaders did not immediately act on Lacson’s resignation, although it was generally conceded that his presence as campaign manager was a big factor in the political victory of the Liberal Macapagal-Pelaez ticket. But his association with the Liberal Party, which became the party in power, had political dividends.

Although Lacson was a nominal Nacionalista, he was able to swing concessions from the party in power, which included legislations for the construction of reclamation projects extending Manila North Harbor and Manila South Harbor, a big part of which is now the Manila International Container Port, a modern-day hospital (now the Ospital ng Maynila) and the establishment of a Manila university, now the Pamantasan ng Maynila.

Lacson had other sterling ideas for Manila, most of which were not pursued because of his death. These included the construction of an oceanarium to be located in a lot adjacent to the Manila Zoo (this is now occupied by Harrison Plaza), terminals at the boundaries for provincial buses, the conversion of the Manila City Jail into a modern national jail and a multi-level parking building in Plaza Binondo.

On the political front, Lacson was elected chair of the League of Provincial Governors and City Mayor with Tarlac Governor Benigno Aquino Jr. as his secretary-general. Lacson took steps to sustain the Philippine claim of sovereignty over the North Bornean state of Sabah. He pushed for the settlement of the proprietary rights of the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu over the state, which was then to become part of the Malaysia federation.

Although his relationship with Macapagal was becoming sour, Lacson’s popularity soared, making him viable for the 1965 presidential election. Political pundits claimed his time had indeed come. But it was not meant to be. 

On April 15, 1962, an Easter Sunday, Lacson suffered a heart attack, his first, leading to his death. The circumstances of his death were quite confusing. One version said he was at his Earnshaw home, preparing details for his radio program later in the night. Another version said he played golf at the Wack-Wack Golf Course in Mandaluyong and even had a talk with Rodriguez.

Lacson had lunch with his family at his home. He even cooked food for the family. By 2 p.m., he left for Filipinas Hotel, where he had a suite. By 5 p.m., he woke up and called up his friend Nick Osmena, son of former president Sergio Osmena Sr., asking him to listen to his radio program, where he intended to discuss the claim over Sabah. At 5:40 p.m., a hotel boy received a call from Lacson asking for some ice.

Pablo Olazo, the hotel staff, brought ice to him, but he saw that the mayor was in pain and perspiring. He informed the mayor’s aides, who rushed to his room. Lacson asked them to summon his personal physician at the nearby Manila Doctors’ Hospital. Lacson even raised his hand, but he collapsed into the arms of one of his aides.

Dr. Godofredo Banzon, the first doctor to arrive, administered emergency medicine to the mayor, but he died anyway. A second and third doctor arrived, but they all saw him dead. News of his death jolted the entire city and the country. By midnight, news of his death was flashed over radio and TV. It was the newspapers’ headline the following day.

Macapagal declared a four-day national mourning. His interment was set on April 18 at the Manila North Cemetery. Brioso’s book said nearly a million attended his funeral procession. He was buried at noontime. 

A scuttlebutt that reached the level of urban legend was about actress Rosario Violeta Solis Hernandez, aka Charito Solis. The gossip was that Lacson was beside her when he had his fatal heart attack. Rumors said some people saw Charito Solis running half-naked from Filipinas Hotel. In fact, it had become a sick joke. Men would naughtily say that Lacson’s death was not a case of DoA, or dead on arrival, but DoT, or dead on top. Solis died in 1998.

Brioso’s book said Solis, as attested to by his friends, was indeed with Lacson on that day, but also with them. Other parties said that Lacson was with a woman with whom he had a son named after him, and the paramour had a striking resemblance to Solis.

Arsenio H. Lacson of Manila , a book written by Amador Brioso, Jr.

Arsenio H. Lacson of Manila, a book written by Amador Brioso, Jr.

Despite the brickbats against Lacson and charges that he used his office to enrich himself, he died a poor man. He did not have fat bank accounts. He did not leave any piece of property except the Earnshaw residence, which was a gift from his rich parents-in-law. His wife and kids had to work to fend for themselves and earn a living.

But he showed the country how to live a life of integrity as a public official. His wit, humor and courage were unparalleled. Lacson enriched the country’s political history by becoming a model of upright living for every public official. He appropriately earned the distinction of being the best president the Philippines never had.

Philip M. Lustre, Jr.

Philip M. Lustre, Jr.

Philip M. Lustre Jr. is a veteran journalist, whose career spans four decades. He worked as reporter for foreign news organizations and local newspapers. He also wrote opinion pieces for local publications. He now does freelance writing, mostly book projects.