I loved Cory. I am aware the former president Cory Aquino was not a perfect president. At the time she was president, I was consumed with my desire for a good future for my children. Despite her imperfections as a president, I admire her as a person.
As the FREE PRESS marveled on February 7, 1986: “To be a woman!” What leadership, after all, ever came clad in a skirt? The leaders that captured the imagination had all been vigorous men: and now here came a woman daring the dictator to do his worst. Even the dictator scoffed. He knew her, after all. And as far as he was concerned she was just another political widow. Widows like Magnolia Antonino had capitalized on the deaths of their husbands before; but they hadn’t been running for president against Ferdinand E. Marcos.
She was that, of course: a woman, a widow. A woman with a mission bequeathed to her by her husband. But she was greater than that too: she would be a Quezon, a Magsaysay, a Sergio Osmeña and a Recto, too. She would be all these and more than that: she would ensure that Ninoy did not die in vain; she would leader her people in fulfillment of what they had come to so ardently desire.
In 1983 Corazon C. Aquino came home to find an opposition as pathetic as it was fragmented. She looked around to see squabbling politicians, ideologues arguing dogma, a disgruntled and gutless middle class, and a dictator firmly ensconced in the Palace. Her husband’s peers in the opposition were variously paralyzed with fear and filled with barely-suppressed loathing, envy and alarm over the sudden transformation of one of the boys –for in their view, though he might have been Marcos’s political enemy No. 1, he was still just yet another contender for the leadership of the opposition- into a hero and martyr.
They saw what Cory instinctively knew; that in Ninoy’s bloody corpse lay the salvation of a people too cowed by fear and apathy to save themselves. She would make the people save themselves. She would show them how. And she would make Ninoy’s fellow oppositionists march behind Ninoy’s bier together with the people.
To recall the days when a nation was horror stricken by the assassination of Ninoy is to recall the beginning of the transformation of the opposition into a viable contender for power. It is to recall Cory’s achieving what Magsaysay did in the wake of Moises Padilla’s killing and what Claro M. Recto never dreamed possible: to channel a nation’s disgust with those in power into a potent political force. Cory Aquino made her grief as a widow the nation’s grief; and she transformed the rage and anger she felt over the cruel killing of her husband into an indignation and anger felt by millions.
It would begin with the tentative steps made by hundreds of thousands who took it upon themselves to stand up and be counted in public. In 1983, bravery was attending Ninoy’s wake in Santo Domingo Church. Courage was marching in the funeral cortege. Patriotism was to wear ribbons of mourning and shirts of yellow. The first steps having been made, a simple, human, effort to show solidarity with a widow who had been wronged became the determination to stand up for a nation that had been wronged.
Her challenge to her countrymen was for them to finally do what Ninoy had done for so many years: to make the painful decision to suffer for what was right. What was imprisonment, or the rubber truncheons, the bullets, the water cannon of the military compared to gladly giving one’s life for liberty? By coming home, she was sharing the risks her husband had taken. By standing before public assemblies and speaking out against Marcos, she was making herself the target of his minions. Would her countrymen be any less than she? Than Ninoy?
They would not. And she made sure that they would make their opposition felt day after day. The slender ranks of the opposition were suddenly swelled by the joining of the middle class in the marches to Mendiola, and in the showers of yellow confetti in what had once been the bastion of indifference and political cowardice: Makati.
When the opposition would begin to bicker about tactics, about whether or not to participate in this or that election, she stood up and told the people what to do. What good was an opposition if it did not show itself determined to take power? Of what use was marching day in and day out to show contempt for the dictatorship, if it did not wrestle with the dictatorship, even in unequal fights, even in rigged elections? By engaging the enemy on its own turf would the dictatorship be shown to be dependent only on guile and guns for the maintenance of its power. This had been her husband’s philosophy when he decided to run for public office from his jail cell. It would be her philosophy too.
“Go out and vote,” she told her countrymen. Better an opposition willing to show its faith in the ballot box, in elections, rigged or not, than an opposition which would leave the field wide open for anyone the dictator wanted in his government. The gains in the Batasan elections would be meager, but they were gains. Marcos would have to begin to give a little in the hope of keeping all. Cory Aquino would ensure that the opposition would be there to take all that could be taken –and when the time was ripe, take all. It was not enough to poke fun at Imelda and Ver, not enough to make eloquent speeches. This was Recto’s style. It was more important to go out to the people and make them take back what was once theirs: the freedom of the ballot.
The perennial underdog may gain sympathy but in the end, he remains an underdog if he believes it in his head that that is his lot in life. The underdog can one day become the victor –if he has the stomach for it. Defeatism breeds defeat: Cory would give the opposition small victories, to be sure, but victories nonetheless. She would be called David; she would show that Marcos was an aged Goliath.
Oppositionist candidates actually started to win; they even got as far as embarrassing Marcos in the session hall of his own rubber-stamp assembly by publicly moving for his impeachment. She put her prestige firmly behind the effort to move on to the next step: not just harassing Marcos in his own institutions (in the courts, in the Batasan), and on the streets, but of challenging Marcos himself –and finally supplanting him.
Her name was in the Convener’s Group; the signal to the public was, there is life beyond Marcos and that day may come any day now. An overarching goal had been formed, one that would be crystallized in the slogan “Tama na, sobra na, palitan na!”
From the moment her husband was killed, she had told her people, enough was enough. There could be no reasoning with such a tyrant as Marcos. There was no sense in quibbling over political, even ideological differences. The dictator must be thrown out: that was the goal. It was a goal that defined her developing leadership, that brought millions to embrace that leadership, and which sustained her in her quest for the Presidency.
She never wanted to be President, that was clear. And she never proclaimed herself particularly suited for the position. But she would answer her country’s call –if it was made. Again she challenged her countrymen: if you want me to lead you, you must be brave enough to do so in writing. They did; she answered their call. And from the day she announced that she would heed her countrymen’s call, she never deviated from the firm belief that victory was hers.
This time she was a leader courted by the people and not the other way around. She was by birth and breeding an aristocrat: the people made way for her when walked among them the way they used to for Quezon. But they could also mob her in a way unseen since the days of Magsaysay. In her speeches she could make barbs as pointed as any uttered by Recto; and again, in campaigning, she could be Quezonian in her flair for the dramatic and the effective, and like Magsaysay in the way she spoke from the heart and was understood by the poor and rich alike.
She proved as politically gifted as any great leader of the past; but this time hers was a politics with a difference. Hers was not a quest for power in fulfillment of ambition. She did not seek the presidency because she wanted it, but rather because she must take it if were ever to be wrested from the clutches of the man who so coveted the position he would murder democracy and his enemies to hold on to it.
She won the presidency. She won it both in the ballot box and by acclamation by a people who redeemed themselves by daring to do what Ninoy did: risk their lives for freedom. But such was the moral purpose that Cory’s quest for the presidency had been imbued that in the end, very few of her countrymen were called upon to die for democracy. At least in 1986 –there would be a grimmer price to pay later. A nation finally convinced that it deserved to be free got its freedom –and the dictator who had depended on the preservation of his power through the corruption of everyone around him found himself fleeing for his life.
As President, the Cory Aquino who never wanted to be President did nothing to perpetuate herself in office. Hers was a presidency fiercely determined to defend country, but not one which made itself a mechanism for its continuation in office. Sergio Osmeña could serenely run for reelection and find glory in defeat: here was a president who would not even countenance her continuation in office beyond the term she had originally been elected to serve. If Osmeña had put limits on his ambition, if Quezon had hastened his death because of it, if Magsaysay had disturbed his contemporaries by the suspicion he might continue in office for ever if only he succumbed to the temptations that power brings (only perhaps to be saved from it by his untimely death), Cory Aquino achieved power with the determination that one of her finest hours would be the time she would gladly hand over that power to a duly-elected successor.
She became the focus of national pride and admiration internationally to an extent that Quezon and Magsaysay could only have dreamed of. Her voice became a voice listened to by millions beyond her shores. Filipinos, the Philippines, Cory: all were of the same substance. Democracy was Cory and democracy was the Philippines and democracy were the Filipinos. If Recto had wanted Filipinos to think for themselves, Cory Aquino made them something even better: a people determined to reclaim their freedom regardless of what others thought (including Uncle Sam, the bogey of many a Recto speech); and she furthermore allowed her countrymen to achieve the fulfillment of one of Recto’s most cherished dreams: a Philippines secure enough in its own abilities and confident in its own future to break the umbilical cord tying it to America.
Not that Cory Aquino agreed with what the Senate decided to do in 1991. She fought the rejection of RP-US Bases treaty –but she did it in the only way she knew, and the only way she could possibly have done, given the way her life had turned out: she went to the people and their elected representatives. When she was rebuffed, she accepted their decision. She realized that her leadership depended on its effectiviness on its being grounded in goals shared by the majority of her countrymen.
She never again deviated from those goals: to bring democracy back, and maintain it.
Until the time came to give to someone else the power the people had given her, Cory did not allow anyone to wrest it away. Coup after coup took place. She refused to flee. She would stand by her post. It was the people’s mandate. She could do no less. If the world marveled at millions of unarmed Filipinos reclaiming their liberties from an armed and ruthless despot, the world marveled at a democracy that could withstand such a beating from its own soldiers. It marveled, too, at a woman who, having received power, wielded it so lightly –and yet so firmly when required.
Filipinos have always craved respect. They have always wanted leaders they could be proud of. They expect their leaders to be honest and to give them good government. They want leaders who set limits to the exercise of the power the people give them. By example Cory Aquino convinced a people composed of “forty million cowards and one sonofabitch?? that they could be proud of themselves –and that the world could be proud of them. She would prove every bit as personally honest as Magsaysay; she did not have Quezon’s temper but charmed her people the way he did. And she proved an indifference to power achieved only by Osmeña in old age. She fulfilled her husband’s mission, making heroes of countrymen; she gave her countrymen a self-confidence and an independence of thought and action such as Recto only dreamed of.
And thus this magazine considers Corazon C. Aquino, wife, mother, former president, icon of democracy, the Filipino best qualified to be named Person of the Century. For if true, positive, leadership is what makes a person great –and makes one person the greatest of all as far as reckoning the 20th Century is concerned, then Corazon Aquino can be said to have had the greatest measure of all three necessary supports for true leadership. She not only was a leader, but the kind the country had never seen, at least in politics: a leadership grounded not in ambition (however laudable the goals that may have accompanied that ambition), but in a moral purpose. A leadership both practical and idealistic –and which proved that the two, so often seen as incompatible in human affairs, could effectively coexist. She made a wholehearted belief in democracy and liberty something not naïve, and definitely something to be taken seriously; indeed she made it something that could make a profound difference in the destiny of a nation and its people.
Other leaders had paved the way; she achieved it. Alone of those who have been presidents of this country, she gave up power willingly; and she continues to be a force to reckon with in national affairs. She remains a source of national pride. Perhaps she is the only one who can look back on her days as president without the pang of regret and feelings of loss that former presidents are susceptible to.
Hers was not a perfect presidency, just as she is not a perfect woman. But if one considers the history of the Philippines and its people during the 20th century, and sees the leaders that represented the best and worst of their countrymen, and who represented common desires in their countrymen, if one looks at the past hundred years, one can only conclude that in Cory Aquino was finally achieved that rare thing. A leader who led, and was followed, by a people with whom she had a perfect understanding. In a sense, it was a simple understanding, but therein lies its perfection. She saw a people with no pride, who were full of fear, and yet who yearned to regain what they had lost. She was both pushed by them and pushed them to regain what they had lost –and keep it.
Whenever it seems that what was gained is in danger of being lost, she loses no time in standing up again. And rare is the leader whom her people rally around time and again, long after her days in actual power have passed. In her day, Cory Aquino as President could have given herself all the power possible, and an adoring people would have gladly granted her that power –indeed, they did, during the period when she governend under the “Freedom Constitution.” But such was her understanding with her people that she never fully exercised that power, even when she had it, and indeed, she hastened the abolition of that power through the adoption of a proper Constitution.
It is clear, then, that of the short list of leaders qualified for the distinction of Person of the Century, Cory Aquino should be the one chosen. In her are reflected facets of the great leaders of the past; and in her reposes a leadership so distinctive as to be unmatched by any other raised to great heights by fate, ambition and the acclamation of the Filipino people.
Teodoro M. Locsin expressed it best: writing of Cory in 1986, he wrote, “There has never been anything like it in Philippine history: a woman telling the machos of business and industry to do what she is doing, to stand up to the injustices against which they have been content merely to complain…And one with any sense of morality, of human right and dignity, can only recoil from government by, for, and of one man clearly determined to maintain his rule at whatever cost to the nation. But it took a woman to do what a man, or men, should have been doing: Fight! Being a man was sadly inadequate. One had to be something else. Be a woman — like her! Like Cory.”
Photos of Cory Aquino taken by Noemi L. Dado from the Yellow Paintings Exhibit.