Deconstructing Imelda

I KNOW IT'S FASHIONABLE TO SAY MEAN things about Imelda Marcos. She and her husband, the late dictator Ferdinand, took away the rights of Filipinos and treated the national treasury as their piggy bank. She threw jet-set parties while in Manila people lived on a huge mound of rotting garbage called Smokey Mountain. She ordered the rapid construction of a center for her international film festival, and in the ensuing rush the building collapsed, burying construction workers alive. Her vast collection of shoes provided material for every comedian on the planet; she became a walking punch line.

I was born during the Marcos regime, and I have been watching Imelda all my life. I had to: my morning cartoons were frequently interrupted by live telecasts of the Marcoses making speeches. This alone should fuel a lifetime of resentment, and I won't even go into the time Imelda required all TV stations to air cultural programs every Wednesday night. I could make fun of Imelda Marcos, but I cannot work up a proper loathing for her anymore.

If I were to remain in a constant state of moral outrage, I would burst into flame. Perhaps I have been hypnotized by Imelda Marcos the way she hypnotized the entire country. I was dining in a restaurant once when Imelda glided in, and I, a former chanter of anti-Marcos slogans, had this bizarre urge to get up and follow her. Only by shutting my eyes and clinging to the table did I resist her energy vortex; like a black hole she sucked up all the light in the room.

Some months ago my friend's sister, a former student activist, was shopping in a jewelry store. Suddenly there was a commotion at the door, and Imelda Marcos floated in on a cloud of perfume. The former activist found herself gazing at the former dictator's wife with open-mouthed admiration. Imelda beamed at her and said, ""Do they have any interesting pieces in this store, dear?'' Without hesitation, she began helping Imelda pick out jewelry. After Imelda left, the store owner rewarded my friend's sister for her sales help by giving her a large discount on a bracelet. Then she ran home, called her mother and cried that she had sold her principles for 500 pesos.

There is something about Imelda Marcos, something mesmerizing, even diabolical. During the martial-law era many people planned to embarrass Imelda by refusing to shake her hand, only to find their resolve vaporize when she stood before them. She makes people feel that she really, really likes them. ""When Imelda looks at you,'' they declare, ""you are the center of the universe.'' Or maybe Imelda draws you into her private universe,where everything is more glamorous, and her flakiest speeches about the hole in the sky and the light shining down on the Philippines make perfect sense.

These days, when she isn't claiming to own practically all of the Philippines, Imelda keeps up her image as ""mother of the Filipino people'' and ambassador to the world. She calls her art collection ""our'' treasures. And when Imelda saw a visiting newspaper editor gaping at her collection of personal photos--including shots of her with the likes of Idi Amin and Muammar Kaddafi--she laughed breezily and said, ""Oh, those are the bad boys.''

Foreigners often wonder how we could have allowed Imelda Marcos to have her way with us. But the people wanted a star, and she gave them what they wanted. Maybe we conjured her out of our collective unconscious: a mother figure for a nation shaped, in that famous phrase, by 300 years of Spanish rule and 50 years of Hollywood.

There will be no Marcos comeback, for they never really left. The cronies of Ferdinand Marcos have remained in power. Other politicians' wives have attempted to become the new Imelda Marcos, but they lacked that something. In 1996, during the 15th anniversary of the disaster at the Manila Film Center, I joined a group of university students in a ""spirit quest'' or seance at the film center, reputedly the most haunted building in the city. I wasn't particularly interested in contacting the spirits of the buried workers, but Imelda was supposed to be coming, and I wanted to see what would happen. On our way to the film center a journalist asked, ""What if there really are ghosts, and Imelda starts to levitate? How are we supposed to report that without sounding like wackos?'' In fact Imelda Marcos didn't show up, but if she had flown in on air, I don't think I would've been too surprised.