JOLO, Philippines — The president came unarmed, accompanied only by her most trusted military commanders. The rebel leader packed a pistol and arrived in a convoy of 20 jeeps with about 3,000 armed Muslim partisans.
The rebel leader wanted to meet in a mosque, fortified by mounted machine guns and rocket and grenade launchers. The president picked a Roman Catholic convent--no guns, no guards.
And so, in a quiet office of the Carmelite Convent on the extreme southern Philippine island of Sulu, President Corazon Aquino, a housewife until just 10 months ago, met Sept. 5 with the leader of the fiercest insurgent force in the nation, an Islamic army whose secessionist war has left more than 50,000 soldiers, rebels and civilians dead in the past 14 years.
"What I think is most important is that you be convinced of my sincerity," Aquino told rebel leader Nur Misuari sternly. "What I want is peace. We cannot progress if there is no peace."
That is why, she told him, she had defied almost all of the 26 members of her Cabinet and overridden the protests of the four armed services chiefs to travel 600 miles to meet him on his own turf.
"My only claim is that I have always been honest," she said, without a trace of softness in her voice. "I have always been sincere. And, most important, you must realize that when I am convinced of something, no one can dissuade me."
It was a rare moment, according to Aquino's closest aides, friends and family, which said much about what the leader of this nation of 55 million has become since she assumed the presidency last Feb. 25. In seven months, they said, 53-year-old Corazon Cojuangco Aquino has become presidential.
She has toughened politically. She has grown intellectually. She has hardened emotionally. And, although she has learned to compromise on morality when it conflicts with the needs of government, she has remained deeply religious and morally above the reproach of even her harshest critics.
By all accounts, the president's most-trusted personal adviser is the nation's Roman Catholic cardinal, Jaime Sin. She attends Mass every Sunday, and sometimes during the week. And her top priority in government has been ferreting out official corruption.
Yet Aquino has learned to horse trade. She has used her growing political savvy to balance the forces of her powerful, 200,000-man right-wing military against her increasingly fractious political coalition, which spans the political spectrum from extreme left to right.
Most of all, Aquino--who once said that the best years of her life were spent as a housewife in exile with her husband in a middle-class home near Boston--has become a singular symbol of peace and reconciliation in a nation still deeply torn by war and political differences.
Matures in Office
The woman who will meet with President Reagan in the Oval Office on Wednesday during an eight-day official visit to the United States is, in short, far more politically astute and mature than the one who abruptly became president of the Philippines when Reagan's friend, Ferdinand E. Marcos, suddenly fled in the face of an unprecedented civilian and military revolt, ending two decades in power.
One of President Aquino's close aides noted last week that a watershed in Aquino's development as a leader was her meetings last month with the authoritarian leaders of Indonesia and Singapore, President Suharto and Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
"She is up there already. She now understands that she is one of those with power and that those with power see things differently," the aide said. It was the same attitude that she took with Nur Misuari in Jolo.
"It's not an infatuation with power," the aide said. "It's just an awareness. And I think it is this, more than anything, that has made her into a strong leader.
"She is hard. She is forthright. She is stubborn. And I think she is starting to enjoy it."
Confidence Level Grows
Aquino herself says no, she is not yet enjoying a job that she took reluctantly.
"I wish I could say I've enjoyed it," she told reporters during a press conference Thursday. "I'm hoping that once our problems are solved, I will be able to enjoy it."
But she did agree that the job is much easier for her now than it was in the beginning, when her knowledge of issues was inadequate and the spotlight of world attention was sharply focused on her and her nation.
"I guess I am more confident now. And now that we have reorganized, it is much easier for me," she said.
In her first month in office, Aquino conceded, she made many mistakes. When an interviewer asked the president on television Wednesday night if she had done anything she considered wrong during her presidency, Aquino replied, "In the first month or so, I guess I should have already stated very clearly that I was going to do it my way and not be influenced by anyone or any other way."