Springfield, VA - In the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto this past week in Pakistan, there have been scores of articles in the Washington, DC newspapers by op-ed writers claiming to be a “good friend” and/or confidante of the former prime minister. Essentially every current U.S. Presidential candidate has called her a “close friend” and has reminisced about having had long conversations with her. Because Bhutto was educated at both Radcliffe College in the U.S. and Oxford University in the U.K., she did indeed have a wide assortment of western friends. Many of those are now senior opinion makers, and most, it appears, have fond memories of her.
I myself had occasion to meet Benazir Bhutto. Our paths crossed in the mid-1970’s when both of us were attending Oxford. She was a highly energetic and sharp-tongued debater who was elected President of the Oxford Union, the most prestigious debating society at the university. I was certainly not of her caliber, but I was also a member of the Union at the time. Her election was no fluke. The President of the Union must be a highly talented speaker whose skills face continuous challenge, mostly along the lines of the debates which take place in the British Parliament. She was charismatic, charming and brilliant. What was there not to admire? I voted for her.
Most of her fellow students were very aware that Benazir was the eldest child of the former Prime Minister of Pakistan and the heir apparent to the political dynasty which ruled that nation. She did not flaunt her privileged background, instead choosing to compete strictly on merit. I do not know what type of student she was – we did not attend common classes. But there was an air about her, even at her young age, suggesting future greatness.
When we left Oxford, Bhutto and I traveled widely divergent paths. While I returned to the U.S. to continue a career in the Navy in submarines, Benazir went back to her country and became the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party. In a predominantly Moslem nation, this in itself was a remarkable achievement. Even more remarkable, she was the first woman elected in any Moslem country to be the national leader, serving two terms as Prime Minister of Pakistan from 1988 to 1990 and from 1993 to 1996.
Ironically, Bhutto was not defeated in an election during either term of office, but was removed both times by the President for alleged corruption. No one was surprised by either of her evictions from office; Pakistani politics rarely follow a model of stability enjoyed by most Western democracies. If the corruption charges were valid (she always contended that they were fabrications by political opponents), there had been frequent precedent in the turbulent world of Pakistani politics.
Following her second removal from office, Bhutto went into a self-proclaimed exile. Although she nominally lived in Dubai, her wealth and prestige enabled her to travel among the highest circles of society and politics. She became the darling of the intelligentsia throughout the western world due to her exceptional ability to articulate her passion to return Pakistan to true democracy (at least on her terms).
Contrary to the advice of many close friends who feared for her safety, Bhutto returned to Pakistan in October, 2007 to again run for Prime Minister. By all accounts, she was again her fiery self, igniting massive rallies of supporters as she campaigned throughout the country. Just over two months after she arrived in Pakistan, and only two weeks before the scheduled election, she was brutally assassinated under what are still very unclear circumstances.
I was not a close friend, a good friend, or a confidante of Benazir Bhutto. But, at least for a few good years, we ran in similar circles. From that brief exposure, I do know this: the world is considerably less without her.
I thought you might like to know.