The little boy, dressed all in white, stood ramrod-straight atop a low table.
“Dear friends, ladies and gentlemen, I am Bongbong Marcos,” he proclaimed, laying a well-rehearsed hand over his heart. “And when I grow up, I want to be a politician.”
It was 1965. Future dictator Ferdinand Marcos was running for his first term as president of the Philippines, his shoe-craving wife, Imelda, by his side.
And at age 8, their son, Bongbong, already had a featured role in the family business, playing himself in a propaganda film to boost his father’s campaign.
Five decades later, the Marcos family is poised to take aim at the presidency once again in the land where Ferdinand and Imelda imposed 20 years of autocratic rule — and looted the treasury to fuel their legendary extravagance.
Their hopes ride on an affable 62-year-old who has waged a three-year court battle to be declared the nation’s rightful vice president.
“She’s wanted me to become president since I was 3 years old,” Bongbong said of his mother in 2015, when he set his sights on the No. 2 position, which is elected separately from the presidency. “Imagine how disappointed she is.”
“The Kingmaker,” a new documentary by filmmaker Lauren Greenfield, released in theaters this weekend, focuses on Imelda Marcos, now 90, and her efforts to boost her son’s political career while dodging officials who are determined to claw back the $10 billion she is accused of siphoning out of the impoverished nation.
Current President Rodrigo Duterte, the brash hard-liner whose coziness with the Marcoses poisoned his relationship with sitting Vice President Leni Robredo, has a bit part as he schemes to set Bongbong up as his successor.
But Bongbong himself — a grown man still known by a downright goofy childhood nickname — emerges as the saga’s most inscrutable character, a mass of contradictions beneath a serene façade.
Becoming president “is not something that I wake up in the morning and plan on,” he said last year.
And yet he has pursued the vice presidency with such intensity, it’s hard to believe the Marcos scion isn’t power-hungry.
Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. was born in 1957, the second child of a congressman from a backwater province and a former beauty queen.
The boy’s odd pet name came from his habit of latching onto his father’s back to be carried. The pose reminded the family of a bumbong, a bamboo tube that Filipinos used to carry water on their backs.
Marcos Sr. won a seat in the Philippine Senate while his son was still a toddler. In 1965, when the Liberal Party refused to nominate him for president, Marcos broke away to form his own Nationalist Party and emerged victorious from a bitter campaign.
The family moved into Manila’s Malacañang Palace, the presidential residence — and remained there for the next two decades, as Marcos declared martial law in 1972, canceling elections and becoming the nation’s de facto dictator.
Up to 70,000 Filipinos were imprisoned, Amnesty International estimated; half of them were tortured, and 3,200 were killed.
Bongbong has never condemned these horrific abuses — and, in fact, has pushed a revisionist take. “As a teenager in the early ’70s, I was aware of the lawlessness that prevailed,” he wrote in 2012. “I remember people saying how thankful they were for the relative peace and order that followed martial law.”
As her husband cracked down on the opposition, Imelda indulged her insatiable appetite for jewels, art, real estate, fashion and, of course, shoes.
She swanned about the globe as the president’s emissary and hosted glamorous pals like actor George Hamilton and heiress Doris Duke at her 30-room Manhattan townhouse, her waterfront Long Island estate or any of her dozens of luxe properties.
Marcos shipped Bongbong and sisters Imee and Irene halfway around the world to avoid the worsening crisis at home.
“For security reasons, he said it would be best that I go abroad,” Bongbong said in 2006. “I would be the first person people would come after to get to him.”
The 12-year-old went to England in 1970 to study at a Catholic all-boys boarding school. He was an academic underachiever — “lazy but well adjusted,” the headmaster reported. “He makes believe he knows, but he does not.”
No matter. Imelda set him up with two cars and two houses — one in London, another in a country village — so Bongbong and his sisters, also attending English schools, could gather for holidays.
When he came home to visit, Bongbong hosted shooting parties on Calauit Island, Imelda’s private animal sanctuary, which was stocked with giraffes and zebras imported from Africa — and cleared of the 254 humans who had lived there for generations. Filipinos called it “Bongbong’s Safari Park.”
“Sure, I went hunting,” he said in 2013. “But it was for wild boars that were eating the antelope young. It was never the exotics.”
He continued his indifferent academic career at Oxford University, where he earned a “special diploma” awarded to those who take classes without completing a full course of study, and at Philadelphia’s Wharton School of Business, with a similar lack of results.
Imelda bought him two suburban spreads in Cherry Hill, NJ — one for Bongbong to live in, another for his entourage — and gave him a $10,000 monthly allowance, paid out of multiple US bank accounts funded by the treasury of the Philippines.
But as soon as Bongbong won a rigged election to become vice-governor of his father’s home province in 1981, he dropped out of Wharton and headed home.
Even so, he has repeatedly said that a life in politics was the last thing he ever wanted.
“I just wanted to do business and be a private person. But it was naive of me to think that that was possible,” he said in 2006. “I don’t know why people want to be politicians. Me, I had no choice.”
Marcos declared an end to martial law in 1981 and tried to maintain his grip on power in the face of a growing democracy movement. The 1983 assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino, blamed on Marcos’ minions, sparked massive protests.
Three years later, vengeful widow Corazon Aquino and her “People Power” movement posed a genuine electoral threat. Marcos defeated Aquino at the polls in Feb. 7, 1986 — thanks to blatant ballot fraud.
The resulting furor sent millions into the streets and splintered the army into factions. When President Ronald Reagan threw his support to Aquino three weeks after the election, the Marcos family immediately fled to sanctuary in Hawaii.
Imelda infamously abandoned 1,060 pairs of shoes in Malacañang — and left 1,800 more in another Marcos mansion.
The family’s “enforced vacation,” as Bongbong calls it, extended beyond Ferdinand Marcos’ death in Honolulu in 1989.
“We were in Hawaii for six years,” he said in 2016. “I would amount to nothing there, so I needed to come home. “And the first impression I got was . . . There are a lot of people who love us here.”
An adoring crowd of Marcos loyalists met him on his 1991 return to Ilocos Norte, his father’s former stronghold.
His mother and sisters returned that same year, at first to face trial for 60 criminal and civil counts of graft and tax evasion in cases that would drag through the Philippine court system for decades.
Imelda, too, was greeted by throngs of fans — and quickly declared plans to run for president in the May 1992 national elections. She was handed a decisive defeat, coming in fifth in a slate of seven candidates.
But Bongbong won a seat in the Philippines’ House of Representatives, the first step in the family’s political resurgence.
The first impression I got was . . . There are a lot of people who love us here.
– Bongbong Marcos after his family returned to the Philippines following six years of exile in Hawaii
“When we came back, we were the issue, and so to answer that we had to be also on the political stage,” Bongbong said. “Part of it is also to defend ourselves.”
In the years since, Imelda and Imee have held seats in Congress, and both Imee and Bongbong have won election as governor of Ilocos Norte — meaning that one Marcos or another has remained in political power for the last 27 years.
Imelda Marcos has never lost her love of fancy frippery. To this day she decks herself out in her signature terno dresses and bouffant hair, ensconced in a high-rise Manila apartment surrounded by mementos — and, as seen in “The Kingmaker,” by priceless pieces of art.
When she ventures out, she is often mobbed by begging children, who cheer as she doles out 50- and 1,000-peso bills ($1 and $20, in dollars).
Her son’s public life has been far more subdued. Perhaps his greatest act of rebellion against Imelda’s iron grip was his 1993 wedding to Louise Araneta, a relative of family archenemy Corazon Aquino. The simple ceremony in an austere medieval church in Tuscany included only a dozen guests. Imelda was not invited. They now have three sons.
On the campaign trail, Bongbong favors informal outfits of jeans and a button-down shirt. The only flash of Imelda’s fashion sense comes with his footwear, when he sports a pair of bright red suede oxfords.
Voters in the Philippines cast separate ballots for their presidential and vice-presidential candidates. The two victors can — and often do — come from opposing parties. By tradition, the VP is given a cabinet seat.
In the elections of May 2016, Duterte of the PDP-Laban Party won a decisive victory. But the vice-presidential race was a squeaker, with voters split down the middle over the Marcos family comeback.
The win went to the Liberal Party’s Robredo, who edged Marcos by 263,000 votes out of 41 million cast — a razor-thin 0.64% margin. Marcos immediately claimed fraud and filed suit in a case that has stalled in the nation’s Supreme Court.
The mercurial Duterte, whose relationship with Robredo has always been frosty, has made it increasingly clear that he prefers Bongbong as his No. 2 — and has publicly claimed that Imee Marcos helped finance his presidential campaign, kindling suspicions of a secret deal.
“The president is such a joker, you know,” Imee has demurred.
But six months after Duterte took office, he reversed years of government policy to permit the burial of Ferdinand Marcos in Manila’s Heroes’ Cemetery, then tried to abolish the government agency that works to reclaim the Marcoses’ ill-gotten gains.
Meanwhile, the vice-presidential recount lawsuit staggers on. A fresh tally of three “pilot provinces” was completed Oct. 15, but instead of issuing a ruling, the Supreme Court ordered both camps to respond to the findings by Nov. 4 — yet another in an interminable string of delays. Both candidates have requested extensions on the deadline.
Robredo remains the vice president as the lawsuit continues, but Duterte is so enamored of Bongbong that he pushed her out of her cabinet role months ago. Now she’s basically just a permanent critic within his government.
And as Bongbong lays plans for a presidential run of his own in 2022 — when Duterte’s single term ends — he has plenty of time to recast the past as so much fake news.
“It is in the interest of the powers that be to demonize us because that is the basis of their political rise,” he has said. “If suddenly the Marcos regime became less evil or even slightly good, then their position would be untenable.”
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