CALIFORNIA, United States?For the second time in less than 20 years, Filipinos are bidding farewell to Corazon Aquino. The first time was when she stepped down as president in 1992.
That was a significant event for many of my generation, the martial-law babies, who grew ruled by a dictator who held on to power for so long, most of us thought he?d be there forever. For in 1992, six years after the tyrant?s fall, a Filipino chief executive willingly handed over power to her elected successor. And she even did so with a happy smile on her face.
In fact, in the TV coverage of Fidel Ramos inauguration, Cory looked relieved.
Despite a disappointingly chaotic presidency, Mrs. Aquino left the stage with class. For me, one of the things that made her unique in the history of Philippine presidential politics is that, unlike recent and past leaders, she never tried to extend her term as president, and never once hinted that she was interested in staying longer in power.
In fact, in her six years in office, it seemed, at times, that Cory Aquino, the housewife-turned-political warrior did not really want the job. That she wasn?t really interested in, or comfortable with, the trappings of the presidency. That she would much rather take care of her family, away from the limelight.
To be sure, her time in office was not exactly the best of times for Filipinos.
Her husband Ninoy Aquino?s words before his assassination turned out to be prophetic: That the country was in such a deep mess that whoever takes over after Marcos would smell like horse manure after only six months in office. Cory Aquino?s standing as a leader never reached that low a point, but indeed, her presidency coincided with six of the most tumultuous years in recent Philippine history.
But in the end, she was still standing, a proud survivor.
In a way, Cory Aquino was like Rocky Balboa, the movie hero who became an accidental heavyweight challenger. Rocky knew he probably didn?t stand a chance, and so he set a more modest, though still formidable, goal: To go the distance, to still be on his feet when the final bell rings. To not be knocked out.
And Cory Aquino did just that. She took on the dictator, led the difficult transition from more than 20 years of Marcos, faced down challenges from the right, the left, and even the center.
Like Rocky in the first movie in the series, Cory probably ?lost? by decision, if one were to evaluate the achievements of her administration. By the end of her term, Philippine society was still reeling from poverty and inequality. Corruption was still a major headache, and some say even got worse during her term. The political system had degenerated into a violent, mindless spectacle. Power outages sapped the energy of many Filipinos, many of whom simply left for greener pastures. Eventually the perception grew that Cory was more interested in advancing the interests of the affluent and the powerful.
And then there were the coup attempts, seven of them in six years, rebellions that at least twice came close to booting her out of power, and demoralized a country already reeling from mounting economic and social woes.
But in the eyes of many Filipinos, Cory, like Rocky, may have lost in a fight in which she faced tremendous odds?but she also came out a winner. Mainly because she held on, fought on, went the distance. She didn?t get knocked out.
And the transition ceremony in 1992 highlighted one of her greatest achievements. For the first time in decades, there was an orderly transfer of power, a sense of order in a society where chaos had reigned for so long.
I was a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle when I interviewed Mrs. Aquino four years later for a story on the 10th anniversary of the People Power uprising. Asked if there was ever a time when she thought of giving up, her answer was clear and short: ?No.?
And on how being president changed her, Cory expounded on one of the key lessons she learned.
?Before I became president I was asked: How do you propose to run the government given your limited experience?? she told me. ?And I said I believed that I could get 50 men and women who were honest and competent to help me run the government. At that time, I thought honesty and competence were the only requirements for getting good cabinet members.
?But after I became president?during the first few months of my term?I realized that there was a third quality very much needed in order to help me in the running of affairs. That was the ability to work well with others. With the honest and competent, I could have had all-star players. But if they did not possess the quality of being humble enough to get along well with others, then you did encounter many problems.?
Copyright 2009 by Benjamin Pimentel
What she said made me realize that one of her great strengths turned out to be one of her weaknesses. Her sincerity and the apparent simplicity of her leadership style helped rally and unite Filipinos during a critical time. But these weren?t enough, and perhaps even served as baggage, in the tougher task of rallying the best and the brightest of the land, many of who came from competing, even hostile, camps, to confront enormous hurdles.
Still, in light of the presidential disasters the Philippines has endured over the past decade, Cory Aquino?s leadership was a breath of fresh air that the country badly needs once again.
That?s certainly the case for many martial-law babies who may have been critical of how Cory ran the country, but now look back fondly to a time when the nightmare called Marcos finally ended, and a soft-spoken bespectacled woman in a yellow dress, preaching unity and Filipino pride, was suddenly in charge.
And now she?s gone.
A friend from UP, a martial-law baby, who also had been critical of Cory, wrote on his Facebook update, ?Alone in the office, I cried. I remembered the times after the Aquino Assassination. We were so young then, so idealistic. Now, we?re older, scarred perhaps, but hopefully all the wiser. Cory was our moral compass, however we might have disagreed with her politics. Now that compass is gone.?
Another friend and fellow martial-law baby sent me a text message, having seen the long lines at La Salle Greenhills, ?Cold and grey rainy morn without Cory.?
Paalam po, Presidente Aquino. At maraming salamat.