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St. Cory and the Evil Rose

Imelda Marcos

by Carmen Navarro Pedrosa
St. Martin’s Press, 230 pp., $15.95

Cory Aquino: The Story of a Revolution

by Lucy Komisar
George Braziller, 290 pp., $16.95

Imelda Marcos today has a mellow beauty in which the radiance has the quality of emotion. When she speaks—of her husband, of her children, of her life—her voice becomes so full of feeling the very air seems to throb, and the great splendid eyes deepen, darken, and dazzle with tears. She has adjusted, she has accepted, she has signed, and she is happy, but whatever the effort may have cost her shows in a deepened glowing of her charm. The loveliness has become poignant.”

The fresh-flowers look is what Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos have brought to Malacanang.”

Mrs. Marcos has been busy with mop and broom too…. Whatever her other images—as cultural patroness, as social worker, as a great beauty—she knows that the basic one is her image as housewife: she must show she can run a palace as efficiently as she did her home.”

” ‘I do not want to be known as having some friends I prefer to others…. Nor do I want people to think I’m a social butterfly going from one party to another.’ ”

These little nuggets were culled from a collection of articles written between 1964 and 1970 by the most celebrated writer in the Philippines, Nick Joaquin, under his journalistic pen name Quijano de Manila. The collection, entitled Reportage on the Marcoses (National Book Store, Manila), was published in 1979, and reprinted in 1981. He is also the author of a gushing hagiography of the Aquino family, entitled The Aquinos of Tarlac, written in 1972, revised and published in 1983—“The Philippine pageant as only Nick Joaquin can tell it.”

The point of digging up these embarrassing quotes is not to ridicule Joaquin; he was not the only one to sing in both camps for his supper—Isabelo Crisostomo, the author of an adulatory book on Imelda Marcos has just published an equally admiring biography of Cory Aquino. As for the extravagance of his prose, well, Joaquin always was proud of his Hispanic heritage. Joaquin’s political effusions have never been held against him in the Philippines, as far as I know. Indeed, to many Filipinos switching sides is a perfectly respectable way to get on in life. Joaquin’s early writings on the Marcos couple are useful reading for several reasons. They remind us just how popular the First Family of the Philippines was in those days. Adoration of a new leader did not start with Cory Aquino. It also illustrates the extent to which Philippine politics is a matter of show biz, of images—the housewife with mop and broom, the beauty queen, the social worker. At the end of last year I asked Mrs. Marcos what she thought of Benigno Aquino as a politician. “Ninoy,” she said “was all sauce and no substance.” “Sweetheart,” said Mr. Marcos, “that is the essence of Filipino politics.”

There is a Filipino word for this: palabas. It literally means ostentatious show—the ostentatiousness of the village fiesta, sometimes combined with the solemn sentimentality of Hollywood melodramas. The way Marcos cloaked the most extraordinary skulduggery in earnest legalisms was a form of palabas, of ostentatious playacting. Perhaps fortunately, much of Marcos’s so-called dictatorship was palabas, more bark than bite, as were many of the flamboyant gestures to oppose the “brutal dictator.” In 1985 I was on the same plan to Manila as Senator Jovito Salonga, an opposition politician returning after years of exile in the US. He was accompanied by a crowd of fellow oppositionists: Senator Lorenzo Tañada, leaning on his stick, grinning from ear to ear; Ninoy’s brother, Butz Aquino, chatting with the air hostesses; José “Pepe” Diokno, just out of a hospital in the US.

I shall return! I shall return!” shouted several members of the entourage, echoing the words of General MacArthur, as the plane banked toward Manila. “I am prepared to share the brutal fate of Ninoy,” said another man, his face flushed with emotion. Salonga, a quiet-spoken Protestant, looked a little embarrassed by it all as he was escorted off the plane by his friends, who, as one put it, were “protecting him from the dictator’s bullets.” The group was greeted in the arrival hall by a hysterical mob of press people and more oppositionists, one of whom told the television cameras that “neither wind nor rain can wipe out the blood of the martyr.” This is what Filipinos mean by palabas.

Carmen Navarro Pedrosa’s biography of Imelda Marcos, which is an updated and, I think, inferior version of an earlier book, entitled The Untold Story of Imelda Marcos, is full of palabas. Indeed, it reads like a show-biz biography, which, given the nature of Philippine politics, is perhaps appropriate. Imelda, after all, is a show-biz figure, albeit a rather tawdry one—her movie connection was George Hamilton, not Laurence Olivier, or even Robert Redford. The central thesis of the book is itself a show-biz cliche: the poor, small-town girl hits the big time, wipes out her sordid past by building a palace of dreams, and then, at the very pinnacle of fortune and fame, everything comes crashing down, the dream palace of diamonds and gold turns into a handful of dust—well, perhaps not quite all dust, there are a few diamonds left, but let’s not quibble too much about that.

In her perfect pitch for schlock, Pedrosa does come up with some marvelous images. This description of the very end, for instance:

Marcos was said still to hope he could stay, clutching at straws in the wind even as gunshots echoed in the distance. His children pleaded and cried while Imelda in the meantime went about saying good-bye and handing out money, in a zombie-like fashion. Friends said that minutes before they flew to exile she was fully made up, her hair perfectly coiffed, and that she was still wearing the white gown she had donned for the morning’s inauguration. She was said also to have sung “New York, New York” all the way to Hawaii.

Oh, for Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, and David O. Selznick. And yet it all rings horribly true. The Filipino knack for turning even the most serious events into comic melodrama—as happened often during the February revolt—is their charm, their strength, and their weakness. Desperate to be taken seriously by outsiders, they can make it so very, very hard. In this respect, among others, Imelda is a true daughter of the Philippines.

The untold story of Pedrosa’s original book was Imelda’s unfortunate childhood. Imelda was the daughter of Vicente Orestes Romualdez and his second wife, a shy convent girl called Remedios, who died when Imelda was only nine. In a family of distinguished lawyers and politicians, Vicente Orestes did not shine. A nervous, rather weak man, he was broke much of his life. What comfort he could provide went to the children of his first marriage, who, according to Pedrosa, resented Remedios and her offspring so much that they could no longer live in the same house. In 1937 Imelda’s family, minus the father, moved to the now legendary garage next to the main house in Manila. They slept on boards propped up by milk boxes. No wonder the relationship between Imelda’s parents was mostly a disaster. As Pedrosa puts it in her inimitable style, “for nine years Imelda saw her mother cry.” A few faithful family servants helped the distressed family out. One, called Siloy, once “bought a new pair of shoes for Imelda after he saw how worn her old pair was. In later years this pair of shoes would be multiplied three thousandfold.” It is this kind of addition to the original text that mars Pedrosa’s amusing book. The empathy of the earlier work too often turns into snide knowingness, now that we all realize what an evil princess Imelda really was.

Even though a little simple, Pedrosa’s idea that Imelda’s status as “a poor relation of the rich Romualdezes…would fuel her lifelong obsession to achieve fame and fortune” is probably correct. This obsession still strikes me as pathetic rather than evil, even though the Marcos couple robbed their country blind. It is the pathos of the showgirl who will do almost anything to be accepted by princes, and ends up by making a spectacle of herself. It is the basic impulse behind palabas, the song-and-dance of the dispossessed colonial trying to please, exploit, or cheat the master.

Meldy,” as she was then commonly known, started her career in show business by singing to exhausted GIs after they landed with MacArthur near Tacloban, her home town on Leyte. She became known as the Rose of Tacloban and rode on a float in a victory parade as “Miss Philippines.” In the early 1950s she worked as a singing shopgirl and then as a clerk in a bank, where she was made to sing by colleagues in exchange for dinner invitations. She ran for the Miss Manila contest, lost, broke down in tears in the office of the Manila mayor, who adjudged her the winner after all. Exactly what passed between the beauty queen and the mayor is still food for gossip in Manila coffee shops. Not long after that she met the young senator Ferdinand Marcos, who had an eye for beauty queens, and Miss Manila manqué no longer needed to look back. It was all the way up. Today Manila, tomorrow the Philippines, and then…the world—meaning, to a Filipina, primarily, the US.

Again Pedrosa finds the right image. After meeting the Lyndon Johnsons on her first official visit to America, and after Marcos had gone to sleep,

she tiptoed out of her own suite and sought out her favorite brother, Benjamin [later ambassador in Washington]. Taking his arm, she led him to a dark corner by a window over-looking a spectacular view of New York…. She asked him to look down below. “Kokoy, that is the world beneath us. Think of it. What we came from, and now the world…the whole world beneath us.”

Show business, of one kind or another, became Imelda’s only concern, the only thing she took seriously. One of the most bizarre and striking legacies of Imelda’s rule in Manila is not so much the grandiose hotels and cultural centers built to impress the world—Filipino wits called it her edifice complex—but the white walls erected to block the slums from outside view. They were part of Imelda’s “beautification” campaign. It seems typical of the woman that instead of using her wealth and power to do something about the poverty, she would simply build walls, so she, and, just as importantly, foreign visitors, could not see it. She also beautified her own past. The Quonset hut in Leyte where she spent much of her childhood became a grand palace with wall paintings depicting Imelda’s life and a holy shrine for the infant Jesus. The Manila house with the famous garage was pulled down and the grandest house on the same street was bought and stuffed with art and antiques. Foreign guests were told that this is where Imelda grew up.

Imelda’s efforts at diplomacy were another form of beautification. Philippine embassies and chanceries had to be refurbished or moved to the best addresses, so that, in Imelda’s words, “these Westerners cannot look down on us.” Her own diplomatic trips were partly shopping sprees, partly photo opportunities played up in the Philippine press as triumphs of foreign policy. She tried to push her daughter, Imee, as a marriage candidate for Prince Charles, or at least an Agnelli (to her credit Imee defied her mother and married a Filipino basketball player). She threw exorbitant parties at home for her favorite friends; and what a circle of friends it was: King Hassan of Morocco, Cristina Ford, and, typically, that connoisseur of pomp, Kurt Waldheim. She purchased herself a regal crown to wear on grand occasions—when told that this was really not on in European circles, she is said to have simply turned the crown back to front.

It is easy to laugh at all this, just as it is tempting to giggle at the tackiness—a mixture of the grandiose and the primitive—during the guided tours of Malacañang palace, now a museum. One must realize, however, what one is laughing at, for the tackiness is a product of centuries of colonial rule, as much as of the tasteless avarice of two parvenus, Imelda was deeply conscious of the Filipino “little brown brother complex,” and her regal pretensions, preposterous though they may have been, were a clumsy and irresponsible attempt to impress, to gain the little brown sister some pride. We should not forget that for a very long time many poor Filipinos—especially the poor—loved her for it.

Popularity, patronage, and opportunism, more than brute force, enabled the Marcoses to undermine the institutions of democracy in their country. Their rule became so personalized that it was hard to imagine the Philippines without them. It was typical that when the Marcos downfall finally came, it took place in front of American TV cameras, indeed on American talk shows. In a way they were defeated by show biz, as much as by People Power. Meeting them for the first and only time, last year in Honolulu, I was not entirely surprised that their conversation, when not about war medals, Communists, and beauty, revolved largely around Ted Koppel and General MacArthur—a television star and a show-biz soldier.

It is hard to imagine somebody more different from Imelda Marcos than Corazon Aquino. In one of her confused campaign speeches before the 1986 “snap elections” Imelda told her audience that “our opponent does not put on any makeup. She does not have her finger-nails manicured…. Filipinos are for beauty. Filipinos who like beauty, love, and God are for Marcos.” Pedrosa describes early on in her book how Ninoy Aquino’s attacks on Imelda’s showiness and extravagance were deeply resented in Malacañang, especially the “innuendo that these qualities were traceable to an impoverished childhood.” She quite rightly points out that “since Aquino represented the Philippine social elite to which the Marcoses aspired, the attack added insult to injury” (Pedrosa is not one to eschew clichés):

The colorful, swashbuckling senator was a true blue blood; what’s more, he was married to Corazón Cojuangco—heiress to a fabulous sugar fortune. The Cojuangcos represented the créme de la créme, at the top of Manila’s Four Hundred. They were archetypes of Marcos’s and Imelda’s ambitions.

No wonder that believers in class struggle feel deeply ambivalent about Cory Aquino. “The millions of Filipinos aching for change,” writes Pedrosa about the 1986 campaign,

now only had eyes for Cory, with her quiet charm, her intelligence, and her simplicity. She was the real heiress, the woman born with a silver spoon in her mouth…. If she did not show her wealth, it was because she did not need to.”

Cory outclassed Imelda, and she is indeed a very different person, but her role as the savior is not devoid of palabas either. At times St. Cory of the February Miracle seems as theatrical as the evil Rose of Tacloban. Naturally the villain is far more interesting than the saint. In the same year that Imelda hammed it up for MacArthur’s boys in Leyte, Cory was at a New York convent school, where, according to a former classmate quoted in Lucy Komisar’s biography, “she was always talking about Our Lady and her faith in religion.” To be blunt, Cory, compared to Imelda, is a bore. This is even reflected in the prose of the two biographies. Pedrosa’s is flashy, funny, and often silly, especially as far as her trendy left-wing politics are concerned (but this hardly matters in a show-biz biography); Komisar’s is pious, earnest, not funny at all, but in some instances equally silly. About her attempts to unify the opposition before the 1986 elections, for example: “Her unhappiness at their refusal to let her seek unity between the two groups brought tears to Cory’s eyes, and she wiped them with her handkerchief. The day before the convention, she ran into a woman law professor who gave her some pointers on how to be more assertive in dealing with men.” Or this: “A few days later, Cory told Tañada and Ongpin that she wished she could be regarded as a person in her own right rather than as just Ninoy’s widow. Ongpin advised her to be more assertive.” These sound like notes from a feminist consciousness-raising session. Feminism really was hardly the point of Cory’s running for president; the fact that she was Ninoy’s wife was.

Switching roles from the self-effacing housewife to the political savior was a confusing and sometimes—dare one say it out loud?—manipulative exercise. When she was first asked about running for office, Cory modestly replied that she was just a widow and mother: “There are many, many Filipinos more intelligent than I and who are recognized political leaders. I speak for just one person—Cory Aquino.” What, then, made her into the ideal candidate? Nothing but Ninoy’s death. Her widowhood became political. Encouraged by her advisers, Cory turned her suffering and her religious devotion into political emblems. And, sure enough, it worked.

Let us turn once more to “the media” for illumination:

Corazón Cojuangco Aquino. This woman in yellow, one could say, is the same woman of other times. There was Judith of the Bible. And in medieval times, there was Joan of Arc who led the French in battle against the conquerors, keeping faith in the voices who spoke to her in the garden. Cory, our beloved Cory, kept her faith in God and in her people to go about her husband’s work. (The Philippines, published by the Philippine Ministry of Tourism)

We voted in the past for Presidents for all sorts of reasons, but those who voted for you in the last elections did so because they also LOVED you. (“Love Letter to a President,” Luis D. Beltran in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, August 1986)

When our leader-by-example exhausts all options given a democratic process, she is labelled weak and indecisive. Let us remember that it was never Cory’s own Will to become President, but rather God’s and the Filipino people’s. (letter in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, August 1986)

During the campaign, Cory would sense Ninoy’s presence helping her, pushing her on during the difficult moments in the campaign…. “It’s what we Catholics call the communion of saints,” Cory said, “I pray for him, as I believe he prays for me.” (Weekend, magazine of The Sunday Express, March 1986)

Having Ninoy and God on her side is one of Cory’s greatest political assets. To many Filipinos it gives her rule moral legitimacy. For the time being at least she has the mystical authority to hold her country more or less together. But does it help to strengthen democratic institutions in the Philippines? Or could the effect be the reverse, as some Filipino commentators—albeit often for self-serving reasons—argue? After all St. Cory’s rule is no less personalized than that of Marcos. As Komisar quite correctly points out, in her description of this year’s plebiscite on the new constitution: “The constitution wasn’t the issue—Cory was.” A major weakness of Komisar’s biography is that this central question of personalized rule versus democracy is hinted at but not addressed. The issue gets lost in the biographer’s understandable admiration for Cory personally. The closing sentence of the book is typical:

She had proved to her countrymen and to an astonished world that a political neophyte with little besides courage, tenacity and innate good sense could embark on a moral crusade and defeat dictator who had controlled the country through brutality and bribes for twenty years.

Cory’s speechwriters could not have put it better. It does not get away from the personal.

Reading some of Komisar’s descriptions of Cory in action, one cannot help feeling a little worried about Philippine democracy. Before the election even took place, Cory did not want Salvador “Doy” Laurel—her current vice-president—to run, because he did not meet “the standards required to run on a platform of moral leadership.” While trying to make up her own mind whether to run for president, “she had a recurring dream that she had visited a church and looked into a casket she thought held Ninoy’s body. But it was empty. She believed that Ninoy had been reborn in her.”

After being swept into Malacañang by People Power, the Church, and members of the armed forces, Cory abolished such institutions as the parliament, which she called “a cancer in our political system which must be cut out,” and the constitution. Both had been much abused by Marcos and his cronies, to be sure, but need she really have done away with them? She feared that her reform program would be blocked by remnants of the KBL, Marcos’s old party. This was probably unfounded. In February last year, Cory Aquino was in such a powerful position that she could have got most of the Marcos politicians on her side, on her terms—as I said earlier, switching sides is a respectable way to get on. Komisar quotes an interesting exchange between Cory and one of her advisers, Cecilia Muñoz Palma, who told the president: “We have to preserve the institutions, while we do not like the people who are there, if we will abide by our promise to the people that we will effect reforms through the constitutional legal process in place. We could do it.” No, said Cory, she had to abolish the legal body, because that is what the people wanted her to do. Did they really? Is it not more accurate to say that she could have got away with anything, however undemocratic, because she was St. Cory, whom the people LOVED.

This month’s congressional elections are seen by some as a true restoration of democracy. To the extent that Cory’s opponents today have a chance to run for office, this is true. To the extent that the elections are presented as a vote for or against Cory, they still play to the cult of personality. Personalized rule, which rests on God’s Will more than on political institutions, is fragile and when the euphoric public mood changes, as it almost inevitably does, it needs more and more force to sustain itself. After all, a leader chosen by God cannot simply give in to the pressure of troublemakers. A related problem is that making trouble in the form of coups, intrigues, and other shenanigans can become the only way to challenge divine leadership. All this is especially unfortunate in the Philippines, since Cory’s most serious enemy is not her former defense minister Enrile or other disgruntled military men or the pathetic Marcos loyalists; it is the Communist party of the Philippines. The revolutionaries sometimes—I stress sometimes—seem the only serious people in the Philippines, the only ones who know exactly what they want. They are full of palabas, too, of course, with their headbands, their outdated slogans, their “conscientization,” but this brand of palabas will look more and more convincing if their opponents continue to tear each other apart. Nothing would be sadder than to see the next fallen idol trampled on by a country run amok.

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