Liza Araneta-Marcos: Our First Lady

AS legally defined, it’s been a while since we had a First Lady. The last time we had one was during President Joseph Estrada’s term when Dr. Loi Ejercito was our country’s most gracious host. Now, Filipinos can be truly proud of having Louise “Liza” Araneta-Marcos as the Philippines’s “prima donna.” A holder of Bachelor of Laws degree from the Ateneo de Manila University, she is the first lawyer to become a First Lady of the Philippines.

This definitely makes her one of the most academically prepared better half of any Filipino president. In addition, she did advanced studies in New York University. We had two physicians who served as First Lady, Dr. Eva Macaraeg-Macapagal and Dr. Loi Pimentel-Ejercito, but having a lawyer spouse who is trained in the art of government and politics gives President Bongbong Marcos an added advantage. In the US, this setup worked best for both Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama whose life partners were both famous practicing lawyers.   

By and large, the First Lady is an asset to the President. I would think that the absence of a First Lady was a handicap to the late President Benigno Aquino III. He remained a bachelor all his life, just like the 15th US President James Buchanan Jr. Despite all the trimmings of power, the presidency can be a lonely job. No one can be closer to the President than his spouse. She’s the first and last voice to be heard by the President, and she has unlimited access to him—anytime, anywhere. 

The First Lady is the most famous woman of any country with a presidential form of government and is as popular and well loved as the Queen in a monarchical state. Who can forget Jackie Kennedy, Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt? They did not only perform credibly well the First Lady’s traditional role but they also demonstrated that they were effective partners of their husbands in politics and governance. But Maria Eva Duarte de Peron, better known as Evita, was the most popular First Lady of all time. She was the wife of Argentine President Juan Domingo Peron and served as the First Lady of her country from 1946 until her death at the age of 33 in 1952. She was an actress before she met her husband that she married one year before he became president. 

As the First Lady, she turned into an activist, philanthropist and reformer who helped secure the right to vote for the Argentinian women, and economic protection for the poor and ordinary laborers. The shirtless people, or the descamisados, who supported her husband’s regime, adored her. When she died of cancer, she was given a state funeral, an honor reserved only for the head of state. 

In the Philippines, Imelda Romualdez-Marcos was the most powerful First Lady. During the long reign of the late President Ferdinand E. Marcos, she held powerful positions in government such as the Minister of Human Settlements and Governor of Metro Manila. After her return from exile, she even ran for president in 1992 but lost to President Fidel V. Ramos who was the anointed successor of President Cory C. Aquino. However, she was elected as a Representative for several terms after that loss. No First Lady before or hence has wielded great political power or influence. Except for Loi Estrada who was elected senator for one term after President Erap was deposed, no other First Lady has held an elective public office. While First Lady Liza has disdained holding any public office during her husband’s term, her vital role in President BBM’s administration will be primordial and unchallenged. 

The First Lady enjoys perks and powers that are greatly enhanced by her innate grace and personal talents. While she has no direct mandate from the people, she got the single most important vote—that of her husband who elected her as his wife.  So the First Lady’s power emanates from the President. She handles significant social events in Malacanang, like state dinners, holiday celebrations like Christmas, New Year and Independence Day. She receives and attends to the spouses of visiting heads of other nations and showcases our country to the world. She takes an active role in conducting social and humanitarian projects on behalf of the President to benefit the public. She leads in providing charitable and relief works to assist the poor and the needy, particularly during the time of disasters. These are daunting tasks yet her “office” has no official duties and she gets no compensation. As former First Lady Hillary Clinton had said: “The First Lady role is really difficult, it has no job description… You have to create it for yourself.”

No doubt, the First Lady performs a unique role in enriching the lives of our people. She’s not elected to her position, yet her actions leave a lasting impact on every Filipino. Recognizing the critical function of the First Lady, former President Harry Truman, whose wife Bess Truman was a model First Lady when it comes to modesty and simple living, had this to say: “I hope someday someone will take the time to evaluate the true role of the wife of a President and to assess the many burdens she has to bear and contributions she makes.” 

First Lady Liza has been widely perceived as the brain trust behind the phenomenal victory of BBM’s campaign for the presidency. She complements what our new President lacks. Her legal and analytical mind provides the President a detailed view of the issue he confronts. Her skepticism separates facts from disinformation, which distills genuine issues from canard. Most importantly, Atty. Liza is a tough cookie and was once described by Michael Keon, President BBM’s first cousin, as the President’s “backbone.” She is related to a family more allied to the anti-Marcos forces yet she had fallen in love with the son and namesake of the autocrat that her family had helped oust from office. Recalling her romance with the President during an interview by TV Host Aster Amoyo, she narrated: “It was not love at first sight but when you get to know him, how can you not fall in love, right?” President BBM could not find a more fitting First Lady for Atty. Liza is not only a woman of substance but more importantly of courage and conviction. She had chosen her man, believed in and stood by him in good times and bad. First Lady Liza has the makings to become a great First Lady. She had the education and the experience to succeed in her task. Coming from respected families, Cacho on her maternal side and Araneta on her paternal lineage, she has the pedigree to become an outstanding First Lady. May she succeed in her role and help President BBM become a better leader of our nation.