Malacanang Palace, Manila — The Daily Express front-page headline read: "Marcos composes love song for FL." Everyone in Manila knew that "FL" stood for First Lady, or Imelda Romualdez Marcos, the wife of President Ferdinand E. Marcos, governor of Metro Manila, minister of human settlements, head of the Southern Philippines Development Authority, and probably the second most powerful government leader in this nation of about 46 million people.
The occasion was her birthday (July 2), so half the nation's top officials traveled to her small hometown, Olot, Leyte, for a celebration; the Daily Express ran a 40-page special supplement full of corporate advertisements offering "warmest birthday greetings"; and Mr. Marcos composed a song entitled "Imelda, You are Heaven on Earth."
Such press sycophancy or praise turns off some of the highly educated, more Westernized Filipinos. Mrs. Marcos is aware of that. "The enlightened elite will be with me," she said in an interview in the opulent Malacanang Palace. "The important thing is to have the little ones."
According to close foreign observers here, Mrs. Marcos may indeed be popular among the "little ones" -- the common people -- especially in the rural areas of the country. But the nation has no unbiased political public opinion polls that might indicate her real popularity more accurately.
Whatever, Mrs. Marcos sees herself as a national "symbol." She excused her expensive, long pink dress, with, as she put it, "too much embroidery," by a statement she often uses in interviews: "I am my people's little star and slave." She is a "star," she explained, because her fancy style of dressing and living, her success at work, and her high standards provide an example for the Filipinos to look up to. "They will say, 'If I will be successful, I will be like her.' The mass follows class: Class never follows mass." She is a "slave, she continued, because she must work so hard to accomplish things for the people. It is enough," she said, "that the people know I will execute what they aspire. The best dictator is one dictated."
Of course, the fact that Mr. and Mrs. Marcos are authoritarian in their rule is what most disturbs the opposition in the Philippines.The second major complaint of the opposition is that the Marcos family has enriched themselves, their families, and friends through government actions favoring their business interests. "Corruption," the opposition charges (see story Page 35).
Nonetheless, there is among the opposition sometimes a certain admiration for this remarkable, complex, former Miss Manila.
Philippines opposition leader Benigno Aquino likens her to Imperial Russia's Catherine the Great, who amassed a huge fortune in art. Mrs. Marcos has built instead such "monuments" as the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the Folk Arts Theater, the Nayong Pilipino (Philippine Village), the Philippine Plaza Hotel, the Philippine Center for International Trade and Exhibition, the International Convention Center, the National Arts Center on Mt. Makiling, and the Philippine Heart Center for Asia.
Commented Mr. Aquino: "I doff my hat to her. She has made her mark. We could never do all that in a democracy. I don't think we will have another woman like that in 50 years."
At the same time, Mr. Aquino has criticized such projects as the Cultural Center as being "untimely" when so many Filipinos remain in poverty.He would rather see more low-cost housing. "That is where she should pour all the money. This could immortalize her."
As for her royal living style, with its plush palace and "fawning" officials, he said: "We need that like a hole in the head."
A close foreign observer, now abroad, said of Mrs. Marcos: "She has no boundaries for her greed. She is in the mining business -- this is mine, that is mine.
Yet that harsh judgment was also accompanied by comments about her "maternal" character, her "romantic ideas of being a lady bountiful," and her genuine desire to help the nation's lower classes.
"I am dazzled by her talent," says Mr. Aquino, who recalls years ago going on "double dates" with her before her marriage to Mr. Marcos. Both stem from the well-to-do set in Manila. It was Mrs. Marcos who arranged for Mr. Aquino and his family to leave the Philippines for medical treatment in the United States, discussing the question with him in his quarters, giving her aides the necessary orders for his release after more than seven years' imprisonment.
In conversation, Mrs. Marcos sounds surprisingly feminine for a woman of such power and position. She speaks, for instance, of the "mammas" needing more nutrition when the baby is in their "tummy." By American liberation movement standards, she would be regarded as old-fashioned in her concept of women. "Our supreme role in life is to care," she said. "There must be priorities. Our role is to take care of our home before we take care of our community. Then we can move out to a bigger role in the community." But, she added, "We must not be blind to major problems, such as refugees, equal opportunity, or laws that are blind to women's rights."
Soon after this interview, Mrs. Marcos headed the Philippine delegation to the World Conference of the United Nations Decade for Women in Copenhagen. Her husband has often given her foreign policy assignments.
It is in the area of domestic affairs, however, that she has made her greatest mark on the Philippines -- and not just in major public buildings.
"I get my fingers in all our pies," she admits. "Before you know it, your little fingers including your toes are in all the pies. My sensitivity does not allow me to turn my back. I must do something for them [the poor]."
One such pie, as mayor of Manila, is improving conditions in the massive and grim slums of this city of 6 million. She is being helped by large loans from the World Bank. The program, the World Bank believes, will make a difference for some 500,000 in the next few years and presumably more later.
As minister of human settlements, she has launched the so-called "Rural BLISS" and "Urban BLISS" programs. BLISS stands for Bagong Lipunan (Filipino for New Society, the government's political slogan) Sites and Services. It is a relatively new program of building prototype communities about the country. These consist of housing and other facilities for 50 to 500 families in rural areas, sometimes with an associated cottage industry or irrigation project or some other farming project; and in the cities, medium-rise apartment buildings along with such cottage industries as bonsai growing, plastic-flower making, bagmaking and so on.
The BLISS program has not received World Bank financial backing, because it is considered too expensive to do much for the really poor. One site could cost about $135,000, which is a considerable sum considering that the poor may make only $200 or $300 a year.
But the program has been organized to include a considerable degree of community involvement and democracy at the barangay, or community, level. It is hoped, in fact, explained Jose Conrado Benitez, deputy minister of human settlements, that by bringing the impact of the Marcos government's "New Society" into depressed areas, support for communist insurgents, which harry central Luzon and some other areas, can be reduced.
The government has allocated $54 million this year for the program. That's far from enough to meet the nation's vast housing needs. But the program will in theory provide examples and train leaders which will result in the progress and benefits spreading to other communities over the years. It is too early to see whether that will actually be so.
"We must do things gradually and gracefully," said Mrs. Marcos in the interview. "One cannot be too radical with the Filipinos."
Defending martial law, she says that the term is "an oversimplification." She approved of a diplomat's pun describing the system as "marshmallow law." She admits that some of the freedoms as defined by Western concepts have been compromised. But she argues that after 500 years of the people's being "colonized and deprived of our identity," their attitudes and culture were not right for the full Western system. Foreign critics, she continued, said that "you are not doing right because you have not been little copycats. . . . The Filipino people are so sensitive it is not funny. Our own relatives would kill us if we have deprived them of their rights as human beings."
Opposition figures admit that the Marcos regime, particularly in recent years , has not been as harsh as some dictatorships in Latin America or Asia. But, having spent time in prison in some cases, they would challenge the "marshmallow" definition.
Whatever, they hope that Mrs. Marcos is right when she likens martial law to an onion skin -- "It can be easily peeled off." The opposition only asks, "When will democracy be restored?"