Benigno Aquino III

Benigno Simeon ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III: Torchbearer

Chay F. Hofileña
Benigno Simeon ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III: Torchbearer
Excerpts from Chapter 1 of the book ‘Ambition, Destiny, Victory: Stories from a Presidential Election,’ published by Cacho Publishing House in July 2011.

Rumblings of “Noynoy for President” began to reverberate just days after the nation buried its beloved Corazon Aquino. The groundswell came with little effort, like it was an intrinsic part of things that flowed naturally, given the outpouring of affection and respect from an incredible number of people who lovingly carried her to her last home. 

That this grief and grieving of August 2009 would parallel the anguish of August 1983, when Cory’s husband Ninoy was escorted to his grave, would not be lost on those who witnessed both events. A force tangible yet inchoate was felt in the air. 

Yet Cory’s only son was dismissive of what was percolating in the minds of many an old hand in politics. For most of his life almost always in the shadow of his parents – one, an icon of democracy; the other, a hero who inspired an uprising – Benigno Simeon “Noynoy” Aquino III was content to be ordinary. 

The numbers from an internal survey conducted in late August showed that six out of 10 were inclined to vote for the man who didn’t want to be president, while four of 10 would surely vote for him. At around this time, too, a Pulse Asia survey on comparative presidential preferences showed that, in early August, Manuel Roxas II ranked a low fifth after Senator Manuel Villar Jr., former President Joseph “Erap” Estrada, Vice President Noli de Castro, and Sen Francis “Chiz” Escudero. 

The Liberal Party (LP) was torn between those who wanted Noynoy for president because victory was almost certain, and others who preferred to stay the course and pursue a Roxas candidacy as planned.

Roxas, after all, had already invested heavily in his candidacy and was better prepared for the presidency. In contrast, Noynoy to them was lackadaisical, his legislative record mirroring no strong advocacies even as two bills, which he authored, passed the Senate. He was, in reality, regarded as a party backbencher. 

Yet some opinion-makers like Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Conrado de Quiros were effusive in their endorsement of a Noynoy candidacy. “It’s not only that the fires of Cory’s death-conquering life, or life-restoring death, will blaze up a path for him, it is that Noynoy’s candidacy will keep those fires burning. So far, no Cory or Obama has come to capture the public’s imagination in an onrushing election that everybody expects to be derailed. Noynoy is it.” 

The call was for the son of Ninoy and Cory to look and see beyond himself. 

Corys admonition

Unknown to many, however, Cory had admonished her son way back in 2007. “Noy, ha, this is going to be my last campaign…. You better do a good job in the next six years because I cannot campaign for you any more.” Already 74 at the time, she said, “Matanda na ako. Hindi ko na kakayanin ’yan after six years.”

A three-term congressman of the second district of Tarlac, Noynoy, who won as senator in 2007, was being touted as a possible running mate of Roxas, the newly elected LP president. Not too keen about the idea of her son running as vice president, Cory told the LP leaders, “Hoy, tigil-tigilan ’nyo ako, ha.”  

For sure, the Aquinos had already contributed much of their lives to the country. The brains behind the assassination of Sen Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr in 1983 remains unknown to this day. His wife Cory, who had shunned any direct involvement in politics all her life, was ushered to the presidency in 1986. She acceded to an angered people’s vehement call for change, compelled to run only by an undefined political force that clamored for a new and inspiring leadership. 

Aware of how much top political leadership exacts from those who heed its call, Cory wanted to spare her family from its predictable burdens. Seeking the vice presidency, she knew, would be no different from campaigning for the presidency. Cory did not relish the idea of a supposed “icon of democracy” once again begging for campaign money. 

Passing the torch on

As it turns out, the former president had her sights set elsewhere, though well within the confines of the Liberal Party. 

Long expected to be the standard-bearer of the LP since his assumption of the party’s leadership, Roxas endeared himself more to Cory in May 2009. During a leadership forum sponsored at the time by the Lopez-owned ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC), Roxas was asked which historical person, both living and dead, he admired the most. He quickly replied that among the living, it was Cory Aquino because “through her, we were able to display, and to show, and to live out our own patriotism.”

The former president who, a week before, had just undergone laparoscopic surgery to remove cancer cells in her colon, was elated with his response. She wanted to speak with the young and intelligent Roxas to thank him. Cory was convinced that among those who had shown interest in the presidency at the time, Roxas was the best choice. He was her anointed one and she had made her preference known to others in her circle, including her family. 

Cory had counseled Noynoy that after completing his term as senator, he shouldn’t seek higher public office and instead run for governor of Tarlac. But destiny had designed things differently. 

After battling cancer for more than a year, Cory Aquino passed away on Aug 1, 2009. 

A partys dilemma

The events after Cory’s death thrust the LP into flux. In late August, LP chairman Franklin Drilon publicly announced that Roxas was still going to be the party’s standard-bearer and even speculated that Noynoy would agree to run as his vice president (VP). 

On the side, Roxas had, before Cory’s passing, already explored the possibility of Escudero being his running mate because of the latter’s strong ratings. Aware that the senator was also eyeing the presidency, Roxas had told him that should he (Escudero) decide otherwise, he (Roxas) would be more than willing to consider him as a running mate. 

But Roxas’s mother Judy, an old hand in politics, would instruct her son otherwise. “Get Noy now. Get him to say yes now.”

Meanwhile, as the so-called “yellow forces” were creating tremendous noise to convince Noynoy to run for president, the Aquino siblings remained extremely lukewarm, if not opposed, to their brother seeking higher office. Remembering their mother’s pronouncement, one of them reportedly said, “Noy, you know what mom said. We should go all-out for Mar.” 

Within the party, however, there would be a palpable shift in preferences. Members could not ignore the groundswell for Noynoy. Roxas was starting to see that if he insisted on running, the LP would be divided between the “reform faction” pushing for Noynoy, and those who were loyal to him. This would have made the victory of Nacionalista Party’s Villar, at the time surging in the surveys, even more certain. 

Noynoy was starting to feel the burden of political leadership being expected of him. During informal dinners he would voice fears to friends about losing his life and his privacy. 

Roxas did not want to force his party mates to make a choice between him and Noynoy. “Kami-kami na lang, ang liit-liit namin, magbobotohan pa kami? Magkakasakitan pa kami. We can do this kaming dalawa na lang because we know each other very well,” Roxas intimated.

LP leaders were on the lookout for clear signals from either men about their preferences, but these were slow in coming. “Parang nagkakahiyaan,”  Florencio “Butch” Abad recalled, which is why he decided to host a dinner for them in his Quezon City home.

A crucial dinner

Between 7 and 8 pm one Saturday in late August, Roxas arrived in Abad’s house with a thought running in his head. Abad welcomed him, saying, “Pare, the idea is to convince Noynoy to be vice president. You have to make sure that when he leaves tonight, he clearly gets the message that you are willing to have him as your vice president.” 

Parang hindi dapat ganun ang formulation. It’s not how we should present it,” Roxas replied. “It should be a conversation of equals. Hindi naman maganda na I am here to offer him the vice president’s seat.

Noynoy arrived at about 8 pm. For his part, Cory’s son was preparing to ask Roxas how he (Noynoy) could possibly help his presidential bid. 

The three men engaged in casual banter throughout the dinner, after which Roxas steered the conversation toward the presidential run. He had not been sleeping well the previous nights as the noise generated by the “Noynoy for President” advocates was becoming increasingly difficult for him to disregard. 

He told Noynoy that he came to the meeting wearing two hats, one as a reformer and the other, as a presidential candidate who had invested a lot intellectually, organizationally, financially, and even emotionally. “It is really going to be very difficult and painful for me to give that up because I really worked hard to be able to present myself to be an acceptable, viable presidential candidate,” he admitted. 

Roxas felt uncomfortable being called “ambitious” by the newspapers and being criticized as putting self ahead of country. “I don’t want to prolong this agony. I want this settled as soon as we can.” 

He declared, “Noy, I am a creature of the market. Kita ko na eh. Sa ’yo papunta talaga.” He continued, “Alam mo,  Noy, sa akin lang, I really think that you should take it. 

Both Noynoy and Abad were taken aback, totally unprepared for everything Roxas had said. 

He asked Noynoy if he was up to it. “If you’re not up to it, then I will go wear my candidate’s hat and I will fight this and find out from you how you can help,” Roxas said. Noynoy, however, could not make a categorical decision or commitment that night. He was aware of his mother’s bidding and his sisters’ reservations. The family was supposed to support Roxas, Cory’s anointed one. 

At around 11 that night, Roxas left ahead of Noynoy and told Abad as they headed toward the door, “Pare, huwag na natin patagalin pa ito. Kumbinsihin mo.”  

The man who was asked to be president could only let out an expletive before saying, “Ang bigat naman nito.”   

Period of prayer

Instead of immediately reciprocating Roxas’s self-sacrifice, Noynoy would declare only that he would go through a spiritual retreat to “pray for discernment and divine guidance.” After all, this is what he had promised his sisters. 

As it turns out, some of his advisers also told him this was an effective way of sustaining the Aquino mystique. Following the storyline, his ascension to the presidency was not supposed to be about seizing political power but about heeding a people’s call for new and fresh leadership. Consistent with the political script, he was supposed to go on retreat to think things over, and delay acceptance of Roxas’s offer. 

Noynoy flew to Davao City on a Thursday to meet with political supporters and then proceeded to Zamboanga City the following morning, September 4. He was accompanied by his cousin Rapa Lopa. 

They proceeded to the monastery of the Discalced Carmelite Order, where Noynoy met with Sister Agnes Guillen, the prioress. It was here where Cory Aquino also sought refuge and enlightenment before deciding to challenge Ferdinand Marcos in the presidential snap elections of 1985. 

“He really wanted seriously to pray and consult somebody whom he was comfortable with and that was Sister Agnes,” Lopa said. Sister Guillen was instrumental in helping the family and the former president herself come to terms with her illness. 

After hours of introspection and prayer, Noynoy emerged and declared, “Sige, game na.”  He flew back to Manila the following evening with more certitude about his decision.

In an interview about his candidacy, Noynoy would echo what his parents had said earlier. “I cannot forgive myself if I know I could have done something but didn’t.” This, according to some accounts, is what haunted the sisters and eventually convinced them to say yes. 

In an interview, Kris quoted Noynoy as saying that the reason why he wanted the presidency was for “country, Dad, and Mom.” To Ballsy, there was no further reason to delay his announcement and give their brother their blessings. 

Cory Aquino’s son, Noynoy, the unexpected candidate, was ready to run and win as president.

The endgame

Noynoy cast his vote in Tarlac and waited for reports to come in. After the polling precincts closed at 7 pm, reports from volunteers started trickling in at the campaign headquarters in Cubao. 

Toward dinnertime, numbers from the Comelec and Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting, however, started coming in faster than those from their volunteers. The trend for Noynoy appeared irreversible. 

At the same time, the outlook for Roxas appeared worrisome. “Let’s not do anything until we see what happens in Mar’s situation,” Noynoy said.

Hours later, Lopa sent his cousin a text message. Noynoy was still in Tarlac where he had been instructed to stay put for security reasons. “Congratulations, Mr President,” the message read. It was midnight. 

Suddenly Noynoy felt the full weight of the responsibility of being elected president. On his shoulders, he likewise felt the enormity of the challenge that lay ahead. For his family, it was an odd mix of relief and muted jubilation. But, deep inside, Noynoy knew that the elections would not be over until after he was proclaimed the new president. 

The anxiety eased slightly at 4 pm of June 9, when Aquino was finally proclaimed the fifteenth president of the Republic before a joint session of Congress. A joint canvassing committee declared that he had won the presidency with 15.2 million votes. Aquino’s running mate, Roxas, however, lost. 

Three weeks later at the Quirino Grandstand, he took his oath, as mandated by the Constitution, at noon of June 30, 2010. Clad in a traditional Filipino barong, he put his left hand atop a Bible, raised his right hand and swore to “faithfully and conscientiously” fulfill his duties as president. 

Shortly afterwards, in his inaugural speech, he said: “Nilabanan ng aking ama ang diktadura at ibinuwis niya ang kanyang buhay para tubusin ang ating demokrasya. Inialay ng aking ina ang kanyang buhay upang pangalagaan ang demokrasyang ito. Ilalaan ko ang aking buhay para siguraduhin na ang ating demokrasya ay kapaki-pakinabang sa bawa’t isa. Namuhunan na kami ng dugo at handang gawin itong muli kung kinakailangan. 

Bravely accepting the challenge of the presidency, Benigno Simeon Cojuangco Aquino III declared, “My parents sought nothing less and died for nothing less than democracy, peace, and prosperity. I am blessed by this legacy. I shall carry the torch forward.”  – Rappler.com

Chay F. Hofileña

Chay Hofileña is editor of Rappler's investigative and in-depth section, Newsbreak. Among Rappler’s senior founders and editors, she is also in charge of training. She obtained her graduate degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York.