Essays    Reportage    Marginalia    Interviews    Poetry    Fiction    Videos    Everything   
The Bionic Boy and the Ten Billion Dollar Man

The Marcoses have always been the masters of myth-making

The following essay is part of the notebook Against Forgetting, with art by Neil Doloricon.

I first met The Bionic Boy in the early 1980s. It was soon after I had graduated from college and had just joined the staff of Panorama Magazine, a Sunday insert tucked inside the hefty mass of cheap newsprint that was the Bulletin Today, then the largest newspaper in the Philippines. Being the staff’s newest and youngest member, I was assigned a desk no one else wanted. It was on the second floor, near the end of an impressive, winding staircase with lacquered mahogany banisters, and it was there that visitors often landed, lost and needing directions.

That was where I met him. Plump, boyish looking, and loquacious, The Bionic Boy planted himself, uninvited, on a chair near my desk and introduced himself as Ronnie Marcos. His real name, however, was Ronald Joaquin and his psychic prowess had made him famous in the late 1970s. The American TV series The Six Million Dollar Man was then in its prime, starring Lee Majors as an astronaut badly wounded during a test flight and rebuilt by NASA with “bionic” (i.e., superhuman) powers. 

At that time, U.S. power, too, was in its prime. American boys may have been dying in the battlefields of Vietnam, but a more enduring—if fictional—image was that of Star Wars. U.S. imperial power was being projected into the galaxies, into tin-pot dictatorial regimes like Marcos’s, and into the American programs broadcast on the new, color TV sets that had pride of place in our homes.

For a while, the press loved Ronnie and could not get enough of him. So did the late-evening talk show hosts who had him showing off his bionic powers on TV. Ronnie claimed to be telekinetic, able to write on paper without touching a pen and to make a call with a toy telephone. This was long before mobile phones and you were lucky if you had a landline, so this feat was truly miraculous. We may not have had NASA, but we had our very own Bionic Boy. 

At the height of his fame, Ronnie was adopted by the First Family, took on the Marcos name, and became a fixture in Malacañang Palace, the presidential mansion. He was the resident psychic, at home with the servants and sycophants that surrounded Ferdinand and Imelda. It was Ronnie who supposedly warned Marcos about an impending plane crash, thereby saving the life of the presidential son and namesake who was already on the plane but was made to disembark. 

The myth he spun, the dreams he evoked, won over a country beset by a depressing reality. He claimed to have worked for NASA and to have graduated from the Harvard Medical School, where he did so well in his exams they suspected he cheated. He even said he worked briefly as an adviser to President Reagan.

By the time Ronnie wandered over to my desk and showed me he could write his name on a piece of ruled paper without touching the ballpoint pen next to it, he was past his peak. I don’t recall asking him any questions; he did much of the talking. He seemed to me a petulant, overgrown child, starved of attention. 

By then, the press had grown tired of him and apparently, so had the Marcoses. The rumor was he had foreseen their downfall and was banished from the palace. He had served his purpose, one of the many distractions that kept us entertained, along with Miss Universe, the “Thrilla in Manila,” and the parade of international celebrities that came to the country to perform. 

The Marcoses ruled like Roman emperors, with bread and circuses. The bread was the famous Nutribun, made of American flour and dried milk, and distributed in public schools and disaster relief centers to combat malnutrition, which had become widespread in a country impoverished by plunder and economic mismanagement. The Nutribun was both U.S. assistance to a corrupt client regime and a subsidy for U.S. agriculture. But we didn’t know this then. Instead we had photographs of Imelda Marcos, incandescent in her floor-length terno, distributing Nutribuns to flood victims and poor schoolchildren. She was Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a glamorous Mother Teresa. She had mastered the iconography in a deeply Catholic country.

Today there is a hazy nostalgia for the Marcos era. Fifty years later, the Nutribun has become a symbol of the care and compassion of the Marcoses. Never mind that theirs was a world-class kleptocracy and they had amassed an estimated $10 billion—that’s 1980s dollars!—of plundered wealth. Their American patrons knew all this, but they just looked away. Marcos was a bulwark against communism and the United States propped him up so they could maintain their military bases in the Philippines.

Like the Nutribun, Ronnie Marcos has been resurrected, and in the haze of this manufactured memory, he is seen as having saved Bongbong Marcos, ensuring that, like his father, he would be a Man of Destiny. It was writ in the stars. Iginuhit sa tadhana. By cheating death, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was destined to become president. The myth of the Marcoses—Ronnie and the two Ferdinands—has returned. 

Today, on the Philippine internet, the Marcos era is glorified as a golden age of peace and prosperity. On Tiktok and YouTube, the Marcos family is portrayed as victims of a corrupt and vicious liberal elite. Never mind that thousands of dissenters were tortured, killed, or jailed during the Marcos regime. In the countryside, the army pillaged villages and murdered poor farmers. Nuns and priests, journalists and novelists, student activists and labor leaders paid dearly for speaking up. Online, this history has been erased, elided, drowned in a deluge of nostalgia and propaganda. 

I met the Bionic Boy in 1982, ten years after Marcos had declared martial law, shut down all newspapers and broadcast stations, and hauled dozens of journalists to jail. In the early years, military censors sat in the editorial offices of the three dailies that were allowed to publish, looking over every piece of copy and red penciling those they did not see fit for publication. By the time I became a journalist, a system of more subtle press controls was in place—journalists knew without being told where the red line was, and editors and media owners, who were all Marcos kin or cronies, were expected to police their staff.

The year before I joined Panorama Magazine, Marcos, under pressure from Jimmy Carter’s administration which wanted to put human rights conditions on U.S. military assistance, lifted martial law and called a sham election. He won ninety percent of the vote. Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc, then the Panorama Magazine editor, wrote cheekily about the “landslide” and the grand presidential inauguration—how, without irony, the choir sang from Handel’s Messiah, “And he shall reign forever and ever.”

Jimenez-Magsanoc was threatened with libel and sedition and was forced to resign. The next year, the entire staff of We Forum, an opposition rag, was jailed because the paper ran a series on Ferdinand Marcos’s fake World War II medals. 

In the magazine where I worked, photographs showing Imelda’s double chin and Marcos as weak and ailing were banned. So were stories about the Marcos wealth or abuses of power that were linked directly to members of the Marcos family. In 1983, the pages showing the crowds that had gathered at the wake of Ninoy Aquino, the opposition senator gunned down by Marcos minions, were taken out of our magazine and replaced with a house ad. But the Table of Contents was left the same so savvy readers knew that the piece had been disappeared.

The Marcoses have always been the masters of myth-making, well aware that while power grows out of the barrel of a gun, it also needs the consent of the ruled. In the 1970s and 1980s, censorship and news blackouts were the way to get that acquiescence. Today, it’s by flooding the information space with so many lies that truth becomes elusive. As Imelda Marcos said, “Perception is real, the truth is not.”

And so the Marcos myth lives on, the stories from the past are washed, rinsed, revised, and retold. The Bionic Boy is resurrected. And the Ten Billion Dollar Man, now dead and finally buried as a hero, lives on in his son.