No wonder Ronald Reagan had that uncharacteristic little problem with an open microphone and pestering reporters last week. You, too, would probably mutter "SOBs" if your daughter had written an embarrassing roman-a-clef about the First Family, your son was seen prancing about in a pink shirt and his underpants on a national television show lampooning life with mom and pop, and those obnoxious reporters seized a photo opportunity in your own office to press you with unwelcome questions about your old pal Ferdinand Marcos, late of the Philippines.
The hurt or frustration, if any, about the children will probably subside. It's nobody else's business anyway, no matter how intent the offspring seem on exploiting their relationship. Not so, concerning Marcos. As the president likes to say, in citing that homely old aphorism from Joe Louis, on this one he can run but he can't hide.
How and to what extent Marcos plundered the Philippines is not the issue before the American government although it certainly raises questions about the wisdom of winking officially at the outrages "our" dictators perpetrate on their own people. Especially is this true if those outrages turn out to be the trigger, as inevitably they do, for the fall of the regime and creation of major new problems for U.S. policy-makers in a vital area of the world.
That Marcos was a champion at the art of corruption is not at issue either. His life offers a case study of how to succeed breathtakingly at the business of cashing in on a high public position. How much he has amassed may never be known; published estimates range up to $10 billion. Yes, that's billion, with a "b."
Not bad for a $5,700-a-year leader of a desperately impoverished country who had no history of personal wealth or family fortune. With that sort of record, he makes America's infamous symbol of political plunder, Boss Tweed, look like a country bumpkin.
Of all accounts so far of Marcos' personal holdings -- jewels, stocks, hidden investments, blind trusts, secret foreign bank accounts, real estate deeds, the labyrinthian process by which multimillion-dollar properties were purchased on Wall Street and elsewhere -- nothing more perfectly captures the essence of his reign than a color picture layout in the current Time magazine. Shown are scenes inside Malacanang Palace not long after Marcos and his entourage fled the Philippines.
One picture is fascinating. It shows a wall filled with shoes, eight shelves, in fact, containing 54 pairs of obviously stylish and thus expensive women's shoes. These stood beneath another shelf filled with purses of leather and who knows what other materials. Time helpfully captioned this photo "a department store-full of shoes and purses."
These were merely what Imelda Marcos left behind. Marie Antoinette would have burned with envy.
Revealing, or repelling, as all of this is, none of it directly concerns the problem confronting the U.S. government.
In offering Marcos asylum, in the expressed hope that as a longtime and valued U.S. ally he be allowed to live out his life in dignity, the United States in effect officially sanctioned, wittingly or otherwise, his ill-gotten goods by waiving rules that apply not only to foreigners entering its shores but also to its own citizens.
The United States provided planes that carried the fleeing Marcos group into exile. The United States supervised the loading of those planes with cargo and Marcos' personal belongings, those now-celebrated crates and baggage stuffed with millions in currency, gold bullion, jewels, deeds and the like. The United States transported this material out of the Philippines without giving Filipino authorities an opportunity to examine and perhaps impound that cargo.
If, as reported, some of this Marcos loot was hidden in boxes supposed to contain such items as "Pampers disposable diapers," then violations of U.S. law occurred. It's not good enough for U.S. authorities merely to hold and list this material. If you or I did that, we'd be arrested and charged with smuggling.
So while Reagan's irritation over questions about Marcos' wealth may be understandable, these inquiries are not frivolous or inconsequential. They are legitimate questions to be asked of an American president.