Cory Aquino: The Philippines' Plain-Spoken Leader
Late Filipino president touched the hearts of her people.
By Corin Ramos
Photo Caption: Cory Aquino greets New York Stock Exchange VIPs at the historic 1989 launch of the First Philippine Fund. To her left stands Lilia Clemente, owner and manager of the fund.
As the first female president of the Philippines and first female head of state in Asia, Corazon “Cory” Aquino lacked the flamboyance and even bombastic style of most seasoned politicians when it came to public speaking, including her ousted predecessor, Ferdinand Marcos. However, it was exactly that low-key approach and authentic manner that explained much of her appeal.
“She wasn’t fake,” says Lilia Clemente, a close friend of Aquino’s and a highly successful New York City businesswoman who herself has given countless speeches during her 40-year career in finance. “She was herself, and if you’re being yourself – honest, sincere – then you come across that way.
During his repressive 20-year regime, which began with his declaration of martial law in 1972, Marcos was known for his bellowing and fist-pounding, yet eloquent speeches. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Cory’s husband and assassinated opposition leader against Marcos’ authoritarian rule, also was a revered public speaker. The scion of a famous political family, Ninoy was an ambitious statesman who endeared himself to his constituents with speeches peppered with jokes and anecdotes of the plight of the common Filipino. Despite the two men’s different styles, both were regarded as captivating speakers.
In contrast, the widowed Aquino was a self-proclaimed “simple homemaker” who had no formal training in public speaking. Toastmasters Past International President Johnny Uy, DTM, lives in Cebu City and remembers listening to Cory Aquino’s speeches. He notes that Aquino “did not have the oratorical flair of her late husband, Ninoy. But she spoke with honesty and sincerity, which touched the hearts of the Filipino people.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, her political inexperience, she became the unifying force of the nonviolent “People Power” revolution in 1986 that ended the Marcos regime and restored democracy in the Philippines with her as the country’s 11th president.
Catalina Garcia, a Winnipeg, Canada, resident who was living in the Philippines during the People Power revolution, heard Aquino speak at several rallies. “She had none of the traditional politician-style campaign speeches,” Garcia says. “No rhetoric, no fancy quotes or anything like that.”
An Honest Voice
Cory’s simplicity and sincerity appealed to millions of her fellow countrymen. Eliseo Javier, a retired Brigadier General of the Filipino Army who was appointed to his position by Cory Aquino, says that after decades of listening to the rhetoric of corrupt politicians, he was more than ready to hear Aquino’s speeches. “Instead of fancy words or dramatic speeches, she just said what was true: that she had no experience in lying, cheating, stealing and murder,” he recalls. “She spoke to the hearts of Filipinos, and we could not help but respond to that.”
“Since her death, Aquino is being praised as a national hero and saint. The outpouring of grief and love is overwhelming.”
– Past International President Johnny Uy, DTM
“Cory had the ability to project herself as a peer, which played well to her strengths, particularly in a citizen-led revolt,” says TJ Walker, a media expert who runs a broadband TV Web site dedicated to public speaking, www.speakingchannel.tv. “She never had soaring oratory and she wasn’t theatrical. She had a plain, simple and focused everyday style.”
Garcia agrees: “She spoke like she was just conversing with the crowd or telling them a story, like she was talking right to you, if you know what I mean.”
Past International President Uy says since her death, Aquino “is being praised as a national hero and saint. The outpouring of grief and love is overwhelming… The president declared the day of her funeral a national holiday and called for her portrait to be printed on our currency.”
He says Aquino’s ability to connect with her people transcended her speaking skills. “Just as in Toastmasters, the goal is not to be as eloquent as the next guy. The goal is to communicate effectively and by just being ourselves, speaking with sincerity and making the effort to improve every day, our goals can be achieved.”
In September 1986, just seven months after she was swept to power by the popular revolt in the Philippines, Aquino made her famous address before the joint session of the United States Congress. Asking for more financial aid to rebuild the Philippines’ shattered economy, she said to the American politicians, “You have spent many lives and much treasure to bring freedom to many lands that were reluctant to receive it. And here you have a people who won it by themselves and need only the help to preserve it.”
Tip O’Neill, the U.S. Speaker of the House at the time, called it “the finest speech I’ve ever heard in my 34 years in Congress.”
By that time, Aquino’s growing ease on the world stage was evident, notes Walker. “She had all the hallmarks of a lot of good speakers: A natural smile, comfortable, exuding confidence and coming across in a conversational, fluid way,” he says. “She was a happy, warm person, and people were very receptive to her message.”
On August 1, 2009, Cory Aquino died after a long battle against colon cancer. She was 76. “I dearly loved her,” says her friend, Lilia Clemente. “Her death reminds us all to not give up, to continue to make a difference.”
Corin Ramos is a member of the Yorba Linda-Placentia Toastmasters club in Yorba Linda, California. A first-generation Filipino American, Corin is president of Walson Communications, a multi- cultural public relations and marketing agency based in Orange County, California. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.