Boston friends recall the `presidential training' of Cory Aquino. They saw her courage and political acumen

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

They seem like snapshots from a different era. In one, Corazon Aquino smiles shyly from a picnic table behind the spacious brick house that her family occupied during their three years in Boston. In another, her husband Benigno, the exiled Philippine opposition leader whose charm and charisma held his fellow academics spellbound, relaxes in a hammock near a New Hampshire lake.

But as family friend Florencio Hipona traces each photograph with his finger, one striking image snaps the story back into present focus: Taken just hours after Benigno was assassinated in Manila in 1983, it shows Cory Aquino mustering a tearful smile.

Sister Dora Sartino remembers consoling Mrs. Aquino that night. ``You could see she was a woman of strength and courage,'' says Ms. Sartino, principal of Mount Alvernia Academy, which one of the Aquinos' five children attended. ``Yes, she was confused, but brave. I remember her saying, `Ninoy's work will live on.' ''

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Corazon Aquino had no idea she was speaking about her own future. Even close Filipino friends had no inkling then that the quiet, retiring housewife would spark a nonviolent revolution and soon lead their troubled land of 55 million people.

But over the weekend, when the popular President visited her self-described ``second home'' in Boston, friends looked back at her moments of courage, strength, and political acumen. And on one topic, they all agree: Cory Aquino was no ordinary housewife.

``She was silently groomed for the job,'' says Dr. Hipona, sitting at the dining-room table in the Aquinos' former home, which is now owned by the Benigno S. Aquino Memorial Foundation. Gazing out over the church spires at Boston College, Hipona ticks off the elements that sharpened Mrs. Aquino's political education: her family, husband, church, and bitter suffering at the hands of the Marcos regime.

``The popular image of the naive housewife who is only an accidental president is just wild,'' agrees Benjamin H. Brown, former director of the fellows program at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs, where Benigno Aquino studied for two years. ``People say of her -- even close neighbors -- `You know, I don't remember her ever saying anything when Ninoy was around.' But when her husband was in the room, everybody was silent.''

It was not just Benigno's magnetic energy and political theorizing that rubbed off on his wife. Her family, the Cojuangco clan, has a long history in Philippine politics. Says Brown: ``She was trained for this kind of role since she was a little girl in stockings.''

But what truly molded and tested Mrs. Aquino was her husband's nearly eight years in prison. She shed her shyness to become his spokeswoman and keep the opposition alive.

Brown compares it to the trials of President Roosevelt and his wife: ``Mrs. Aquino was -- like Eleanor Roosevelt -- his eyes, his legs, his ears, his tongue, his alter ego.''

When Benigno was released for heart treatment, the family traveled to Dallas and then ended up in Boston, where he would study for two years at Harvard and one year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

``The first time I met her I was impressed by her strength,'' says Mary Rose Ezpeleta, a leader of the Filipino community here who dined with the Aquinos on their first night in Boston in 1980. ``Even after all the time apart, she was not bitter at all.''

She was also not willing to discuss politics. Aquino didn't want it to darken what she calls ``the happiest years of my life,'' when her entire family was together -- and safe.

Mrs. Ezpeleta, who became a close family friend, remembers their dinner parties. Benigno -- ``Ninoy'' to all his friends -- would dominate discussions and Cory would flutter around serving food and drink. ``She was so quiet, but she was always there,'' says Ezpeleta. ``She was very aware of what was going on.''

That awareness and admiration of her husband made her, in the years to come, a reluctant hero.

In fact, Aquino first seriously considered running for president in Boston, nine months after her husband had been killed. Seated next to Professor Brown at a dinner in her honor at the downtown Harvard Club, Aquino leaned over and said, ``You know, there's a lot of pressure on me to be a candidate for president.''

Recalls Brown: ``My first response was, `Don't let them steamroller you on it. It's your decision.' ''

``Then she said, `Besides, what do I know about being president?' ''

``I said, `You know as much as anybody. There's no school for presidents.''

The rest is history.

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