If she could only see her son now

Remembering President Cory’s era

BENEATH her simple ways exist a determined heart, a fine mind and a commitment to the rights of her people. My years with her were times of colorful exposure that prepared me for anything. Each day brought unexpected twists: shouting matches behind the scenes among the biggies, intrigues among the lightweights, plus surprises which did not surprise the Malacañang household.

I covered the presidential term, sailing through its choppy waters while chronicling President Cory’s wavy patterns of success and glory; laughter and grief; loss and devastation; troubles and genuine delights.

The daily coverage of the President, given her round the clock presidential schedule, saw more twists and turns than a roller coaster. In fact, the Malacañang watch could be a breathless, dizzying travelogue.

One moment you’re in one continent chronicling the President’s passage at the One Asia Assembly and in the next breath, you’re in America, witnessing the President’s meeting with Harvard economic guru John Galbraith and financial man Donald Roth of the World Bank.

Take another routine day for President Aquino.  Early in the morning, you take the corkscrew turns off Kennon Road, going up the heights to Baguio, to take a ringside seat as the Commander-in-Chief and troop the long grey line of ramrod-straight Philippine Military Academy (PMA) cadets. The next few hours you’re down in the lowlands going after the indefatigable Chief Executive as she heads anywhere from Pangasinan and Pampanga, to Cotobato and Koronadal.

If one thought that walking down the corridors of power at the Palace is all perks, think again.  You listen to Presidential Press Secretary Buddy Gomez, Presidential Adolfo Azcuna and Cabinet Secretary Jose “Ping” de Jesus, then translate Malacañang policies and programs in three versions purporting to be about as authoritative as gospels from St. Matthew, St. Mark and St. John. Meanwhile, deadlines flashed while you have to be in seven places in such an agonizingly short time. While President Cory flew and choppered between Davao Del Norte and Davao Del Sur, we took the low road in a ride that slithered, coiled and snaked its way up the rugged roads until you’re all about shaken, rattled and rolled. In oppressive summers, we fluttered around her, hot and heaving, sticky, dusty marinated in astringents, alcohol and talcum baking away in exhaustion.

But once we passed the grunt level, we graduated from survival to comfort. We found that the trips to Hacienda Luisita were bucolic benedictions that sent spirits soaring. The First Family comforted us to bliss. Balsy and Eldon Cruz served us hand and foot with food on the moderate side of sinful until your fabrics tore.  As ever, President Cory’s specialty Pâté de Foie Gras was to die for. Noynoy (now Pres. Aquino) made the Malacañang Press Corp comfortable. At home, he gave me boyish little interviews, which infuriated serious reporters.

The men around President Cory’s regime

Who will say that President Cory wasn’t the one who was quick to take a firm grip on things? The President has lost no time asking for emergency powers to arm her when a shooting war broke out in the Middle East.

The timing could not have been more auspicious. For the first time, even the labor and management, were singing the same song and marching the same beat. Democrito Mendoza of the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP), Francisco Floro of the Employers Confederation of the Philippines (ECOP) and Aurelio Periquet Jr. of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) were all for giving the President extraordinary powers to cope with emergencies in the event hell broke loose in the Gulf states. No more questions were asked.  To top these, Congress had endorsed the whole idea– lock, stock and barrel. Then Senate President Jovito Salonga and Speaker Ramon Mitra said “Amen.”

The skillful spade work in Congress could be largely credited to her dynamic Executive Secretary Oscar Orbos (to be replaced by Secretary Drilon until the end of President Cory’s term) setting the pace of work at Malacañang. He put his old ties with the Lower House to good work, buttonholing key solons for the swift passage of the Emergency Powers Act.

Public Works Secretary Jose “Ping” de Jesus called all contractors to a meeting to rust all construction jobs underway in Metro Manila. At the top of his agenda was the extension of Epifanio De Los Santos Highway.  The cementing of the Araneta Avenua portion at the corner of Quezon Avenue looked like it would be completed in a week’s time.

Meanwhile, Trade and Industry Secretary Peter Garrucho put his MBA to good work by leading a merger of the department with his erstwhile tourism turf. President Cory, thoroughly delighted with the upturn, barely showed scars from the anxiety she went through in letting go of her Cabinet officials whose company she had cherished. It was indeed agonizing for her to put Secretaries Jose Concepcion, Catalino Macaraeg and even Fiorello Estuar to past tense. But life had to go on the Palace.

As they said, she was the Queen we never had.

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