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Goodnight Mr. Ambassador

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(A tribute to the Honorable Emmanuel N. Pelaez)

Pelaez, Cory and Chua From time to time, the world is blessed with great men and women of superior intellect, magnificent talent and unquestionable integrity, people who are God's gift to mankind. For the Philippines, one of these blessings was a gentleman named Emmanuel N. Pelaez, who passed away Sunday, July 27, 2003, at the age of 87. I learned of this sad news while on a flight from Los Angeles to Manila, final destination Cebu.

I first met the Honorable Emmanuel N. Pelaez in 1986 when I was president of the Association of Philippine Physicians in America (APPA), the national umbrella organization of all Filipino-American medical societies in the various cities in the United States. He was then the Philippine Ambassador to the United States. Since then, we had several meetings and encounters, in Manila, in Northwest Indiana, Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York, etc. The most memorable one was when he invited my wife, Farida, our son, Phil, Jr., daughter Portia, and me, and some of our close friends to his home in Ayala Alabang. We were all quite impressed with the low-keyed, unassuming, unpretentious, and sincerely natural hospitality of Ambassador and Mrs. Pelaez.

Here was a man of great political stature, a tremendously admired icon, not only in the Philippines but in the United States and other parts of the globe, who treated everybody like his equal, with friendship, dignity and respect, without any air of superiority, in spite of his greatness. When you were with him, anywhere, either in Malacañang, in the Senate hall, on a convention floor, or in a restaurant, his natural kind demeanor made you feel at home, and very comfortable in his presence. Every moment with him enriched you with his wisdom and foresight, his disappointment about our country's political corruption and dilemma, his abundant pride in our native land and the Filipino people, and his hope for a glorious future for the Philippines. His love for his country, which he had honorably served for seven decades, had always been obvious in his words and, more so, in his actions, wherever he was.

The younger generation may not know or remember Emmanuel N. Pelaez, but history will surely and generously record his numerous personal, professional and political achievements and, above all, his remarkable qualities that distinguished him from the majority of his peers, especially in politics, yesterday, and even today.

Emmanuel N. Pelaez was born on November 30, 1915 in Medina, Misamis Oriental to Gregorio Pelaez Sr. and Felipa Neri. He was valedictorian when he graduated from the Cagayan de Oro Elementary School and was awarded highest honors in high school at the Ateneo de Manila. He obtained an Associate of Arts degree at the UP Junior College in Cebu, a Bachelor of Laws at the University of the Philippines in 1938, and topped the bar examinations that year.

He worked his way up, from being a Senate clerk in 1934, debate reporter, court translator, assistant court reporter at the Court of Appeals, and special prosecutor in 1945-46. While he practiced law from 1946 to 1963, he was at the same time professor of law at the University of Manila. While working in Congress, he developed a close friendship with then senator Ramon Magsaysay Sr., who became one of the most loved presidents of the Philippines. The charismatic president anointed Emmanuel N. Pelaez his trusted aide.

Emmanuel N. Pelaez was elected representative for Misamis Oriental for two terms (1949-53 and 1965-69). He was elected Senator in 1953, on Magsaysay's ticket, and served for seven years. This position created a momentum that catapulted him to the Vice Presidency of the Philippines in 1961-1965 during the term of Diosdado Macapagal, where he also served concurrently as Secretary of Foreign Affairs for almost a year and a half. His action defending the plight of the coconut farmers against the cronies of Ferdinand Marcos and decision to run against Marcos as the presidential nominee of the Nationalista Party landed him in a hospital on the night of July 21, 1982, riddled with bullet wounds, an obvious assassination attempt. He narrowly escaped death but his driver was killed.

In a Philippine Inquirer interview in 1992, Pelaez linked Marcos and businessman Eduardo Cojuangco to this crime. "When you have a President covering up, there was no way for getting to the truth," he stated when Marcos tried to cover up the crime by blaming the shooting on Muslim separatists. After the incident that nearly cost his life, he distanced himself from Marcos. After Ninoy Aquino was assassinated, he campaigned vigorously for Cory Aquino.

Following the successful bloodless overthrow of the dictator Marcos by People Power in 1986, the newly elected President, Cory Aquino, appointed Emmanuel N. Pelaez Ambassador to Washington, and later named him Head of the Rural Electrification Commission, which post had earned him the title "father of rural electrification."

As Ambassador to Washington, the Honorable Emmanuel N. Pelaez captivated not only the Filipinos but the Americans and other foreigners in the United States as well, with his excellent command of the English language and diction, which were exceeded only by his wit, humor, eloquence and impeccable extemporaneous delivery. I have witnessed this on several occasions, when American and European audiences were extremely awed by the magnificence, wisdom and splendor of the speeches of this tall and handsome mestizo. This noble statesman had facility in foreign relations second to none. He was a genuine, loyal and a just diplomat, representing the best interests of his country and the Filipino people. Because of him, the Philippines, and the world as a whole for that matter, are a better place.

"He expressed his nationalism not in public rhetoric but through love and service to the country while remaining faithful to his view of the Philippines as a member of a larger global community," thus remembered her daughter, Berry Pelaez-Marfori. She stated that as a legislator, his father "leveraged his political career to enact laws that would change the face of his countryside, like the Barrio Charter which allowed empowerment of the grassroots."

Although Emmanuel N. Pelaez was man of distinction and of high caliber, he had humility that was exceedingly sincere. He would ask friends to call him by his nickname. "Phil, please call me Maning," he once whispered to me with his usual signature smile as I sat beside him during a banquet. I told him I would call him by his nickname when I became as great, and as tall, as he was. He was quick to respond, "Phil, have you thought of entering politics?" and then chuckled.

While he was being wheeled to the hospital bleeding the night he was shot by assassins in 1982, he asked a poignant rhetorical and soul-searching question, which has since become a very famous quotation: "General, what is happening to our country?" He was expressing his deep dismay to General Tomas Karingal, then chief of Northern Police District. This quotation has since been used by others as a plea for justice and peace, and against abuse of power and the reign of lawlessness in the country.

But above and beyond all his style and substance, and his indomitable character, there was one personal attribute that truly separates Emmanuel N. Pelaez from most of his colleagues in the government: he was honest and decent, and not a crook. In our country today, very few politicians, if any, can pass the scrutiny and be justifiably labeled as honest, decent and not a crook. Indeed, Emmanuel N. Pelaez stands tall, a cut above the rest, even today after his death, as a man who truly deserved the title "Honorable". He was a genuine leader who truly loved and cared for his people.

The Honorable Emannuel N. Pelaez is now gone, but his legacy of unassailable character and integrity in public service and in personal life that he left behind lives on. His life and Christian examples will continue to inspire us, especially the younger generation of leaders, and serve as a beacon of light that will guide our country and our people out of this bondage of rampant corruption in government that is today holding the future of our people hostage of political cancer and decadence.

With his passing, the Philippines has lost a world-class statesman, and the Filipino people, a great and noble friend. We shall all miss him.

Ambassador Pelaez, farewell and good night. It was a privilege knowing you, Sir. May you walk with God and have eternal glory and peace.

©2003Raoul R. Diez, M.A.O.D.