In December, a soft-spoken woman named Corazon Aquino said to an American reporter, "What on earth do I know about being president?" Two months later, the same woman was president.
The weeks in between were remarkable ones that filled the pages of our political album with powerful images. A crowd of Filipinos forming a human barrier against tanks. A still life of an uneaten bowl of caviar left on the dining-room table by a fleeing ruler. A wide-angle shot of Americans expressing relief that for once we were on the side of the good guys. But most remarkable was the portrait, seen in time-lapse photographs, of the woman in the yellow dress becoming a leader.
In the weeks ahead, some may trace a line from her childhood to her presidency. A teacher in Philadelphia points to the good omens in her good grades. College friends in New York read prophecies into the yearbook captions. But the reality is that Cory Aquino's path to power was a widow's walk, not entirely unlike the one that other women have taken.
Until the death of her husband, Cory Aquino's highest political post had been that of courier to her husband's prison cell and hostess to his inner circle of allies. If she had aspired to office at all, it was to the office of first lady.
It was only when the man she had stood behind was murdered that she was forced into the spotlight. She inherited the family business.
This most reluctant candidate -- "I am not a politician" -- took on Ferdinand Marcos in order to carry on her husband's work. Inevitably, she made that work her own. At the beginning of the campaign she was a symbol of her husband's martyrdom. At the end she was a symbol of her own bravery. She began as Mrs. Benigno Aquino and ended as "Cor-y! Cor-y!"
I don't pretend to know whether Cory Aquino will be as successful in office as she was in the pursuit of it. If it is one leap from symbol to leader, it is another from leader to ruler. But I do not find myself as dubious of her chances as many others.
Cory Aquino was hardly installed in office and Ferdinand Marcos had hardly landed in Hawaii before the first doubters began. It was one thing to be popular, they said, quite another to be strong. The questions asked in Washington corridors and on television talk shows came in elaborate and familiar code words. Is she tough enough? Can she handle it? Can a former housewife rule 50 million people?
Home economics may not be the preferred background for a political education. But listening to these doubters I thought of a time, not that long ago, when a simple man named Lech Walesa became a leader of his people. When people wondered about his potential, did anyone say, "But he's just an electrician"?
More recently, when Indira Gandhi was killed, her son Rajiv, a candidate as apolitical, as inexperienced, as reluctant as Cory Aquino, was catapulted into her place. How often did the correspondents ask Rajiv whether an airline pilot could be a prime minister? Is a pilot or an electrician better qualified for leadership than a homemaker and a mother of five?
Maybe I have seen too many women who have taken that widow's walk into a whole other life. Maybe I have seen something familiar in Cory Aquino's transition, the way hard-earned self-confidence can replace self-doubt.
At some point, in this short and intense initiation, Cory Aquino stopped comparing her qualifications with those of some mythical "president" and started comparing them with the competition. (What on earth did she know about being president? What did Marcos know?) At some point, she started to feel the strength that comes from building one small win into another and larger victory.
The Aquino government is in its infancy and the jostling for power has just begun. But I don't believe that Cory Aquino will end up as a figurehead in a yellow dress brought out for state occasions.
What are the odds against her success as president? In December, some of the oddsmakers bet that Cory Aquino wouldn't even live through the election. In January, they bet she'd lose handily. In February, they bet that Marcos would successfully steal the election. Yet this "widow" steered her people on a safe course between defeat and civil war. This "housewife" beat Ferdinand Marcos. The odds are evening up.