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Washington's greatest accomplishment so far has been to force Marcos to address an issue he ducked for more than a decade: naming a Vice President. At his party's nominating convention in December, Marcos chose Arturo ("Turing") Tolentino, 75, a former Foreign Minister whom the President sacked from that job for espousing views incompatible with his own. Theoretically, should Marcos die after winning the Feb. 7 elections, Tolentino would take his place. The wily Marcos may have been trying to dodge that likelihood when he chose as Vice President a man who is seven years his senior. Marcos' opponents fear that the President may still make a last-minute substitution of his ambitious wife Imelda as Vice President. Under a newly promulgated Philippine election code, such a move would be legal right up to noon of election day.
Privately, some U.S. officials see little hope of a peaceful transfer of power so long as Marcos is alive. Intelligence sources have long reported that the Philippine President suffers from a form of systemic lupus erythematosus, a disease in which human antibodies attack the body's tissue, especially in many cases the kidneys. According to the same sources, Marcos has undergone one, and perhaps two, kidney transplants. He is constantly medicated, and his face shows it, usually being either drawn or puffed up from the effects of drugs. When Marcos appears at campaign rallies, he is often carried on the shoulders of guards, and he visibly flinches from pain. In the course of his long, rambling campaign speeches, his voice frequently cracks and rasps. Nonetheless, he still manages to muster the will to continue. Warns a Western diplomat: "This is still a formidable political figure."
The Reagan Administration's concern and frustration with Marcos is a far cry from its attitude a few years ago. Vice President George Bush, on a visit to Manila in 1981, gushed effusively to Marcos that "we love your adherence to democratic principles and to the democratic process." In 1982 the Philippine leader was welcomed with open arms at the White House. What stood uppermost in U.S. calculations at that time was the fact that Marcos controlled something that the U.S. badly needs: access to Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base, two of the most important American military facilities in the Pacific. Says a State Department official: "The bottom line always was, and always will be, those bases."
In fact, much more is at stake in the crisis engendered by Marcos' fading grip: the stability of the Philippine archipelago and U.S. influence in the entire region. The Philippines is an important member of the Association of South East Asian Nations, a six-nation group* that has enjoyed surprising stability and prosperity in the wake of the U.S. defeat in Viet Nam. Collapse of the Philippines in the face of a Communist insurgency would severely impair the security of the remaining ASEAN members and pose a threat to U.S. allies as far away as Australia.
At the same time, Washington's failure to prevent such a collapse would be regarded as a sign of U.S. impotence, and might encourage similar insurgencies elsewhere. Yet, as in Iran, Central America and other trouble spots around the world, the U.S. has only limited means available to help in shoring up its ally-- short of a military intervention that the American public and, above all, Congress would undoubtedly not support.