After 60 years, Don Manuel turns last page of his political agenda

Frail health forces Popular Party founder, aged 89, to pass on the baton at last

Manuel Fraga Iribarne has always been Don Manuel. Some members of his family call him that out of a natural sense of respect, but so do people who disagree with his political views, perhaps as the result of a lifetime of public service that has been unflagging for 60 years. He has had an official car and a bodyguard since the age of 29. A short press release made public on September 2 said that Fraga would not be running in the November general elections, and that he was in fact retiring from politics. At age 89, Fraga has turned the last page of his political agenda.

Technically, he has been retired since April 7, when he underwent hip surgery at Moncloa Clinic in Madrid and stopped going to his office in the Senate. Even before the fall at home that resulted in the operation, Fraga's activity had slowed down considerably. The last official event he attended was the ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the failed coup of February 23, 1981.

"As many people know, I faced up to former Lieutenant Colonel Tejero," he wrote in an ABC review of his own experience as a deputy sitting inside Congress at the time of the coup. "He got very angry with me. It was a tense moment. He pushed me out of the chamber and took me to the office of the Speaker of the House, where I saw that it was impossible to jump out the window because it was too high. I spent all night inside that office, guarded by some very nice Civil Guards. As an anecdote, I was the only one who walked out of there clean shaven."

Besides the coup, Fraga gave another demonstration of bravado in 1966 when he swam in the waters of Palomares, where the US Army had just accidentally dropped four hydrogen bombs, three of which released radioactive plutonium in the area. Fraga, who was then Minister of Information under the Franco regime, sought to reassure Spaniards that there was no danger there.

On February 23 of this year, Fraga attended a lunch commemorating the anniversary of the coup with the king and half a dozen deputies who were also there. "It was a very relaxed, lively meal, where we all talked a lot for nearly three hours," said one of them. "But we did not hear Manuel Fraga speak. He did not take part in the conversation."

That is when they realized that Fraga's health was already very frail. Sitting in his wheelchair, he tried to make a comment later during an event in Congress, but it was hard to make out what he was saying. That said, it had never been easy to understand a character who expressed himself at the speed of light and whose ideas seemed to move faster than his lips.

The last time he spoke in Senate was on April 27, 2010, in response to Senator José Manuel Pérez Bouza, of the Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG), during a session focused on the use of various languages in the upper house. Pérez Bouza took the 12 Popular Party senators to task, and most especially Fraga as former regional premier of Galicia for 15 years, for voting against the use of Spain's co-official languages, including Galician. Fraga got up, and with all the energy he could muster, said: "I feel profoundly Galician, which is my way of being Spanish. And I will not accept that this man who has just spoken give me lessons in anything, much less in Galicianism." That was his last intervention in parliament.

In the outside world, Fraga had been granting fewer interviews and discreetly moving away from the political limelight. The archives only reflect a controversial intervention during a meeting of the PP leadership in Madrid, in which Fraga allegedly reproached party leader Rajoy for lagging behind Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in the polls. During that meeting, held in November 2010, Fraga demanded that Rajoy rev up his rhetoric to make a more impassioned defense of Spanish unity and the Constitution. Some PP politicians, speaking anonymously, said it was time for Fraga to go home once and for all.

His daily agenda was the thermometer of his health. As his body tired, his daily activities slowed down. He spent mornings receiving people in his office, all sorts of people, many Galicians and journalists, too. But if there is a group of people who came to see him more frequently than anybody else, it was post-doctorate students. His afternoons were spent on social activities such as presentations and events at one of the two academies he is a member of, the History Academy and the Political Science Academy. He had dinner at home, went to mass on Sunday with his family and played dominoes with his friends on Saturdays. Such has been the life of Manuel Fraga in recent times, until the wheelchair took over from the walking stick.

Behind him are years of incredible activity, such as 2004, when the Galician government press department revealed that Don Manuel had attended 875 public events in 300 days, traveled 48,000 kilometers (especially within the region of Galicia, the note specified), worked 33 weekends and granted 42 public hearings.

Manuel Fraga in an interview, during Galician elections in 2009.
Manuel Fraga in an interview, during Galician elections in 2009.MARILUZ MIRANDA

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