Harvard Notes By Jeff Benitz
It was 1989. I was in a camera store that had one employee, the owner, who had been there
for 50 years. Shuffling around the antique cameras and the film rolls, he pulled my package
of pictures and handed them to me. As I dug through my wallet to pay him he asked how I
had pictures of Benazir Bhutto, the then Prime Minister of Pakistan. I told him she had been
milling around Harvard because she was invited to attend the Commencement and was the
featured speaker this year. He was aware of her presence in Cambridge but was curious as
to her speech.
I stood at the counter for the next two hours and we discussed her speech, goals, and
Pakistan. She was working to bring democracy to a country that had had much turmoil and
dictatorship. She was the only woman running a Muslim country. The fellow who owned the
camera store was Jewish and very on top of political matters in the region. We marveled at
the fact she was the Prime Minister of her country and she was only 35 years old.
Benazir Bhutto (A.B. ’73 Harvard College) went on to get an advanced degree from Oxford
University. In the late 1970’s, her father who was Prime Minister of Pakistan was overthrown
in a military coup and executed. Her brothers were killed. Her husband was thrown into prison
for eight years without trial. She went into exile abroad. All these matters had motivated her to
a political career determined to bring democracy to a failing state. This she spoke of.
She was optimistic in those early days of 1989. After two terms as Prime Minister and an
unproven scandal she went into exile again, operating politically from outside her country
until recently. Dr. Bhutto (L.L.D. ’89 Harvard University) remained enormously popular. She
continued to talk of the importance of democracy for Pakistan and worked feverishly with the
Reflecting back to that June at Harvard I remember a top-notch lady. Her manners were
capital (that is not so common among all the snobbery). She was well spoken, assured, and
focused. I would go so far as to say, someone who was friendly. She did not suffer from
gender dysfunction as a woman in a man’s world.
Another thing I remember is she had the second heaviest security detail I’ve ever seen at
Harvard. The security is massive during Commencement Week anyhow, but this was real
serious. She spoke of the danger to herself at that time as a new Prime Minister.
Whatever her political record I know she was a friend of Washington. This many years later
America pushed her hard to return to Pakistan. She knew the dangers and because what I
had seen of her, I thought she would maneuver through it. Instead, someone got her through
I write this because it is the first time I have had contact with a world leader who was
assassinated. You think about ambition and courage and where the margins are. There is a
creeping sadness that makes you want to vomit. In empire building, how do you define when
to pull back on the reigns? When are you pulling back too early? Or, when have you run the
horse too hard?
“Extremism looms as a threat, but it will be contained as it has been in the past if the
moderate middle can be mobilized to stand up to fanaticism. I return to lead that battle.”
Benazir Bhutto (1)
Footnote: (1) Washington Post, Thursday, September 20, 2007; Page A21.