The 1970s were beginning, and the unrivaled star of my Introduction to the Middle East class was “Pinkie” Bhutto. I asked her once about her given name, Benazir, and she giggled in embarrassment at its literal meaning: “Incomparable.” No one at Radcliffe or Harvard called her anything but “Pinkie” back then. But it was already apparent that her given name described her perfectly.
Radcliffe women in those days invariably wore skirts. But not Pinkie. She was one of the first to show that pants on college women were stylish, at least in Cambridge. Tall, black-haired, bright-eyed, she was ever bubbly and full of laughter. She was also the smartest student in the class, in contrast to her less-than-serious brother Murtaza, whom I later taught. She invited me to dinner at her dorm. Just a light-hearted meal with her friends. No memorable content, except for Pinkie’s dominating high spirits.More than a decade passed before I saw her again. We met at her hotel suite on Central Park South. Zahid Mahmood, a distant cousin, or at least childhood chum, arranged the meeting. He was a quasi-graduate student sheltered under my protection at Columbia University. He aspired to become foreign minister in a Benazir government. Though Zahid’s chutzbah was world class, he was terrified of Benazir, his party leader. He slugged down a couple of inches of vodka as the limo he had rented made its way south. He asked me to speak well of him in front of Benazir.When we met, the changes wrought by years of house arrest and the burdens of party leadership were apparent. Though even more beautiful than during her undergraduate years, the effervescence was gone. She spoke sweetly to the young women in her entourage, but she was firm, even abrasive, in addressing the two male party members who were present, ordering one not to speak unless spoken to.She was gentler with me as her former professor. She asked me to draft a speech about Islam and politics for her to consider for an upcoming engagement in Britain. I submitted the speech a couple of days later, but I doubt she used it. Her views on the necessity of separating religion from government had become far more rigid than mine.In the spring of 1989, she was back in Manhattan after giving a speech at Harvard as Pakistan’s Prime Minister. Zahid Mahmood, though still a penniless graduate student, had used his wiles and social connections to organize a gala reception for her at the Plaza Hotel. Donald Trump was the host, and awaiting her in the salon were Michael Caine, Carley Simon, “Swifty” Lazar, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and a host of New York celebrities. Then she was there. Resplendent in a voluminous white gown and positively glowing in the early stages of her second pregnancy. It was a true Camelot moment.Her 550 days in office during her first term as prime m,inister were furiously embattled. Thanks to my friend Zahid, who became an ambassador without portfolio connected with Pakistan’s U.N. mission, I was treated to an official visit to Islamabad and other points of interest. Sadly, Zahid died a few weeks later.Benazir was away from Islamabad when I arrived, but I met with her mother and political collaborator, Nusrat. She told me that neither she nor Benazir had ever seen a million dollars in cash in a briefcase before she took office. That was the going rate, she said, for crucial votes in parliament. The question in her mind was whether Benazir could disgrace her corrupt rival, Nawaz Sharif, before he found a way to oust her from power. It was a race that Benazir lost.A few days later, I joined Benazir’s mother for lunch at the family estate at Larkana in Sindh. The mob of supporters thronging the grounds, both outside and inside the gates, was unsettling, but I was assured that every one of them, man, woman, and child, would give their life for the Bhutto family. Her father’s tomb — a short distance away — was similarly thronged with the faithful.An immensely popular prime minister in the 1970s, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was executed by an earlier military dictator, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, on questionable charges of complicity in murder. Benazir picked up his fallen banner and devoted her life to becoming his successor.With her death — as with John F. Kennedy’s — the glow of a modern day Camelot dims. One brother died under suspicious circumstances in 1980. The other, Murtaza, was killed in a police incident in 1996, during Benazir’s second term as prime minister. Now, she too is gone. No one of comparable standing remains.Despite the tragedy of Benazir’s assassination, those who knew her will always remember the force of her personality, the grandeur of her person, and the excitement she inspired. Those who knew her long enough will also remember the sparkle in Pinkie’s eyes, and the lilting laughter that was too soon overcome by the gravitas she acquired as the leader of her party, the successor to her martyred father, and in many people’s minds, Pakistan’s greatest hope for a stable and democratic future.Richard Bulliet is Professor of History at Columbia University and author of “Islam: The View from the Edge” and “The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization.” © 2007 Richard Bulliet / Agence Global.