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'The Time Has Come,' Laxalt Told Marcos

February 26, 1986|SARA FRITZ and ELEANOR CLIFT | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — After days of agonizing diplomatic maneuvers by top U.S. officials, it was President Reagan's friend, Sen. Paul Laxalt, who finally persuaded a beleaguered and desperate Ferdinand E. Marcos to relinquish the presidency of the Philippines.

"Should I step down?" Marcos asked Laxalt during the second of two telephone calls between them Monday. "Senator, what do you think?"

At the time, American officials were wringing their hands in fear that the stalemate between Marcos and military leaders loyal to opposition leader Corazon Aquino would lead to bloodshed in Manila.

Marcos was barricaded in his palace, imagining that a U.S. Navy armada was headed up the Pasig River to help overthrow him and considering a preemptive strike against the opposition forces barricaded inside Manila's Camp Crame.

Laxalt, recalling his conversation with Marcos for reporters on Tuesday, said he replied: "Mr. President, I am not bound by diplomatic restraints. I am talking only for myself. I think you should cut and cut cleanly. I think the time has come."

There was a long pause. Laxalt then inquired, "Mr. President, are you still there?"

"I am still here, senator," Marcos replied. "I am so very, very disappointed."

It was at that poignant moment that Marcos seemed to realize that his downfall was inevitable. And from that moment, the Reagan Administration emerged with a foreign policy victory that only two weeks earlier had appeared far beyond its grasp.

In recognizing the Aquino government Tuesday, Secretary of State George P. Shultz praised Marcos as "a staunch friend of the United States" who departed with dignity. "Reason and compassion have prevailed in ways that best serve the Filipino nation and people," he said.

'Extraordinary Day'

Members of Congress congratulated Reagan as well as themselves for precipitating what Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a frequent critic of the Administration's earlier pro-Marcos policy, hailed as "an extraordinary day in the history of human freedom."

"It is a day whose peaceful dawn could not have come without the leadership of President Ronald Reagan," Kennedy said. "He reversed a failing policy. He discarded his own preconceptions. And he acted on the basis of reality, not right-wing assumptions."

Both Democrats and Republicans applauded an offer of asylum to Marcos in the United States, and there appeared to be a growing bipartisan consensus that Aquino will get additional U.S. foreign aid, despite the constraints of the Gramm-Rudman budget-balancing law.

At the White House, aides stressed that even though Reagan's intervention was crucial in averting a bloody civil war in the Philippines, he did not step in until it was obvious that Marcos no longer had the support of the Filipino people.

"I don't think it's fair to say the President in any way pulled the rug from under Marcos," said a White House official who declined to be further identified. "We waited until it was quite clear that the mandate of heaven no longer belonged to Ferdinand Marcos."

'Realization of Facts'

A State Department official added: "We did not push President Marcos out (but) we may have helped to promote a realization of the facts."

It was no coincidence that in Marcos' hour of decision, he called on Laxalt, the son of a Basque sheepherder who is known in Washington as Reagan's "best friend in Congress." In mid-October, the Nevada Republican senator had traveled to Manila on Reagan's behalf to plead with Marcos for reform of the government--a message that apparently caused Marcos two weeks later to schedule a snap election for Feb. 7 to prove that he still had a popular mandate.

The two men have talked by telephone several times since then. Shortly after the election, for example, Marcos reached Laxalt in Las Vegas, and the senator asked him about the allegations of widespread election fraud--particularly in Marcos' home district, where the vote tally was 13,000 to 0 in Marcos' favor. Marcos joked: "We Filipinos are much more clannish than you independent Basques."

But Marcos was deadly serious when he telephoned about 2 p.m. EST Monday, summoning Laxalt from a top-secret briefing on the Philippine situation that was being conducted by Shultz in the Capitol. He demanded from Laxalt an explanation of Reagan's message, delivered to him personally earlier in the day by U.S. Ambassador Stephen W. Bosworth, calling for an orderly transition of power.

Marcos said that he could not believe that Reagan, a longtime ally, would betray him. "There was a strong feeling by him that he was receiving various messages from people in our government and they didn't necessarily reflect the views of the President," the senator said.

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