One way to reflect on the death of Corazon Aquino would be to go onto the Internet and bring up the address she gave to a joint meeting of the United States Congress. It took place nearly 23 years ago, on September 18, 1986—half a year after Aquino acceded to the presidency of the Philippines in a triumph over the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. Even from this remove, the speech leaves one trembling with emotion, particularly when the universal hunger for democracy is being demonstrated yet again, this time in Iran.
I met Aquino only once, but I will never forget it. Her husband, Senator Benigno Aquino, known as Ninoy, had been, since 1980, in exile, which he was then spending at Harvard. Foreign editor of The Wall Street Journal at the time, I had invited three friends to meet the Aquinos over dinner at an Italian restaurant in the north end of Boston. Although I had met the senator once or twice, we were all strangers to him. Yet he talked openly of his eagerness to end his exile and return to his country.
At one point, he looked at us and asked, “What would you say if I were to throw in with the violent factions?” Before I could stammer a question about whether he was serious, his wife cut him off, slapping the table with a sharp thwack, and said, “Ninoy, don’t even think about it.” She clearly had, even then, her own sense of how to carry their common cause. It was a memorable glimpse of her judgment in a long dinner filled with the telling of the senator’s story.
Not long thereafter, on August 13, 1983, Sen. Aquino flew home from exile, reaching Manila, after several stops, on August 21. When the plane came to a halt on the apron, a military detail boarded. Its members escorted him off. As he stepped onto the tarmac, he was slain by a single shot to the head. In all my years as a newspaper editor, I cannot recall pulling from the Teletype a more astounding piece of news.
As the pictures of Aquino lying on the tarmac flashed around the globe, any legitimacy that the Marcos regime might persist in claiming drained away like the blood from Aquino himself. Marcos would suggest the Communists ordered the assassination, but it no longer mattered what Marcos said. The peaceful revolution that followed is one of the most remarkable chapters in all the story of democracy. It was never more eloquently told than by his widow herself, when, six months after having been finally swept into power in February1986, she came to Washington.
On YouTube one can see and hear the prim stateswoman relate how the task had fallen on her shoulders “to continue offering the democratic alternative” to the Philippine people. She quoted Archibald MacLeish as saying that democracy “must be defended by arms when it is attacked by arms and by truth when it is attacked by lies.” When she decided to participate in the Philippine election of 1984, she said, she’d been warned by her own side’s lawyers “that I ran the grave risk of legitimizing the forgone results of an election that were clearly going to be fraudulent.”
But she reasoned that such a gamble was “the only way I knew by which we could measure our power.” Following the vote, the regime sought to relegate but a third of the parliament to the opposition. “Now I knew our power,” she told the Congress. The regime then blundered, calling a second, snap election. A million signatures were then proffered to place Corazon Aquino in contention. When “armed goons crashed the polling places,” she said, weeping women “tied themselves to the ballot boxes.”
This time Aquino acted before a fraudulent result could be confected. She declared “the people’s victory.” As our own Congress sat in rapt attention she vowed: “As I came to power peacefully, so shall I keep it. That is my contract with my people and my commitment to God. He had willed that the blood drawn with the lash should not in my country be paid by blood drawn by the sword but by the tearful joy of reconciliation.”
Then she issued a famous warning—that neither would she “stand by and allow an insurgent leadership to spurn our offer of peace and kill our young soldiers and threaten our new freedom.” Here is how she put it: “I must explore the path of peace to the utmost for at its end whatever disappointment I meet there is the moral basis for laying down the olive branch of peace and taking up the sword of war.”
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In the event, Aquino did pick up the sword against enemies that even today target the Philippine democracy—and our own. She explained her decision in remarks to graduating military cadets. “The answer to the terrorism of the left and the right is not social and economic reform, but police and military action,” she was quoted as saying by The New York Times’ Seth Mydans, who had covered the Philippines for years. Mydans called her decision “one of the most striking retreats of her presidency.” Others will see it as but one of the courageous moves that marked the career of a giant.
President Obama spoke over the weekend of how Corazon Aquino’s leadership is an inspiration. Yet it has to be said that she challenged and defeated, in Ferdinand Marcos, a dictator who was prepared to use the kind of thuggery typical of the tyrants with whom Obama is prepared to parley and in whose affairs he has been loath to meddle. Things might have gone either way during the nearly three years that it took Aquino’s movement to triumph over a dictator. When she came to the Congress it was to thank those Americans who, in the current parlance, meddled in favor of democracy precisely when freedom was in the balance.