Ramon C. Sunico talks about how the bestselling book, Some are Smarter Than Others: A History of Marcos’ Crony Capitalism, was made under everyone’s noses.
Source: Ramón C. Sunico | Esquiremag.ph
The eyes of publishers and printers light up before any impending election. Besides prospects of multiple print runs of posters, flyers and sample ballots, there are ghost-written (and usually revisionist) biographies commissioned by candidates, published just before the campaign season kicks in then donated as “gifts” and given prominence on store shelves to facilitate recall. Which candidate after all can spurn the gravitas, commissioned or not, that a book can bestow?
It’s not all just gravitas, however. In recent memory, there are the two joke anthologies by Miriam Defensor Santiago, Stupid is Forever and Stupid is Forever More, both published by ABS-CBN. Traditional publishers wrung their hands in envy when these books broke records as copies flew off the shelves. This prompted the country’s biggest bookstore chain to buy whole print runs, effectively removing that monkey on every publisher’s back: risk.
The eyes of publishers and printers light up before any impending election. Which candidate after all can spurn the gravitas, commissioned or not, that a book can bestow?
The books themselves are descendants of sorts of Eraption: How to Speak English Without Really Trial (1994) credited to authors Emil P. Jurado and Reli L. German and editors Ben Medina and Bert Florentino, Jr. The book, a collection of what used to be called moron jokes, sought to turn criticism about eventual President Joseph Estrada’s fractured English and challenged intelligence on its head, turning the candidate from an object of scorn into one of affection.
Outside of joke books and utilitarian memoirs, however, there are few election-related titles that enjoy both critical and commercial success: exemplars of truth-telling that capture both the imagination and intellectual curiosity of a public more at home with political discourse that is one part gossip and one part insult.
Looking back at my late and sometimes lamented publishing career, I am grateful for being involved in two projects that came close to this difficult ideal. The most recent one might not even count, since it was published after an election. Ambition, Destiny, Victory: Stories from a Presidential Election (2011) by Chay F. Hofileña and Miriam Grace A. Go told backstories of the campaigns of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates during the election that saw Mar Roxas giving way to Noynoy Aquino. The backstories provided both expert and passerby with entry points into how and why presidential campaigns are run, how and why they succeed, how and why they fail. The first print run sold out quickly even as academics, political analysts and PR operatives praised the research and narrative style of Hofileña and Go.
The other project is less well-known, lost in time and the convenient amnesia with which we love to berate ourselves.
It began just before the 1992 general election, the first “regular” election since the Snap Election of 1986, the rejection of which results for fraud would quickly lead to the expulsion of Marcos the dictator. (How ironic that Marcos’s beau geste before the American TV public would bring about the end of his rule.)
By 1992, the “new” Commission on Elections included such people as Haydee Yorac and Christian Monsod. That such upstanding, competent and intelligent citizens were now Comelec commissioners underlined how important this election was seen to be. For many, it was the first step towards political normalcy and a judgment that the past decades since the 1969 elections—comprising the subsequent declaration of Martial Law and EDSA—were a bizzaro version of how Filipinos really “did democracy” whose long-reaching after-effects still had to be addressed and righted. This election then represented the end of the morality/miracle play about Satan and the Saint who replaced him. The end of the age of Sauron, so to speak, and the beginning of the age of men.
The enthusiasm for normalcy in the aftermath of great deeds was reflected in the list of candidates for president. Fidel V. Ramos of Lakas–NUCD (People Power–National Union of Christian Democrats) and Ramon Mitra, Jr. of Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino were associated with the EDSA uprising and President Cory Aquino. Jovito Salonga of the Liberal Party and Salvador Laurel of the Nacionalista Party represented the old two-party system that held sway before Marcos’s Bagong Lipunan. And, speaking of Marcos and our extraordinarily forgiving culture, both Eduardo Cojuangco, Jr. of the Nationalist People’s Coalition and Imelda Marcos of the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan were able to run in probably the last chance then for the restoration of said Lipunan. But there was one more candidate whose roots could not be traced to traditional politics. This was the articulate and charismatic Miriam Defensor-Santiago of the People’s Reform Party whose campaign would electrify school auditoriums all over the country.
The biggest fear, at least for those who had rejected Marcos, was the re-emergence of the old apparatus the dictator had erected and had presumably over two decades to sink its black roots deep into the body politic and hide the wealth it had amassed—wealth that could now be used for a second day of reckoning.
Political pundits eagerly indulged in an orgy of analysis. They quickly took note of the novelty of a free election with so many candidates, coming as it did after the mano a mano of 1986 and the absolutism of the ’70s and ’80s. The biggest desire was to build on the democratic space EDSA had opened. The biggest fear, at least for those who had rejected Marcos, was the re-emergence of the old apparatus the dictator had erected and (with the disappointing performance of the Presidential Commission on Good Government) that had presumably over two decades to sink its black roots deep into the body politic and hide the wealth it had amassed, wealth that could now be used for a second day of reckoning.
It was an almost Dickensian scenario: the best and the worst. The old and the new. Hope for the future and fear of the past. But “almost” is not “is”. Where Dickens drew such drama from dual states and dual ends, the Filipinos now faced a turo-turo of choices. Journalists and statisticians wondered aloud about how the Marcos forces could benefit from the lack of a united front and a common candidate. What, for example, if Imelda endorsed Danding, a candidate who not only had a coalition of politicians behind him, but also one of the country’s biggest corporations with the logistical chops to reach every sari-sari store in the archipelago? Clearly, the next president would come to power from winning a plurality of votes, not an absolute majority.
During these interesting times, I was working in a publishing house that specialized in children’s books. Having left teaching for making books in 1983, I had gotten to know quite a few printing presses. I had seen how in 1986, during the Snap Election, printing presses long marooned in the doldrums of Marcosian censorship, suddenly rang with print jobs for the 45-day campaign period. I saw how they ran Marcos posters in the dayshift and got paid with bayongs of cash, even as they printed Cory posters (with mere promises of payment) late in the night. The windfalls did not flag, as books, newspapers, and periodicals multiplied like so many fish and loaves of bread in the wave of protests after the elections.
It was some months before the 1992 election then when an old friend from school walked into the office we were renting from a printing press. He was a curious sight: wearing a plain white T-shirt, nondescript pants and black sandals, Ric Manapat, whom we had teased about his height (or lack thereof) since high school, had one arm barely managing to wrap itself around an old Mac Plus. In his other hand was a bag with an external drive as wide as the Mac itself. Greeting me with a grin, he put his load on a table and said, “Pare, may papakita ako sa iyo.” Then, he proceeded to plug in the Mac and hard drive. A few minutes later, I would see the manuscript of the book that would change his life. It had the title, Some Are Smarter Than Others.
People who were around at that time knew where the title was supposed to have come from. It was a statement credited to Imelda Marcos, when asked by the journalist Roy Rowan about the unexplained wealth of the Marcos cronies, she was supposed to have made the blithe reply, “Sometimes you have smart relatives who can make it. My dear, there are always people who are just a little faster, more brilliant and more aggressive.” Its subtitle was, “The History of Marcos’ Crony Capitalism.” But it was another quote from another widow of another politician that caught my eye: “Beware of history, for no secret can be hidden from her,” from Gregoria de Jesus, widow of Andres Bonifacio, in Mga Tala ng Aking Buhay at mga Ulat ng Katipunan (1932).
To be sure, this was not the first time I had heard of the book. An earlier edition, no more than a pamphlet really, started to circulate by the end of 1979. But 1979 under Marcos was a different world from 1992 under Cory Aquino. Inspired by the research and writings of John Doherty, S.J. on the Philippine economy, interlocking corporate directorships and the cronies of Marcos, the 40-page monograph was produced following the Russian samizdat (a self-publishing house) model, but more commonly called Xerox journalism in later years.
In spite of the great risks and the financial difficulties accompanying its publication, the pamphlet was successfully reproduced and distributed by the Kasapi (Kapulungan ng mga Sandigan ng Pilipinas), a political group active since the late 1960’s. Using a dilapidated mimeographing machine and donated supplies, volunteers were sequestered for two weeks at the residence of Renato Tañada and were not permitted to leave until they had reproduced and collated 2,000 copies of the pamphlet. Members of the Kasapi as well as other friends took care of the distribution. As a safety precaution for the two authors of the original study, a disinformation tactic was employed and a note was added that the pamphlet was the product of company researches on the status of its business competitors. The aim was to mislead the Martial Law regime into looking for the corporate research arm of a leading company rather than an underground political group.
The anonymous pamphlet, sometimes called “The Octopus” because of the striking illustration that adorned it, would become a legend in universities and among the forces that resisted the Marcos regime, one of the early documents in an underground movement that would eventually see photocopied articles, cassette tapes and Betamax/VHS video cartridges being passed around not just in schools and the safehouses of activists but also in the subdivisions of the middle class as well as the posh villages of the very rich. As the editor who asked me to write this article rightly saw, if some were smarter than others, there were also those on the opposite side who were at least as smart, and clearly, braver than others.
I remember thinking of not just an octopus but also of a subtle, supple spider’s web wrapped invisibly around the boardrooms of the country, blurring the lines between theft and privilege.
By the time Ric walked into my office over a decade later, the 40 pages had grown into what would be over 600 pages of a proper 7×10-inch book. He also felt confident enough to add his name to the book, although he did recount that he had done early research for it with a colegiala in a house that ironically stood along the same street as that of Danding Cojuangco. In that decade, Ric had taken refuge in Queens, New York, after being implicated in the bombing of the PICC, and used the greater access to information in the States and post-Marcos Philippines to fill in the gaps and shortcomings of “The Octopus,” filling in the descriptions of the cronies and a short history of theft, plunder, and cronyism in government that he traced as far back as the Philippine Revolution against Spain.
He walked in to ask me for help in getting the book made before the coming general election. A look at the Mac Plus showed me how much more extensive the research had become. If one added, I thought, the media companies and utilities the Martial Law regime had taken over “to protect the security” of the nation to this massive tree of interlocking corporations coerced, co-opted and controlled by the proxies and subalterns of the dictator, one could imagine Marcos’s breathtaking hold over and access to the national economy. I remember thinking of not just an octopus but also of a subtle, supple spider’s web wrapped invisibly around the boardrooms of the country, blurring the lines between theft and privilege.
The manuscript was more or less finished. After a cursory scan, I helped finalize the layout of the inside pages and designed the cover following Ric’s instructions to use the illustration of the octopus he provided. To simplify printing, I designed a cover that would be printed in just two colors, red and black (with white providing the illusion of a third color).
To get the book printed, I first had to explain what the book was about to the manager of the one of the presses I used most often. The manager was personally sympathetic to the project (his wife belonged to a group that supported Cory) but as manager, he had the twin tasks of 1) protecting the press from lawsuits and acts of sabotage and 2) ensuring that the press made at least some money from it. It was a commercial press after all. He would consult both a lawyer and then the owner of the press. Eventually, I wound up talking to the owner of the press as well. We all eventually agreed on a simple arrangement. The book would be accepted as a regular, commercial print job (After all, we are free now, the owner would say). But the book, upon printing, would be delivered directly to a place of Ric’s choosing.
It was clear that even then, we were all aware of how powerful still the Marcos side could be and how easily books could be destroyed by fire or the water used to put out the fire. Finally, the manager agreed to talk to Ric directly, emphasizing that this would be a strict printing (rather than a publishing) job. He took one look at the white T-shirt and sandals though and worried whether Ric would be able to pay for the job. I reassured him and vouched for Ric yet again. The 50 percent deposit was paid and production began. But even a thousand copies of a 600-page book would take some time to print, collate, and bind.
As an extra layer of security, we hid the identity of the press and made up the name of a publisher based in New York. Ric used the Greek word for truth, aletheia. It was one of the favorite words of Ateneo’s Philosophy Club of which we were once both members. After all, we thought, echoing the words of a slogan that appeared in many T-shirts at the time, the fact that you’re paranoid does not mean they are not out to get you. Weeks later, as the book began to take Manila by secret storm, we would get inadvertent help from the late Max Soliven, who in praising the book, also vouched for the quality of the publisher. Chuckling to ourselves, we speculated that he had mistaken our ghost publisher for the very real Athenaeum Press in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In the meantime, Ric asked for help in marketing the book. I advised that he publish two editions, one in bookpaper and another in cheaper newsprint to make sure that people could buy one if not the other. I helped him price both as well. Finally, I advised him not to offer the book to any of the bookstore chains first. On one hand, I felt that this would protect the interests of the bookstores and on the other hand, I also felt that using unconventional outlets could add to the romance of a book that was full of mind-numbing facts and figures.
In truth, I did not know how much money Ric had or didn’t have. I was to learn later that he was ready to sell his beat-up car once the balance came due. He had 30 days after full delivery to make good on his debt. Before that happened though, he had arranged a quiet meeting in a condominium in Makati. It was with a small group of journalists and business people that included Teddy Benigno and an Aboitiz. To them, he handed out complimentary “review” copies after explaining what the book was about. The silence that ensued as people thumbed over their copies was unforgettable. The meeting ended soon after that.
Ric would make arrangements to sell the book at sari-sari stores near Morato Ave. and the Asian Center in UP. After that, all we could do was wait. The press manager was getting antsy about getting paid. In one conversation about payment, he and Ric almost came to fisticuffs in full view of the press, so I hustled them into my office after making them aware that all the machine operators were looking at them. The two cooled down after a while.
That was a good thing. A few days later, according to Ric, the camp of Fidel Ramos bought the balance of the first print run and placed an order for another run. Word quickly got around after that. And soon, through Anvil’s manager Karina Bolasco, who also knew Ric from school, National Bookstore placed their considerable orders. Within a week, the book became the hottest bestseller around and the press was hard put to keep up with the demand. Columnists wrote about it and the lessons to be learned from history. Trying to remember what happened then, I reckon Ric became a millionaire in a month. The threat of a Marcos or a Cojuangco victory receded.
Was the book the reason for this? Who knows? The book stopped selling within a week of election day. And Ric stopped visiting my office. But after Fidel Ramos became president, Ric was appointed director of the National Archives. Never easy to get along with, he would launch his Smart Files series of pamphlets that would earn the ire of quite a number of people, some of whom were also my friends, even as he brought in donations for the modernization of the Archives. Much later, he would become embroiled in the tawdry citizenship case against Fernando Poe, Jr. After that, he would leave the public eye, dying in his sleep of a myocardial infarction in 2008.
Why can I write all this? Well, if you still have a copy of the book, you can read his introduction. There he thanks the people who helped him, including one Mr X.
I am Mr X.