'The Time Has Come,' Laxalt Told Marcos

Times Staff Writers

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.

According to Laxalt, Marcos still held out the hope the United States would let him serve to the end of his current term as president in 1987. He also asked Laxalt about the possibility of a power-sharing arrangement under which he could help the Aquino regime in seeking aid from the International Monetary Fund and in combatting the Communist insurgency--an idea that Laxalt instantly deemed "impractical."

'Desperate Man'

"He was hanging on," Laxalt said. "He was looking for a life preserver. I sensed he was a desperate man clutching at straws."

Marcos told Laxalt that he still considered himself president of the Philippines. Declaring his intention to go through with his scheduled inauguration on Tuesday, he claimed support of 85% of the military despite the revolt led by former Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, the former armed forces deputy chief of staff.

"Unless something satisfactory could be worked out, he did not intend--as he said--'to give up,' " Laxalt reported. "He wanted assurances that there would be no vindictiveness or revenge concerning him, his family or associates."

He added that Marcos expressed a desire to stay in the Philippines if forced to step down from office. The Philippine president said he particularly feared "congressional harassment" if he sought asylum in the United States, Laxalt recounted.

The conversation took place at 3 a.m. Tuesday, Manila time. Marcos had been up all night, fearing that his palace would be stormed. He told Laxalt he was "irate" that two of his close security guards had been wounded by a grenade dropped from a helicopter that flew over the palace.

Marcos also told Laxalt of reports from U.S. officials "that we were going to have naval ships come up the river and assist the opposition against him." Laxalt said, "I found that incredible--I didn't believe it." But he told Marcos he would check it out.

When the call ended, Laxalt drove directly to the White House with Shultz to see the President. Their meeting in the Oval Office was brief--beginning at 3:52 p.m. and ending at 4:05. Reagan told the senator to advise Marcos that the United States would be willing to negotiate his safe passage, would welcome him in exile and wanted to guarantee him "his peace, his safety and his dignity."

While Reagan and Laxalt were conferring, Marcos' wife, Imelda, reached other U.S. officials by telephone, seeking passage for her family and associates.

The second conversation between Marcos and Laxalt, who telephoned the Philippine president from the office of White House national security adviser John M. Poindexter immediately after leaving the Oval Office, took on a different tone.

"I sensed that he had faced facts in that intervening period and the ball game was over," said Laxalt.

No Direct Answer Yet

But Marcos was not yet ready to concede until he knew for sure that Reagan himself was demanding his resignation. To that question, however, he did not get a straight answer.

"I indicated the President wasn't in a position to make that kind of representation and certainly not that kind of demand--that he hoped there would be a peaceful transition," Laxalt said.

It was then that Marcos asked what Laxalt termed the "gut question"--seeking the senator's own advice. And though the conversation ended without a firm commitment from Marcos to resign, Laxalt felt that his advice to "cut and cut cleanly" had been a turning point.

"I think he came to realization," he said. "I hope he came to the realization that the majority of the Filipino people no longer wanted him to be president. I hope he came to the realization that it was time for him to go . . . with some form of dignity, without any undue bloodshed or violence."

Laxalt's judgment proved correct. After talking to him, Marcos conferred with the U.S. ambassador on the details of his departure for Clark Air Base, where he spent the night before departing for Guam.

Walking a Fine Line

Throughout the crisis--which White House officials described as walking "a tightrope" between protecting U.S. interests in the Philippines and observing the sovereignty of the Philippine people--Reagan remained personally aloof. He strongly resisted heavy pressure on him from Congress to tell Marcos personally to resign.

"I think it would have been very inappropriate for President Reagan as President of this country to call the head of a sovereign state, the Philippines, however close our relationships, and lay it down to him," Laxalt said. "I don't think he considered it for a moment."

A White House official added, "We felt the best way to work with President Marcos was to work through emissaries he trusted and felt he could deal with."

Aides said Reagan still has high regard for Marcos, whom he met four times--twice as an envoy for President Richard M. Nixon in 1969 and 1973, at the Cancun economic summit during his own first term as President, and during Marcos' state visit to Washington in 1982.

"What he's done for that country, the President respects," an aide said.

Aides blamed Reagan's loyalty to Marcos for his initial flubs--describing the election as a victory for the two-party system and suggesting that the widespread fraud might have been caused by Aquino forces as well as Marcos supporters.

Despite these early setbacks, prominent Washington politicians, spanning the political spectrum from the liberal Kennedy to the ultraconservative Laxalt, judged Reagan's handling of the Marcos affair as successful.

"President Reagan," said Laxalt, "has played this masterfully."

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