In 1986, however, as all the global village looked on, history turned into a clash of symbols in the Republic of the Philippines, a nation long relegated to its dustier corridors. There in the Southeast Asian archipelago of 56 million people and more than 7,000 islands, life not only imitated art but improved upon it. In a made-for-television drama watched by millions, two veteran rulers, President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda, stumbled and fell in their ruthless campaign to extend, with an immodesty broader than a scriptwriter's fancy, their stolen empire.
During the final years of his "constitutional authoritarianism," Marcos had effectively moved his country backward -- from democracy to autocracy, from prosperity to poverty, from general peace to a widespread Communist insurgency. Treating the national treasury as if it were their personal checking account, the royal couple had looted their land of perhaps $5 billion. "Here in the Philippines," said Imelda, "we live in a paradise. There are no poor people as there are in other countries." Even as she spoke, seven in every ten Filipinos were living below the poverty level.
The sudden turn of fortune's wheel came when a confident Marcos, who had never lost a vote in his life, called a snap election. He was thus hoping to satisfy the Reagan Administration's demands that he become more democratic. But Marcos' plans for victory were upset by a slight, bespectacled mother of five, who had entered politics only two months earlier. When she went to fill out her application for the presidency, Corazon Aquino had nothing to enter under OCCUPATION but "Housewife." The last office for which the soft-spoken - widow had been chosen was valedictorian of her sixth-grade class. In fact, her chief, if not her only, political strengths seemed to be her innocence of politics and the moral symbolism of her name. In Spanish, her first name meant "heart"; in Philippine politics, her second signified "martyred opposition," in memory of her late husband Benigno (Ninoy) Aquino, once Marcos' chief rival, who was slain on his return from exile in 1983. Cory Aquino, at 53, stood in effect on a platform of faith, hope and charity.
The outcome of the allegorical battle seemed pre-scripted, if not predestined. Marcos, who had once been an effective and even popular ruler, in recent years had gradually proved brilliant enough to rewrite the rules and brutal enough to enforce them. On election day in February, in full view of more than 700 foreign journalists, Marcos' men ripped up ballots, bought others and intimidated voters at gunpoint. As many as 3 million names were simply struck off the voter lists.
Then, suddenly, the implausible began to happen. Thousands of volunteer poll watchers, singing hymns and burning candles, formed a human barricade against the armed goons and carried their ballot boxes through the streets to counting stations. Thirty of the government's vote tabulators walked out in protest against the fraud. The country's Catholic bishops publicly condemned the election, and the U.S. Senate echoed the protest.
Soon the implausible turned into the improbable. Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, the architect of Marcos' martial law, and Lieut. General Fidel Ramos, the deputy chief of the armed forces, broke away from the government, claiming that Aquino was the true winner. As the rebels barricaded themselves inside two military camps, first hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of common citizens poured into the streets to offer food, support and protection, if need be with their bodies, to the maverick soldiers and Aquino backers. As civilians, bearing only flags and flowers, took up positions to defend the military men, the world knew that it was watching more than just an electoral upheaval.
Finally, the improbable became the impossible. Marcos' tanks rolled toward the crowds, only to be stopped by nuns kneeling in their path, saying the rosary. Old women went up to gun-toting marines and disarmed them with motherly hugs. Little girls offered their flowers to hardened combat veterans. In the face of such quiet heroism, thousands of Marcos loyalists defected; many simply broke down in tears.
Less than 24 hours after Marcos had had himself inaugurated, he was being helped off a plane in Hawaii, sickly, exiled and bewildered. His former home, Malacanang Palace, was now a melancholy tableau of abandoned power, overrun by thousands of revelers. The new leader of the Philippines was the reserved housewife who had worn plain yellow dresses every day of her campaign. For her determination and courage in leading a democratic revolution that captured the world's imagination, Corazon Aquino is TIME's Woman of the Year for 1986.
Whatever else happens in her rule, Aquino has already given her country a bright, and inviolate, memory. More important, she has also resuscitated its sense of identity and pride. In the Philippines those luxuries are especially precious. Almost alone among the countries of Asia, it has never been steadied by an ancient culture; its sense of itself, and its potential, was further worn away by nearly four centuries of Spanish and American colonialism. The absence of a spirit of national unity has also made democracy elusive. Even Jose Rizal, a political reformer shot by the Spanish and a national hero, called the Filipinos "a people without a soul." Yet in February, for a few extraordinary moments, the people of the Philippines proved their bravery to the world, and to themselves.
Aquino's revolution with a human face was no less a triumph for women the world over. The person known as the "Mother of the Nation" managed to lead a revolt and rule a republic without ever relinquishing her buoyant calm or her gift for making politics and humanity companionable. In a nation dominated for decades by a militant brand of macho politics, she conquered with tranquillity and grace.
By reviving the promise of democracy without bloodshed, all too rare in the past, the Philippine revolution also held up a candle of hope in some of the world's darker corners. Moderate South Africans, for example, could take some heart from the success of civil disobedience; nor could they fail to note the victory of a woman who was once her jailed husband's ambassador to the world, much as Winnie Mandela works in the name of her imprisoned husband Nelson. In overthrowing Marcos, moreover, Aquino helped erase a whole volume of shibboleths. She showed that politics could be the art of the impossible; that force could speak softly and carry a small stick; that religion could be not % the opium but the stimulant of the masses; that nice guys, whatever their gender, sometimes finish first.
Aquino's triumph inspired many overhasty and wishful predictions of sequels in Chile, South Korea or Pakistan to the Philippines' "People Power." None of those countries, however, suffer under the conditions that ruled in the House of Marcos. Their economies are not in shambles, their corruption is far from exorbitant, their armies remain unshakably loyal to their military leaders. The U.S., moreover, has shown no sign of wishing to help push their strongmen out the door.
Yet the symbol remains. After watching the smiling shots seen 'round the world, no dictator can sleep quite so easily. And dissidents everywhere now have a stirring precedent and talisman to invoke. Says Congressman Stephen Solarz, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs: "I have found that from Poland to Pakistan and from South Korea to South Africa, those who are committed to democracy see in Aquino a sense of enduring inspiration. She is probably the most popular head of state in the world today."
Inevitably, the fairy-tale nature of Aquino's sudden ascension prompted some extravagant mythmaking. To some the woman in yellow seemed a Joan of Arc, a religious figure incarnating her people's hopes as she led them to freedom; to others she was a Cinderella, with one glass slipper instead of Imelda's 3,000 pairs of shoes. Indeed, as startling as it may seem in the secular West, millions of devout Filipinos viewed Aquino as a sort of Blessed Mother, a redeemer who came to resolve the passion play that had begun with her husband's death.
Yet the real world does not lend itself to fable for long. After the revolution comes the Realpolitik, and happy-ever-afters soon dissolve. The day after her victory, Aquino found herself in charge of one of the world's most desperate countries, saddled with a foreign debt of $27 billion, 20,000 armed Communist guerrillas and a pile of government institutions that bore her predecessors' monogram.
Soon enough the new leader's innocence and inexperience showed. She summarily dissolved parliament and, ruling by decree, had all the country's governors and mayors, regardless of performance, replaced with sometimes unqualified people of her own. She then switched to the other extreme, often dithering over critical decisions. Gradually, however, as the year wore on, Cory the Chief Executive and the Commander in Chief began to prove as surprising as Cory the Symbol. When challenges arose, the novice rose to meet them. While followers of Defense Minister Enrile unsettled Manila with constant threats of a coup, Aquino coolly went about her business. Then in late November, once she was absolutely sure of the military's support and confident of backing from Washington, she fired Enrile, the man who had helped put her in power. Four days later, she concluded the first cease-fire in the 17 years of the Communist insurgency.
At year's end, as the Philippines prepared for a nationwide plebiscite in February on a new constitution, Aquino remained decidedly embattled. Yet her authority seemed as steady as her gift for confounding expectations. To come to power, Aquino had only to be herself, a symbol of sincerity and honesty. But to stay in power, she had to transcend herself. After ten months in office, it was not just her softness that impressed, but the unexpected toughness that underwrote it; not just her idealism, but a steely pragmatism that made it more rigorous; not just her rhyme but her reason. Aquino moved people, in both senses of the word, by making serenity strong and strength serene.
If Aquino's stunning rise allowed the world a rare chance to suspend its disbelief and exult, 1986 also gave it many more familiar opportunities to distrust its leaders and to weep. Late in the year, the Reagan Administration was suddenly shaken by the disclosure that it had been covertly selling arms to Iran in an attempt to win freedom for American hostages in Lebanon. That dubious policy flared into scandal with the revelation that some of the money received for the arms had been diverted, apparently in violation of congressional laws, to the contra rebels in Nicaragua. As questions multiplied with a velocity that brought Watergate to mind, a backpedaling White House seemed guilty, at the very least, of high incompetence. At the center of the storm was a little-known National Security Council staff member, Lieut. Colonel Oliver North, whose mysterious doings, and the questions they raised, threatened to enmesh many higher officials in a growing web of intrigue and deceit. At stake was nothing less than the viability of President Reagan's final two years in office.
The crisis of faith in the White House only counterpointed a new air of confidence in the Kremlin. In 1986 Mikhail Gorbachev continued his brisk public relations offensive by sweeping the cobwebs out of his foreign service and introducing a little fresh air into the long-closed rooms of Soviet public life. In September he managed to trump Washington when the KGB released U.S. News & World Report Correspondent Nicholas Daniloff in exchange for a proven spy. Just two weeks later, Gorbachev again seemed to outmaneuver President Reagan at their unofficial summit in Iceland. The two leaders came closer than ever before to an agreement on nuclear arms, then ended up back where they started.
The U.S. fared little better in its long battle against terrorism. After the Administration launched an air raid on Muammar Gaddafi's Libya in April, the masked face of terrorism was mostly absent from the world's airports and alleyways. Five months later, though, the threat was back with a bloody vengeance. Bombs erupted in downtown Paris, men with machine guns stormed a synagogue in Istanbul, four Palestinian hijackers held a Pan American plane hostage for 18 hours in Karachi, and 17 more foreigners were kidnaped in Lebanon. Many leaders looked to another kind of pressure -- that of economic sanctions -- to push the white-dominated government in South Africa toward reform. But neither trade embargoes nor the pullout of Western firms seemed likely to douse the flames of racial violence. Indeed, last week the unrest continued, with sporadic clashes with government forces, protests against a state of emergency and "black Christmas" boycotts.
The shadows cast by other menacing forces also lengthened in 1986. The disease known as AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) claimed its 16,128th American life and left millions more rethinking their private lives. The epidemic of drugs became more sobering than ever, as the young turned to an addictive and unusually noxious boiled-down form of cocaine known as crack. One atomic nightmare came true and others were awakened when a Soviet atomic power reactor at Chernobyl, 80 miles north of Kiev, exploded and then kept burning for several days, a man-made disaster that could cause as many as 5,000 premature deaths by radiation-induced cancer. It was history's worst nuclear accident.
The abuse of technology also sabotaged one of the last vestiges of heaven- bent idealism -- the American space program -- when the space shuttle Challenger turned into a fireball only 73 seconds after takeoff. While millions watched on television, the craft and its seven passengers, including Schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, disappeared in a sad trail of smoke. The tragedy only deepened when a presidential commission found that the accident had been caused by bureaucratic mismanagement and neglect.
None of these events, though, were quite so startling, let alone uplifting, as Aquino's almost cheerful revolution. And if the first woman President of the Philippines was the happiest symbol in a year of symbols, she was also the most human. She showed how one individual could inspire in others a faith so powerful that it vindicated itself and changed a country's history. She brought not only a new face into politics, but also a new way of thinking about politics and the virtues it demands. The victory of "People Power" made no dents in the larger issues that tower like Stonehenge sentinels over the planet. It has not shifted the superpower equation nor reduced the threat of nuclear war. But it has, perhaps, affected the people who affect the issues.
Corazon Aquino's first, ever so hesitant entry into the larger-than-life melodrama of recent Philippine history came when Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972. One of the first people to be arrested without charge was Ninoy Aquino, Marcos' closest rival. The tough but charismatic Aquino had in quick succession become the youngest mayor in Philippine history (at 22), the youngest governor (at 29) and the youngest Senator (at 34). He seemed likely to become the youngest President too, as soon as Marcos' second and final term ended in 1973. Before that could happen, Marcos threw him in jail.
As Ninoy languished in prison, his diffident and devout wife became his eyes, ears and voice in the outside world, acting as his liaison with what remained of the Philippine opposition. For seven years and seven months, spending hours alone with her husband in his cell, the upper-class matron received tutorials in opposition strategies from a master of the political arts. In between, she had to smuggle messages to and from him, sometimes on scraps of paper, sometimes in her head.
During the early weeks of martial law, recalls Cory, she could not watch television lest she see Marcos or her husband's official jailer, Defense Minister Enrile (the man who signed the arrest warrant was none other than General Ramos). In her conjugal visits, she had to share her husband with hidden cameras and bugs. Once, when Ninoy's guards simply removed him from sight for more than six weeks, Cory was forced to wander from prison to prison in search of him.
In 1980, however, Ninoy was released from confinement, and his wife from politics, when Marcos granted the ailing prisoner permission to travel to the U.S. for triple-bypass heart surgery. With a trumped-up death sentence over his head at home, Ninoy settled down after his operation in a red brick house in the affluent Boston suburb of Newton. There he returned to scheming for the overthrow of Marcos, while Cory resumed her favored routine of browsing through department stores, raising bonsai trees and relaxing over Falcon Crest and Dallas. Her American neighbors remember the President of the Philippines especially for her Peking duck.
The years in Boston were the most uneventful of Cory's adult life; she has also called them the happiest. In 1983, however, she had to look on stoically as her husband defied repeated warnings from Manila and decided to return to the Philippines to challenge Marcos, death sentence or no. Hardly had Ninoy's plane landed in Manila when he was met by a group of soldiers and hustled out of the plane. Seconds later, shots rang out, and Ninoy Aquino lay dead on the tarmac.
Ten days after the killing, up to 2 million people streamed into the streets in an unprecedented outpouring of sorrow and shock, transforming Aquino's funeral into the largest procession in the country's history. In the weeks and months that followed, street vendors and socialites, businessmen and radicals all awoke from years of resignation to cry out their rage. Yet the official opposition to Marcos remained fatally factious, divided into more than a dozen self-seeking groups, each of them tainted either by extremist positions, associations with the government or long years of failure.
It soon became obvious that the only person far enough above the political differences to unite the opposition was the martyr's widow. She was also, by no coincidence, the only one who did not seek the role. "I know my limitations," she said three months after the murder, "and I don't like politics. I was only involved because of my husband."
Still the pleas for her candidacy gained momentum. Finally, in October 1985, while delivering a lecture on "My Role as Wife, Mother and Single Parent" at a University of the Philippines sorority, Aquino conceded that she would stand for the presidency -- provided that Marcos called a snap election and that 1 million people petitioned her. The very next month, prodded by the & warnings of Senator Paul Laxalt, President Reagan's special emissary, that U.S. support for his regime was weakening, Marcos stunned even his advisers by announcing a snap election. One month later, Aquino was presented with her million signatures.
That unanswerable summons sent her into a soul-searching retreat (see box). By the time she emerged, she was a candidate. In order to unite the opposition forces, she swiftly approached Salvador Laurel, who was planning to lead his own ticket against Marcos, with a deal. She would give up her affiliation with her brother's party, Lakas Ng Bayan (LABAN), or People Power, if he would give up his candidacy and be her running mate. Her magic, his machine. After days of bartering, the makeshift pair finally filed their candidacy papers only 90 minutes before the midnight deadline.
On the campaign trail, it soon became clear that Aquino's main asset was, quite simply, herself. Turning her appearances into what amounted to improvised prayer rallies, the small figure in yellow stood before crowds, voice quavering, and delivered heartfelt parables about her life under Marcos. Wherever she spoke, tens of thousands of worshipers came together in a sea of yellow, flashing the L sign of LABAN, and striking up chants of "Co-ry! Co- ry! Co-ry!"
By voting day Aquino had become a powerful political presence. Only eight hours after the election, in the face of widespread cheating by Marcos forces, she seized the initiative by declaring herself the winner. When Philip Habib, Washington's troubleshooter-at-large, came to Manila to suggest a compromise with Marcos, she icily informed him that she would accept nothing less than Marcos' removal from office. "This is my message to Mr. Marcos and his puppets," she declared with quiet fury as the confusion dragged on, " 'Do not threaten Cory Aquino, because I am not alone.' "
As Enrile and Ramos staged their revolt in Manila, Cory, 350 miles away in Cebu, at first lay low in a Carmelite monastery. But as the revolution continued, she hurried back to Manila, ready to take charge. While her advisers collapsed in exhaustion around her suburban bungalow and a gunfight continued less than a block away, the President-elect serenely announced that she planned to take a shower and get changed. Then she had herself driven to her inauguration in her white Chevrolet van, stopping at every red light.
Demureness and determination; steel and silk. In Cory Aquino there has & always been the sense of a confidence so strong that it does not need to proclaim itself. Aquino knows where she stands and is sure of the foundations below her: her family and her faith.
Cory's natural air of authority and her sense of noblesse oblige were, in a way, her birthright as a child, the sixth of eight, of Jose and Demetria Cojuangco. After coming to the Philippines from Fujian province in China just three generations earlier, the Cojuangcos had quickly parlayed a small rice mill and a sugar mill into the richest empire in Tarlac province.
For all its wealth, however, the clan was known for an unostentatious reserve, and throughout her childhood, as ever after, Cory preferred to be overlooked. At a series of the country's most exclusive girls' convent schools she was remembered, when she was remembered at all, as a bright, devout girl and the perennial class valedictorian. In 1946, when her family left war-torn Manila for the U.S., the 13-year-old Filipina with bobbed hair enrolled in the Ravenhill Academy, a Catholic girls' school in Philadelphia, and later in the Notre Dame Convent school in New York City. Cory's four college years passed with scarcely a trace at the College of Mount St. Vincent, a small Catholic women's college in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. The self-contained student occasionally entertained her classmates with Filipino dances but otherwise kept to herself, spending spare hours with an elder sister and returning home to the Philippines in the summers. Her classmates recall her only as a "shy little violet" who once played an angel in a college production of Green Pastures.
Aquino's upbringing was, in short, the classic, cloistered training in propriety that becomes a thoroughbred young lady of the upper classes. As a Cojuangco, however, she also grew up with as sharp a sense of power as, say, a Rockefeller heiress. For 13 years she was treasurer of the family corporation, Jose Cojuangco and Sons Inc.
Nor could she ever be oblivious to politics. Her father was a Congressman, her maternal grandfather a vice-presidential candidate, one uncle a Senator and another a Congressman. "Since she was a little girl, Cory has been accustomed to meeting the great personalities of the world," says Benjamin Brown, the former director of the fellows program that brought Ninoy to Harvard's Center for International Affairs. "She is comfortable and confident in those circles." Indeed, in 1954 when the well-bred young lady gave up her law studies at the Far Eastern University to marry Ninoy, the sponsor at the wedding was Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay.
If Cory is a singularly family-oriented person even for a family-oriented culture, she is also uncommonly devout even for a country that is 85% Catholic. And if Cory inspires faith, it is largely because she is inspired by it. Three of her closest advisers are Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila; Father Joaquin Bernas, president of the Jesuit Ateneo de Manila University; and Father Catalino Arevalo, another Jesuit, who is her spiritual adviser. Addressing the governors of the Asian Development Bank and 1,200 international delegates two months after coming to power, she frankly declared, "I am not embarrassed to tell you that I believe in miracles."
The absoluteness of that belief gives Aquino a firmness that can turn into stubbornness. Indeed, her very real sense that she is an instrument of God's will prompts friends and relatives to refer to her career, again and again, as a "mission." Says her mother-in-law and confidante, Dona Aurora Aquino: "I think this is a mission for her, to put her country in shape. Then she can retire. Ninoy's assassination was his fate. The presidency is hers." Cory often says the same thing.
Faith is also the basis of her fatalism. "If someone wishes to use a bazooka on me," she once said, "it's goodbye. If it's my time to die, I'll go." In the meantime, she exasperates her security men by acting as if she were protected by some invisible shield. Her sense of religion accounts too for Aquino's uncanny patience, her willingness, while awaiting what she regards as the appointed moment, to hold onto a burning match until it singes her fingers.
Yet her piety is very far from passivity. In 1984, returning to Mount St. Vincent College to collect an honorary degree, the mild, once bookish college girl surprised her former classmates with a forceful address. "Faith," she told them, "is not simply a patience which passively suffers until the storm is past. Rather, it is a spirit which bears things -- with resignation, yes, but above all, with blazing serene hope."
That is the same quality noticed by Richard Kessler, a senior associate for U.S.-Philippines relations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "She's a very biblical type of person," he observes. "But it's not from a Hallmark card. It's saintliness as in the Old Testament. On the one hand, you pardon your enemies; on the other, it's an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."
If Aquino's blaze of righteousness is partly responsible for her luminous, even numinous, magnetism, it also explains her unbending ruthlessness in applying an eye for an eye. "In some ways," says a close confidant, "she's an unforgiving person. She never forgets." When a former supporter, Homobono Adaza, went over to Enrile's camp, she not only stripped him of his $50,000-a-year position on the board of the San Miguel Corporation, a large state-controlled conglomerate, but replaced him with his archenemy Aquilino Pimentel. The flip side of her fidelity is inflexibility. "I have a long memory for people who have helped me," the President recently warned a group of subordinates, "but I have a longer memory for people who have stood in my way."
That air of discriminating toughness was hardened during her marriage, which was, as much as anything, a rhyming of opposites, a marriage of public and private. "She was a very supportive wife," recalls her mother-in-law Dona Aurora. "She was content to remain in the background. She did not meddle, she stayed at home." As it happened, she had little choice. "Let's face it," the President likes to say with a wry mixture of affection and realism, "my husband was the original male chauvinist."
Yet if Ninoy was the public center of the family, Cory was the moral backbone. "He decided that he would be the indulgent parent," she has written, "and I would be the disciplinarian." Often she extended that loving discipline even to her husband, telling him the difficult truths that his cronies preferred to hold back. "Cory was his highest conscience," says Harvard's Brown."He valued her judgments enormously."
In its way, indeed, the Aquino marriage seemed to play out in miniature the central dialectic of Cory's life between politics and faith. As a traditional Filipino flesh presser, Ninoy regarded all politics as dirty politics and was content to join the rough-and-tumble system in order to beat it. Cory, however, disapproved of such chicanery, and in deference to her, Ninoy and his friends never discussed skulduggery when she was present. "The minute she entered the room," says one close family friend, "people put on their best behavior. Even Ninoy behaved when Cory was around. I was nervous when Cory served the coffee. She can be very cutting, and she will cut you in public. She has a dismissive gesture of the hand to indicate that she's tired of the discussion or the person. It's very un-Filipino, and it has unsettled a lot of people."
Some problems, though, she could not wave away. Ninoy's free-spirited ways, could never have been easy on his young wife. Yet it seems that her husband's private life exercised her no more than his public one. Wherever he was, Ninoy turned his home into a kind of 24-hour coffee shop in which the loquacious host and his associates would thrash out tactics through the night, while Cory waited on them. The ceaseless bustle must have placed a considerable strain on the retiring patrician woman. "Cory is an introvert, Ninoy was an extrovert," says Ninoy's favorite sister, Lupita Aquino Kashiwahara. "He thrived on people. She doesn't need them."
Those who have known Cory Aquino as wife and hostess are hardly surprised by her quiet authority -- only by the suddenness with which she has steeled herself to her new role, transforming herself in 30 months from a self- effacing lady to a self-confident leader. Yet those who have just met her are often so disarmed by her softness that they overlook her ability to act with decisiveness.
The White House, to take one example, was markedly reluctant during the dying months of the Marcos era to accept the petite grandmother with a little girl's voice as a plausible leader of the country that houses the largest U.S. military installation abroad. Even after the election, a White House aide publicly complained, "How the State Department thinks that Aquino can govern on her own is just beyond us."
Since she came to power, however, Aquino has systematically gone about stilling many of those doubts. Before visiting her in Manila in May, U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz privately expressed doubts about her ability to govern. Afterward, and ever since, the normally poker-faced Secretary has fairly glowed at the very mention of Aquino's name. When Cory spoke before a joint session of Congress, she received the most thunderous reception given any foreign leader in more than a generation. Indeed, the entire U.S. tour, observed a State Department official who accompanied her, was "staggeringly successful. She had hard-bitten politicians eating out of her hand."
In her first ten months as President, Aquino has already begun to freshen up the office with an honesty and humility rarely seen in political circles. Before her U.S. visit, for example, she exasperated Philippine couturiers, accustomed to the imperial Imelda, by refusing to spend more than $40 on any dress. She still prefers not to be called "Madam," an honorific she feels was stained by the former First Lady. In many ways, in fact, she seems as open as before. Upon learning that a local journalist had won a grant to study in the U.S., the President stunned the woman by calling her up to offer her an old winter coat.
That unassuming style reflects a person with a very precise sense of herself and her limits. Aquino recognizes the vanity of vanity. "I've reached a point in life," she says, "where it's no longer necessary to try to impress. If they like me the way I am, that's good. If they don't, that's too bad." It is that same kind of detached self-possession that enables her, in the midst of pandemonium, to remain as composed as a sermon. "A single word of anger from her or any suggestion of violence ((at Ninoy's funeral)) could conceivably have overtaken Malacanang Palace," relates Emmanuel Pelaez, the Philippine Ambassador to the U.S. "But she was very scriptural. 'Vengeance is mine,' she must have said to herself."
Nor has the presidency yet smudged her sense of priorities. The eldest of Cory's four daughters, Maria Elena ("Ballsy") Cruz, 31, is still her private secretary, and her only son, Benigno III ("Noynoy"), 26, was one of her emissaries to the Communists. Aquino attends no more than three formal dinners a week, and the day on which the historic cease-fire with the Communists was signed found her marking what would have been her husband's 54th birthday with Cardinal Sin and her one-year-old grandson Justin Benigno. Being a grandmother, she says, makes her happier than being President.
With her moral -- even moralistic -- strictness, Aquino can at times treat even her Cabinet colleagues with the kind of affectionate sternness she lavishes on her children. She allows no smoking in her office, and she expects all the President's men to be prompt and tireless. Once she told Chief Speechwriter Teodoro Locsin to dress less like a gangster. The faint air of maternalism is heightened by her habit of referring to "my people," "my Cabinet," and even, most disconcertingly, "my generals."
For all that, however, Aquino's leadership of her Cabinet has often been uncertain. She manages by intuition, observers say, which is perhaps why her government remains somewhat disorderly. So far, says one minister very close to the President, "she gives herself a B. Her political instincts are superb, but she needs a better balance of close-in advisers. What she really needs is a chief of staff."
At the center of the confusion, and the controversy, are the human rights activists, whom Aquino admires for their idealism and especially for the faithfulness with which they stood by her husband during the dark days of martial law. Ninoy's lawyer Joker Arroyo is her executive secretary; Ninoy's cellmate Jose Diokno is chairman of the Presidential Commission on Human Rights; Ninoy's friend Locsin is her speechwriter. Many people feel that Aquino is too protective of these advisers and that they are too protective of her. The prime target of these charges is the principled but overworked Arroyo, who sometimes spends as much as six hours a day huddling with the President.
The conflict between personal loyalty and public policy becomes even more vexing when it comes to Aquino's own large family. If ever the President moves, as promised, to redistribute national wealth, she can hardly afford to overlook the wealth of the Cojuangcos. More troublesome still are the activities of her younger brother and close adviser Jose ("Peping"), who has been accused of reaping personal profits from two new casinos in Manila.
Having changed the rules of Philippine politics, moreover, the self- professed housewife often finds herself judged by the old rules. In restoring her country's freedoms, for example, she is content to go about her business while Marcos loyalists stir up trouble in the streets and Cabinet ministers speak their minds to the 26 daily newspapers in rumor-mad Manila. The resulting appearance of dissentious sound and fury is, she says, simply a sign of the government's self-confident strength: democracy in action. Others take it for weakness.
Likewise, her slowness to act while former Defense Minister Enrile was openly challenging her authority was widely seen as a symptom of her habit of praying and delaying. Yet her admirers point to the Enrile firing as an example of an inspired sense of timing. "She's an extraordinarily good judge of people and performance," says Republican Senator Richard Lugar, who led the U.S. team of observers at the February elections and returned to Manila in August. "She has instinctive feelings of loyalty and of who is pulling with her."
Certainly, her swift if belated stroke of decisiveness against Enrile dispelled in a single blow much of the turmoil that was unsettling Manila. And when she went on to ax four controversial ministers, while signing a cease- fire with the Communist rebels, Aquino pulled off a strategic coup of her own. Few could doubt that she had mastered the Napoleonic axiom that "justice means force as well as virtue."
That radical shake-up also succeeded in soothing, for the moment, some of the restiveness of the 250,000 men of the army. General Ramos, the head of the armed services, has declared himself repeatedly, in word and deed, to be fully behind the President. Nevertheless, as many as 6,000 young officers in the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM), outraged at Enrile's ouster, may yet make trouble.
The military will stay quiet only if the President deals decisively with the Communist threat, which has spread to 64 of the country's 74 provinces. Few expect the present 60-day cease-fire to hold, and many hard-liners on both sides cannot wait for it to collapse. Aquino's unswerving Catholicism and her calm distaste for radical reforms make her highly unsympathetic to the Communist cause. Yet she is convinced that most of the rebels were driven to the hills not out of ideology but out of desperation, and can therefore be won back by negotiation. As the second stage of talks concluded last week, however, the guerrillas were still demanding a coalition government and the removal of U.S. bases, while the government was offering only a package of social and economic reforms, including "amnesty with honor." If the talks break down, Aquino has already warned that she will not hesitate to "take up the sword of war."
Perhaps the best weapon she could wield against the growing Communist threat would be an improved economy. As it is, her presence and her free enterprise policies have already restored a little business confidence. As capital outflow has all but halted, hard-currency reserves, down to only $200 million in February, are now back to $2 billion. Yet the economy is still in desperate shape and dependent upon outside aid, especially from the U.S. In Manila, more than one in every two people does not have a full-time job, and in the countryside, four children in every five are suffering from malnutrition. Real wages are no higher than in 1972, and the economy will have to sustain a robust 6% annual growth rate for six straight years just to get back to where it was in 1981. -
As she contemplates the enormous challenges before her, Aquino can take heart, perhaps, from her rare gift for surprise. Stalin is said to have claimed that "you can't make a revolution with silk gloves." Edward Bulwer- Lytton, the British 19th century novelist, believed that "revolutions are not made with rose water." And Oliver Wendell Holmes pronounced that "revolutions are not made by men in spectacles." In coming to power on a wing and a prayer, Aquino has already disproved them all.
Aquino has also begun to disprove the predictions of her husband, who used to say that whoever succeeded Marcos was "doomed to fail" because of the troubles the person would inherit. His wife ended up with that chaos, and burdened too with all the impossible expectations she had awakened. In addition, she enjoyed no transition period and no advance planning. To make matters worse, she has had to manage a three-party government made up of moderates, leftists and the military. "Given the mess she's inherited," says a senior Washington official, "I think she has been very successful."
Most of those who know Aquino well are even more confident that her iron will and her driving sense of duty will not allow her to give up. In a poem he gave her for her 41st birthday, Ninoy described his wife as "unruffled by trouble, undeterred by the burden, though heavy the load. Nothing is impossible . . ." His sister Lupita, whose relations with the President have sometimes been frosty, now speaks with the fervor of the converted. "I believe that she was born and raised for this role," she says. "After she spoke before the U.S. Congress, I said to myself, 'Ninoy, you can rest in peace. She is the President now."'
Yet perhaps the greatest danger before the reluctant leader is, finally, a private one. As she becomes ever more the President, she may become less and less the ordinary person -- attending PTA meetings, making pasta and praying with her children -- who captured her country in the first place. In growing more assertive, she may relinquish some of the gentleness that was her greatest strength. Ultimately, in mastering politics, she may have to let politics master her.
Clearly, that problem tears at her. Aquino worries when her friends tell her that she is too honest, and laments, "I don't want to be dishonest." She frets that she can no longer afford to be humble, and she misses the freedom to retreat into her family and her privacy. "I am torn," she said just before firing Enrile, "between acting like a President and like a human being."
Some might say that she has set herself an impossible task in trying to balance those roles, to season force with humanity and realism with faith. Yet if there is one thing that Aquino has already committed to the safekeeping of posterity, it is her gift for stretching the limits of the possible. Last year, the widow with the radiant smile managed to turn history into something of a fairy tale. If she can now bring something of the morality play even to a hardened political world, history itself, like most of the forces she has already met, may one day be quietly transformed.