Bhutto’s death hits close to home
December 29, 2007
ASPEN ” As Benazir Bhutto was laid to rest Friday amid great turmoil following her assassination in Pakistan, her death was mourned as far away as Aspen.
“She’s always been very driven, very focused but with this great sense of humor and this great smile,” Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of The Aspen Institute, said Friday. “It reminds you that that these great political turmoils are very personal and involve real people. Her death is a very human thing.”
Bhutto was Pakistan’s first female prime minister and was the leader of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party. She recently had returned to Pakistan to campaign for the position of prime minister, in order to share power with President Pervez Musharraf, who overthrew Pakistan’s civilian government in 1999.
Musharraf’s government has blamed Bhutto’s assassination on al-Qaida, although many of Bhutto’s supporters blame the government, according to news reports. Pakistan has ordered what is nearly a complete shutdown of services in the country following riots that have left dozens dead.
The Aspen Institute’s Middle East strategy group often hosts speakers on issues regarding the area and Isaacson is headed to the Middle East on Jan. 14, in order to help set up economic cooperation programs between Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
Isaacson said he doesn’t expect fallout from Bhutto’s assassination to affect his trip or negotiations in any way. Even so, he said is concerned about violence escalating in Pakistan.
Recommended Stories For You
“I think you have to worry about a country with 70 nuclear weapons falling into a sectarian struggle,” said Isaacson. “It’s a very dangerous situation. We’re in a struggle against al-Qaida and they just apparently decided to make Pakistan a battle ground.”
The return to Pakistan was dangerous for Bhutto, but Isaacson said Bhutto knew how dangerous it was and that he respected her courage in returning. He said it made him think of her focus and determination during their time together in school.
Isaacson went through his undergraduate and graduate studies with Bhutto, first at Harvard University and later at Oxford University. Bhutto was the first Asian woman to be elected to the Oxford Union, a prestigious debating society.
“She was so intense about running for the presidency of the Oxford Union,” said Isaacson. “I asked her why and she said, ‘We were a colonial people of the English. Now it’s my chance as an Asian woman to show that a former member of the colonies could be president of the Oxford Union. She was very proud.”
The most striking characteristic of Benazir Bhutto, back when she was a student in the 1970s, was the contrast between the intensity of her eyes and the warmth of her very large smile. It was one of countless contrasts that she embodied. She tended to wear blue jeans and baggy sweatshirts, fitting in with the dress code of the day, but she told me she dressed that way (never shorts, skirts, or T-shirts) also because it honored the Muslim custom of covering her body as a woman. Another contrast was between her nickname Pinky ” she even typed some of her essays on pink paper ” and her serious personality.
When I first met her at Harvard, her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had not yet been elected to office. Still, she stood out as a powerful figure in the dining hall of Elliot House, where she lived, and she displayed a passion for international politics that went beyond the antiwar rhetoric that passed for political discourse in those days. Later at Oxford, where we both ended up as grad students, she became even more intensely political. The summit of student politics there is the presidency of the Oxford Union, the venerable debating society, and she viewed it as her mission to become the first Asian woman in that post. She lost her first campaign for the post, but when her father was deposed and arrested the following year, we used that crisis as a reason to urge people to vote for her, and she won.
Benazir Bhutto navigated through personal as well as political turmoils that were far more intense than most of us can imagine. Over the years, on those rare occasions when we’d meet and reminisce, I’d notice how the features of her face had hardened a bit, as had the intensity of her stare when she talked to you. But she never lost the warmth in that very big smile.