The Magazine

Manila Folder

From the April 12 / April 19, 2004 issue: John Kerry's 1986 wimp-out in the Philippines.

Apr 12, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 30 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

I'VE HAD A NONPARTISAN grudge against John Kerry for 18 years. This seems an appropriate time to air it.

In February 1986, Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos--unpleasant, unwell, and unloved--held a "snap election." This was a somewhat baffling attempt to bolster his authority by running against Corazon Aquino, widow of the opposition leader assassinated by Marcos henchmen. The American diplomatic response was baffled. Marcos was a friend of America, and U.S. military bases in the Philippines were vital to Cold War strategy. But the Philippines was being rent by popular political upheaval, Communist insurgency, Muslim unrest, and economic collapse; and a stable government was needed. But a stable government run by Marcos opponents would be angry about the support Marcos had received from his most powerful, not to say only, friend.

Not knowing what the heck to do in the Philippines, the Reagan administration sent an official election observer delegation headed by Senator Richard Lugar to do what-the-heck. Lugar said his delegation's purpose was "to demonstrate the importance to the United States of free and fair elections in the Philippines." Marcos had ruled the country, by means electoral and otherwise, since 1965. There was little likelihood that the snap election would be free and fair. Not that the U.S. delegation meant to find out. Lugar said, "Our delegation is going to the Philippines to watch and observe and not to pass judgment on the elections." Among the members of this watchful, observant, and non-judgment-passing delegation was the first-term senator from Massachusetts, John Kerry.

I was in the Philippines working on an article for Rolling Stone. The elections proceeded predictably with, as I wrote at the time, "voter-registration records being destroyed, ballot boxes stolen, opposition poll watchers barred from their stations, and army trucks full of 'flying voters' moved from one spot to another." And worse. I went to a farm village, or "barangay," about 80 miles north of Manila to interview the family of Arsenio Cainglet, barangay captain for the Cory Aquino coalition. Cainglet had been shot dead while holding his favorite fighting cock on his lap. With Cainglet's 18-year-old daughter translating, I asked the mourners at his funeral if the vote count reflected the political feelings of the village. "There was an audible collective snort. The mourners looked startled. Some of them laughed. Then they were silent."

The U.S. election observer delegation proceeded predictably, also. After a couple of hours of poll-watching on election morning, Senator Lugar told Manila's government-controlled Channel 4, "The only problems I saw were minor and technical." Channel 4 played this tape clip the rest of the day. By the next morning, Lugar was indignantly telling Tom Brokaw, "It's a very, very suspicious count." But that was not shown on Philippine TV. The members of the U.S. delegation used the words "passionate commitment of the Philippine people to democracy" so often that, shortened to "Pash Commit of Flips to Dem," it became a catch phrase among reporters.

"Anything going on in Quezon City?"

"Pash Commit of Flips to Dem."

The only plain-spoken delegate I encountered was representative John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat who, I'm pleased to note, is still in Congress. He was watching a remarkable number of Marcos votes being counted in the pro-Aquino Manila suburb of Pasay. Murtha, I wrote, "tried to make some statesmanlike noises about 'the passionate commitment of the Philippine people to democracy.'...But outrage overtook him. 'You can see what's going on!' he blurted. 'You can see what the will of the people is!'"

The following is an excerpt from my Rolling Stone article, "Goons, Guns, and Gold."

Most of the Potomac Parakeets were a big disappointment. Massachusetts senator John Kerry was a founding member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, but he was a bath toy in this fray.

On Sunday night, two days after the election, thirty of the computer operators from COMELEC [the Philippine government "Commission on Elections," appointed by Marcos and in charge of compiling the final vote tally] walked off the job, protesting that the vote figures were being juggled. Aquino supporters and NAMFREL volunteers took the operators, most of them young women, to a church, and hundreds of people formed a protective barrier around them. [NAMFREL--The National Movement for Free Elections--was supposedly nonpartisan, but NAMFREL members were strongly anti-Marcos.]

Village Voice reporter Joe Conason and I had been tipped off about the walkout, and when we got to the church, we found Bea Zobel, one of Cory Aquino's top aides, in a tizzy. "The women are terrified," she said. "They're scared to go home. They don't know what to do. We don't know what to do." Joe and I suggested that Mrs. Zobel go to the Manila Hotel and bring back some members of the Congressional observer team. She came back with Kerry, who did nothing.

Kerry later said that he didn't talk to the COMELEC employees then because he wasn't allowed to. [A bone-head Rolling Stone fact-checker sent the article to Kerry's Senate office for comment. Kerry staffers were wroth and insisted the senator's version of events be included.] This is ridiculous. He was ushered into an area that had been cordoned off from the press and the crowd and where the computer operators were sitting. To talk to the women, all he would have had to do was raise his voice. Why he was reluctant, I can't tell you. I can tell you what any red-blooded representative of the U.S. Government should have done. He should have shouted, "If you're frightened for your safety, I'll take you to the American embassy, and damn the man who tries to stop me." But all Kerry did was walk around like a male model in a concerned and thoughtful pose.

And there you have probably the only comparison of Kerry to a male model ever made. Not quite trusting my memory--or my reporting, for that matter--I searched out my notes from 1986. I found some scribbles that I'd made on the Sunday night and a journal with a summation of the evening's events written two days later. I was a foreign correspondent at the time, and not much interested in domestic politics. I have Kerry down variously as "Sen. Carey" and "Rep. Kerry."

About nine o'clock on Sunday night, Conason and I were drinking in the bar of the Manila Hotel when a friend of mine from ABC News told us about the COMELEC defections. The workers who quit in protest were very young, in their teens. The 28 girls and 2 boys weren't really computer operators. They were doing data input. They were kids from poor families and very proud that they'd been to data input school. They didn't seem to be politically motivated and were at pains to describe themselves as unpolitical in a touching, if somewhat garbled, statement they read to the press at the NAMFREL-surrounded church. And they certainly were scared. But their professional dignity had been intolerably injured when the voting data that they'd input did not, as it were, outcome.

Joe and I actually sent Bea Zobel to get members of the international election observer delegation, headed by Colombia's Misael Pastrana and John Hume, from Northern Ireland. Before we'd gone to the bar, Joe and I had been at a press conference at the Manila Hotel, listening to Pastrana and Hume denounce vote fraud by Marcos. But when Zobel arrived the only election observer she could find was Kerry, having a late dinner. Zobel was gone for a long time. She said Kerry was "curt" and refused to leave until he'd finished his meal and then only reluctantly returned to the church with her.

From my journal: "Gets there & never talks to Comelec girls. Boy is ball-less. Joe and I finally push forward & tell Kerry it was us (1 Dem. & 1 Rep.) that called for him (we also heard, Comelec girls wanted Observers called). That it was Joe & me seemed to make a big difference to Kerry. Who still did f---all."

What I meant by "seemed to make a big difference" was that Kerry's ears perked right up when he heard his name called by members of the press. His reaction was to turn to us and say, magisterially, "No interviews, boys." We explained that we had no interest in interviewing him and suggested that he provide some reassurance to the frightened conscientious objectors from COMELEC.

Now, with benefit of hindsight, I think I can tell you why Kerry didn't do so. He was caught in Kerry-ish calculation--an ambitious young senator on his first important bipartisan delegation with its delicate mission of neutrality. Cory Aquino was very popular. But so was President Reagan. Which way to have it? Why, have it both ways! So Kerry was firmly behind Pash Commit of Flips to Dem, up to a point. Just as today Kerry is brave sailor/bold war protester; foe of Saddam/friend of Hans Blix; political underdog/entitled nominee; big government liberal/corporate tax-cutting conservative; rider of Harleys/marrier of Heinz; and, incidentally, still a real jerk.

P.J. O'Rourke is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of the forthcoming Peace Kills: America's Fun New Imperialism (Atlantic Monthly Press).