A Matter of Family Honor
updated 03/17/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 03/17/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST
Ninoy Aquino's plane arrived safely in the Philippines on Aug. 21, 1983, but he did not. He was shot in the head as he descended the aircraft stairway and fell dead on the tarmac. Aquino's assassination touched off a series of events that led to last month's revolution in the Philippines—a largely nonviolent and deeply moving transition to democracy led by the "remarkable lady" of whom Ninoy had been so proud, but whose political skills he probably could not have guessed and did not live to witness.
Last week, at a celebratory Mass in Manila's seaside Rizal Park, Corazon C. Aquino, housewife turned President, stood before a crowd of hundreds of thousands of exultant Filipinos who were joyfully chanting her name. "I am sure that Ninoy is smiling at us now," Cory told her supporters. "We have proven him correct—that the Filipino is worth dying for.... Twenty years of repression, injustice, corruption, greed, waste and near despair have finally ended. They were ended by a revolution of peace, prayers, rosaries, radios and, above all, human courage."
In keeping with a revolution that was far from typical, Corazon Aquino is anything but a poster revolutionary. Born to great wealth, she was educated in convent schools, and she dutifully dropped her legal studies to become the devoted wife of an ambitious journalist and aspiring politician. The woman who brought down Ferdinand Marcos is a homemaker who enjoys cooking pasta, making paté, playing Pac-Man and cultivating delicate bonsai trees. The mother of five children with Ninoy, she has frequently told friends that her happiest times were the three years of exile in Newton, Mass., where she basked in the ordinary pleasures of suburban life: shopping in department stores, reading Sidney Sheldon novels and watching Family Feud, Falcon Crest and Dynasty. "She's sooo conservative," says her youngest daughter, Kristina, in a mock lament. "She's forever praying the rosary."
The prayers were never more necessary. Having taken power, she inherited a nation faced with crippling economic problems and a menacing guerrilla insurgency. Even some of her supporters question whether an inexperienced former housewife can triumph over such intractable problems or even hold together a government. Yet in her first week in office, the signs were salutary: Moving swiftly and with the appearance of certitude, Aquino named a new cabinet and began to oust the Marcos cronies who are entrenched in the country's bureaucracy. Her government has also instituted court actions in Honolulu and New York to recover from Marcos goods and property worth millions. Cory's words—and her tone—showed how far she had come since her first faltering days as a candidate. "I will not tolerate deviation," she told the huge crowd in Manila, "from the path we have pledged to follow."
Corazon Cojuangco Aquino was born in 1933 into an affluent landowning family with powerful political connections. She attended an exclusive Catholic elementary school in Manila before moving on to schools in the U.S.—the Raven Hill Academy in Philadelphia and Notre Dame Convent School in Manhattan and then the College of Mount St. Vincent, an all-female Catholic school in Riverdale, N.Y. She was obviously bright, majoring in French and mathematics, but most of her college classmates remember her only as a "shy little violet" who once played an angel in the school production of The Green Pastures.
Back home in the Philippines in 1953, she studied law at the Far Eastern University, and while there she began dating Ninoy Aquino, a wealthy and very promising young man who had been unsuccessfully trying to woo her by mail during her years in New York. He was more successful when he tried in person: She dropped out of school after one semester and married him on Oct. 11, 1954.
For the better part of three decades, Cory Aquino lived in the shadow of her husband. She stayed home to raise their children—Maria Elena, now 30; Aurora, 28; Benigno III, 26; Victoria, 24; and Kris, 15—while Ninoy became the "wonder boy" of Philippine politics, successively elected the youngest mayor, governor and senator in the history of the country. "Ninoy was such an overpowering character, you never noticed anybody around him, and Cory didn't want to be noticed," recalls Luis Beltran, editor of the Philippine Daily Inquirer and a family friend. "She is a very private, very shy person. At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, Cory was the classic oriental wife. Ninoy needed a constant public, and he needed to come home to someone who was a haven away from himself. When he ran out of fuel, he needed someone who would get him going again. That was Cory's attraction. He was the warrior. She polished his sword and took care of his horse."
Politics in the Philippines has always been a tough game, and Ninoy Aquino was known to bend the rules. "Ninoy was no saint," Beltran recalls of the early days. "He was a politician in the Philippines, and that meant he wasn't above manufacturing stories about an opponent to discredit him or rigging a Jeep to look like his adversary's and having somebody drive it around at 3 a.m., blasting the horn." But Cory disapproved of dirty tactics, and Ninoy wouldn't talk of them when she was around. "When Cory walked into the room, he shut up," Beltran remembers. By the early '70s, Ninoy Aquino seemed a shoo-in to succeed President Marcos, whose second—and, according to the Philippine constitution, final—four-year term was due to expire in 1973. But Marcos was not ready to return to private life, and in 1972 he declared martial law. The first man he jailed under that declaration was Ninoy Aquino, who remained in prison and under threat of execution for more than seven years. Adversity forced Cory out of the house and into the world. Not only did she get involved in the family sugar business and take over political obligations, but she became her husband's ambassador at large, memorizing the articles he wrote in prison during her visits with him and dictating them to newspapermen afterward. The visits were emotionally painful. "She told me that she would never forgive Marcos for turning her over to those lesbian guards who would strip her nude and search her after visits with Ninoy," recalls Beltran.
The couple's conjugal visits, especially, were "nerve-racking experiences," Mrs. Aquino recalled in a speech after her husband's death. Knowing that the room assigned for such visits was equipped with a video camera and a one-way mirror, she arrived for the first overnight visit toting a huge suitcase. Ninoy teased her: "Cory, you're only staying for one night, not one week." She silently opened the suitcase, took out a dark blue towel, a sheet and some tape. Together they covered the camera and the mirror before going to bed. "We knew there were electronic bugs to record our conversations," she recalled, "but unfortunately neither Ninoy nor I knew anything about debugging a room."
In 1980, under pressure from the Carter administration, Marcos released Aquino and permitted him to travel to Boston for heart surgery. For the next three years he had a research fellowship at Harvard and was a visiting scholar at MIT. Then in 1983 he returned home, hoping to rally opposition to Marcos. After Ninoy was gunned down, Cory flew to Manila to arrange his funeral—and ended up shouldering a far more difficult task. "I pledged to my husband after I kissed him in his coffin that I'd continue his work," she said.
Last November, when Marcos scheduled a snap election for February, Aquino found herself under tremendous pressure to run against him. She was not thrilled with the idea. "She was more excited about becoming a grandmother than about being President," recalls Beltran. Finally, after more than a million Filipinos signed petitions supporting her campaign, she relented. "Before she made the decision to run, she told all of us that there really was no other choice," recalls her daughter Kris. "She said, 'Dad came home for this, and we can't let him down.' "
At first her inexperience showed. Her statements were sometimes naive, her speaking style uninspiring. Gradually, she gained strength, fired by the huge and enthusiastic crowds that greeted her everywhere. Sometimes it seemed as if the whole country were wearing yellow, the official color of the campaign, a reminder of the yellow ribbons that were meant to greet Ninoy on his ill-fated return from exile. On Feb. 7, election day, she was favored in the early returns. Popular support, coupled with the defection of the country's top military officers two weeks later, eventually foiled Marcos' brazen attempt to steal the election. On Feb. 25, when Corazon Aquino learned that the ailing dictator had fled his palace in an American helicopter, her son, Benigno, noted her reaction. "She had a very serious face," he remembers. "All she said was, 'Finally.' "
She has changed history, and history has changed her as well. Her children see the transformation in the bonsai trees she has always tended—tiny potted Japanese trees in the living room that she had cut and pruned and groomed over the years into beautiful miniatures. Politics left no time for them. "Since she started the campaign," jokes Kris, "her bonsais have grown into real trees."