Philippines Free Press Person of the Century:
Corazon C. Aquino
By Manuel L. Quezon III
December 30, 1999–YEAR after year, for nearly three generations, the Philippines FREE PRESS has bestowed the distinction of Man or Woman of the Year on the Filipino who has had the most influence on the country for the year in question. Over the past 91 years of its existence, this magazine has seen leaders come and go; it has seen them rise and fall; and it knows, as no other institution can, which leaders have made a positive difference in the destiny of the Philippines and its people. Having covered leaders, having seen them up close -faults, foibles, virtues and all- the FREE PRESS knows that the leaders (and the leadership) that counts is what the American writer Garry Wills defined as “Trinitarian”: not just the push and pull between a leader and his followers, not merely the stories of people who have had great numbers either pushing them forward or being hectored onward by them, but rather the leaders who mobilized “others toward a goal shared by leader and followers.” As Wills points out, “one-legged and two-legged chairs do not, of themselves, stand. A third leg is needed. Leaders, followers, and goals make up the three equally necessary supports for leadership.”
Of the leaders entitled to consideration as the Philippines Free Press’s Person of the Century a short list of six comes to mind: Manuel L. Quezon, Sergio Osmeña, Ramon Magsaysay, Claro M. Recto, Ninoy Aquino and Corazon Aquino. All of them were leaders, successful in their political careers and admired by their contemporaries; they had followers and they had goals which their followers shared. All of them have been both hailed and lambasted in the pages of this magazine over the years. And yet, time and again throughout its long history, the FREE PRESS has always returned to these leaders as exemplars of positive leadership –in contrast to that other Filipino, Ferdinand E. Marcos, who affected our lives and our history completely negatively: he was, after all, a leader, and had followers; but his goals, many of them achieved only at gunpoint, were rejected by the majority of his people.
Of these six, at least two, Quezon and Magsaysay, who so thoroughly dominated the eras in which they exercised leadership, their importance lies in their having been the exemplars of that strange combination of personal, even heroic, virtues that coexisted with the dirt and sordidness of politics, Philippine-style. What the FREE PRESS wrote, circa 1952, apropos of Quezon, could equally be said of Magsaysay:
“He gave color and drama to a political scene that would otherwise have been drab and dull. He made the Philippines a stage and politics a play in which he took many roles but always, somehow, triumphed in the end… The country… loved Quezon, who had all the faults and virtues of the people—magnified.
“The people loved him. He gave them a wonderful show. It was an exhilarating experience to watch him perform. No one was more magnetic and lovable… It was a true love affair between Quezon and the Philippines; they both loved each other and it is even possible that Quezon loved his country a little more than he loved himself. The country wanted him, of that there can be no doubt. The country had him.”
The two men had charisma aplenty; no other elected leaders in our history achieved such absolute control over the government as these two men did. But the political success that dazzled their contemporaries did not impress the FREE Press which pointed out (again in reference to Quezon, but equally applicable to Magsaysay) that,
“So accomplished a politician, however, was he that he did not feel the need of political principles. With him, politics became not the means but the end. It was an exciting game at which he was expert. But politics is the art of government and government is not a game. It is, especially in times such as ours, in a revolutionary age, a matter of life and death. The need to establish a regime above personalities, a government of law instead of men, cannot be exaggerated. In a rule of law alone lies social stability. Those who are for chaos may welcome a personal regime; those who are for order know the need for an impersonal government.”
In giving the people the government they wanted –in Quezon’s case dynamic and colorful, in Magsaysay’s case equally dramatic and superior to all that came before and would come after in its impeccable honesty- and yet in so doing making themselves the be-all and end-all of government itself, their greatest failing would be exposed after they left the political scene. Summing up the legacy of Quezon (as it would, many times over, the sense of disappointment that Filipinos would feel over the leaders that succeeded Magsaysay), the FREE PRESS concluded its editorial by pointing out,
“Today, politics as a game is being played with the same fine recklessness that Quezon played it, but viciously. His heirs have his faults without his virtues; he went far but they would go too far. His private conscience drew the line beyond which it would be dishonorable for a public official to go, a line which only an impersonal law should draw. He did not overstep the line, for he had a conscience. His heirs have none and the law may be too weak to draw it for them.” This was the problem: personalism, in the end, is only positive if those that exercise that style of leadership have a conscience. There would be no martial law under Quezon and there was none under Magsaysay; but for Marcos, frustrated at failing to achieve what his predecessors had, conscience would give way to an insatiable desire for wealth and power. Having wanted white knights, and gotten them, the Philippines would continue to yearn for more leaders in the same mold –and yet would be incapable of distinguishing their true paladins from those donning the armor of leadership under false pretenses.
The FREE PRESS’s 1952 editorial saw what was coming: “The country has had its entertainment; now the country must pay for it. It was a fine show, while it lasted. This is not to blame Quezon; he was the political leader the country wanted. He did his best to give the people what they wanted. Had the people demanded more, Quezon would doubtless have given it to them; he was too good a politician not to give the people what they wanted. But as water cannot rise above its own level, the politician cannot rise above the people’s. The people wanted him, got him. Now they have what they have.”
Power –leadership- for Quezon and Magsaysay did not stem from the barrel of a gun or the corruption of an entire society, which is what the maintenance of Marcos’s leadership entailed, but instead was derived from the courtship of the people. One was aristocratic, the other earthy; yet both made paramours of the population: and both in involving their countrymen in a love affair with themselves and their style of leadership, set their people up for what would come when someone thoroughly unscrupulous followed in their footsteps. The names of each is writ large in the period in which they lived; but beyond fond memories and an example so personal as to be of little use to those that followed them, they ended up leaving a legacy so quickly tarnished by those that aped them, as to have eroded what they were admired for having accomplished. If Carlos Quirino summed up Quezon as the “Paladin of Philippine Independence,” pointing to the goal that united his leadership with the expectations of his followers, and Magsaysay was “The Guy,” the man who made his countrymen believe that they, at last, and not their patrons, called the shots (and who remolded Quezonian leadership, having degenerated into the tired elegance and befuddlement of the Quirino government, into his own image), their goals proved all too limited, for they were to intimately entwined with themselves. The goals, once their leadership passed, would remain unfulfilled. It would take a woman to fulfill both goals.
Teodoro M. Locsin once called Sergio Osmeña “The Exemplar” of humility in leadership. He represented the leader who sought power and yet did not stoop to demean himself by holding fast to it. Together with Quezon, he was responsible for achieving the goal of independence that sustained popular support for himself and his party for half a century; but at last, after great sacrifice, having achieved his supreme ambition, the Presidency of his country, he refused to do what cost his predecessor his life and would lead Ferdinand Marcos to imposing martial law: he would not hold power at all costs. Politics, for Osmeña was transformed into statesmanship –and leadership so responsible as to give his countrymen the freedom to exercise their judgment. In so doing –by refusing to campaign for election or manipulate the levers of power to his advantage- he suffered defeat. Yet it was his –and perhaps, his generation’s- finest moment. For he relinquished power with the dignity that can only come from the certainty that he had done what was right for a free people.
Teodoro M. Locsin once wrote this summation of Osmena’s greatness:
“Defeat is usually termed ignominious unless one fights to the end, against overwhelming odds, then it is called honorable. Thus, Spartan mothers told their sons setting forth to war to return with their shields or on them. But there is another kind of defeat, and it’s a rare one. Rare in history, and most rare in political history, for politics seems to bring out the worst, the meanest in men. It’s more than just honorable, it’s glorious, and that is defeat from self-denial: to lose when one might have won, out of a sense of high purpose. Such was the defeat of Pres. Sergio Osmeña, Sr., in the 1946 presidential election. He lost in his presidential reelection bid because he would make no promise he was not certain of fulfilling. He would not stretch the meaning of the word ‘promise’ to cover mere attempt. Surely, one may not be expected to do more than one can, but he would not equate mere attempt with performance and what he was not sure he could do, he would not promise.”
To his countrymen Osmeña gave the privilege of rejecting a lifetime of dedication: the same privilege given the citizens of the much more developed and venerable democracy in Britain. Like Churchill, Osmeña was rejected by his countrymen when he most deserved their gratitude. Yet in so doing both people and leader demonstrated an even more abiding faith in the democratic process.
But the serenity that accompanied Osmena’s fall from power was achieved only after decades of political struggle. While Osmeña was far more concerned with what history would say about him when he was gone, in contrast to the obsession with tactical victory that enabled Quezon time and again to outfox him, costing Quezon in his final struggle with Osmeña his life, he was still, for most of his career, a politician. He fought hard and at times with every bit as much ruthlessness as his perennial rival. The stoicism and dignity, the lack of concern for the trappings and maintenance of power of the Osmeña who went down to electoral defeat in 1945, was the final metamorphosis of a man who had spent virtually his entire life in politics. It would take a woman to demonstrate the same detachment from the allure of power clearly and unquivocably from the very beginning of her involvement in politics.
As for Claro M. Recto, the “finest mind” of his generation in the estimation of the FREE PRESS, he was the complete oppositionist –and the finest example of the intellectual leader. Again, one must refer to the estimation of Locsin, who found Quezon engaging, admired Osmeña, passionately supported Magsaysay, was Ninoy’s friend, and took up his pen once more to support Cory.
As far as Recto was concerned, Locsin wrote that “Recto is not a good speaker, no. He will arouse no mob. But heaven help the one whose pretensions he chooses to demolish. His sentences march, like ordered battalions, against the in-most citadel of the man’s arguments and reduce them to rubble; meanwhile, his reservations stand like armed sentries, against the most silent approach and every attempt at encirclement by the adversary. The reduction to absurdity of Nacionalista Senator Zulueta’s conception of a sound foreign policy was a shattering experience; the skill that goes into the cutting of a diamond went into the work of demolition. There was no slip of the hand, no flaw in the tool. All was delicately, perfectly, done. The most result from the lightest blow—the greatest damage with the least powder. Recto cannot—no one can, except against the stupid and ignorant—he cannot defend the indefensible, but what can be defended, he will see to it that it will not be taken.
“The usual politicians offer no challenge to the mind. They are all so obvious in their purpose, so pitiful in their intellectual equipment, so mediocre in their performance, so common, so unremarkable that one could cut a pattern and it would fit them all. Some have money and want more; some have none, would get some; most are capable of a moldy sort of rhetoric, cliché-infested, paltry of thought. The tired shibboleths of the professional rabble-rouser characterize their speeches. ‘No sacrifice too great… I promise you… Philippines, my Philippines….’ The frantic gestures, the screaming voice, the frenzied expressions, the hysterical charges, the crocodile tears—these are the usual politician’s stock-in-trade. Recto does not resort to them.”
Recto’s leadership was the curious kind that only finds fulfillment from being at the periphery of power, and not from being its fulcrum. It was the best occupation suited to the satirist that he was. His success at the polls would be limited; his ability to mold the minds of his contemporaries was only excelled by Rizal’s. The public wanted him in office because they respected his mind and found his wit a valuable tool with which to temper the pretensions of those in higher positions. He was best when he was what Filipinos so love, even when they were equally dazzled by other leaders. For if Filipinos love a winner, they also love the underdog: and Recto was never happier when placed in the position of waging a sustained campaign of opposition to someone at the top.
His contribution to the growth of nationalism from the desire for the symbols of political independence to the achievement of substantive independence –independence not just in name, but in thought- both echoed Rizal and made the traditions of the Propagandists that he so thoroughly represented meaningful to his countrymen. But if he was admired for his intellect and his dogged determination to never let the opposition be bereft of a champion, still his opposition was flawed. For it was one that never bothered to transform itself into an opposition capable of taking power. To chide, even deride, his fellow leaders was enough. To pander to the public was beneath him: or more accurately, he would not break the confines of his own character and background to the extent of making himself –and all that he so brilliantly represented: a clear-headed, courageous, love of country without the naïveté that so handicapped his contemporaries- understood by the majority that deserved his leadership.
His intellect alone would have made Recto a great man; but he also chose to be not just a leader when it came to ideas, but an elected one. His greatness as an intellectual put him at par with Rizal. His leadership was a politician showed the limitations a great mind –and a soaring certainty in one’s brilliance that made his leadership fatally flawed in its absolute contempt for those around him- can have on someone with ambitions for public office. Again it would take a woman to show that opposition, in itself, was not enough. The challenge for the opposition is not just to oppose, but to replace what is wrong with what the opposition says is right. And the measure of success for the opposition is for it to have leadership that is not just convinced of the rightness of its cause, but of the ability of the public to understand and support that cause.
In Ninoy Aquino we find leadership in the mold of both Jose Rizal and Abad Santos, in that the crowning glory of his life was his sacrificing his life for his country. But his politics was more Quezonian, his political prowess in the tradition of Magsaysay. His was not the cold, calculating mind of the jurist and administrator that Abad Santos was; but it was when he was taken away from the limelight that he became a hero. He had risen to the top of the establishment; the presidency, by all accounts, was soon to be his. Then overnight he was nothing but a prisoner. The years of detention pared away the ambition and political razzle-dazzle that had previously sustained him. He was left only with his conscience and discovered it would be the source of his greatness. For his conscience left him with no other alternative but to reject the blandishments of Marcos. The loneliness of his cell, the pain of separation from his family, and then, once united with it, the equal agony of separation from his country, were preferable to reaching an accommodation with his jailer.
In so doing, he became one of only a few who rejected martial law from the start and believed that democracy must one day take its place. This faith in democracy alone distinguishes him the majority of his countrymen; but this faith would be crowned with martyrdom. The defining moment of his greatness, in the estimation of those who knew him, was the moment he was taken from his seat and led out of the plane to what he knew –what could be clearly be seen in his eyes in the last footage ever taken of him while he was alive- would be certain death. Ninoy Aquino went willingly; he had been warned some time before that this might indeed be his fate if he dared come home. And yet, return he did: he had said the “Filipino is worth dying for”. Not a few of his contemporaries thought it would be at best a useless sacrifice, and most probably one undeserved by his people. He proved them wrong.
A willingness to die for a cause; a willingness to endure imprisonment for one’s ideals; the certainty that there is an alternative to dictatorship; an abiding faith in the goodness and worthiness for freedom of one’s people: all these are characteristics of a great man. Had he not suffered, he would still have been able to look back at a remarkable record of public service and electoral success.
Still, it would take a woman to show that sacrifice is not enough. It would take a woman to show that a sacrifice must be redeemed. It would take a woman to prove that the sacrifice would not go to waste. Hadn’t Rizal’s death resulted in what he feared the most, Revolution? And hadn’t Abad Santos’s death at the hands of the Japanese cowed his fellow officials into cooperating with the Japanese? Ninoy Aquino had come home, perhaps unrealistically, to reason with his nemesis, though he knew there were those that would rather see him dead than be home to cause trouble. He knew what he was getting into, knew that if reason did not work, his death would force the hand of fate and get rid of Marcos anyway. But at what cost? It would take a woman to make the price of Ninoy’s life not the submersion of the country in a sea of blood, but instead the exorcism of Marcos in a shower of yellow confetti.
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.”
Locsin pointed out the political revolution she had accomplished even as she campaigned for the presidency –and which remains a continuing threat to the machine politics that people thought Marcos (and those who would still follow his path) thought was invincible:
“Support for her cause — the cause of the honest, decent and good, the long-suffering and patient, until now — comes not only comes from the well-heeled but also from the poor, the barely surviving. She asks for their votes and money pours out for her from those the regime feels compelled to bribe, cheat and coerce. Women and children form a cordon around the vehicle carrying her from the airport to Cebu City in an act of loving protectiveness against goons, uniformed or not, of the powers that be.”
When was there such a leader? And when will there be such a leader again? Perhaps, once more, some time in the future. But as far as the 20th Century is concerned, the Philippines never saw anything like it.
The greatness of Cory Aquino is best expressed in what Locsin wrote in that fateful year. Referring to the people, the nation, rallying around Cory, just as it had rallied around her since 1983, Locsin wrote, “To be resigned to evil is to support it. Acceptance is consent. .. The Filipino people cannot be held captive too long by any power, native or foreign. But they can be if there is no will to resist power however great.” Cory taught –proved- her countrymen that. Quoting Rizal, the greatest Filipino of the 19th Century, Locsin writes, “‘There are no tyrants,’ as Rizal said, ‘where there are no slaves.’”
Concludes Locsin, tartly, “Slavery is the just desert of slaves.”
Cory saw a nation and made it free itself from the chains of slavery. It made her people great. It makes her our Person of the Century.