Woman of the Year

Cory Aquino leads a fairy-tale revolution, then surprises the world with her strength

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History, wrote Gibbon, is little more than a "register of crimes, sorrows and misfortunes." It is, equally often, a study in black ironies or the fatal mechanisms of tragedy. Sometimes history is even a cautionary tale, an Aesopian fable on the folly of blindness or greed or lust. But history is rarely a fairy tale, a narrative that instructs as well as inspires. Still less often is it a morality play, in which the forces of corruption and redemption, of extravagance and modesty collide in perfect symmetry.

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.

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