The Woman who Carried Herself like a Queen was Accessible to the People and Press, Chicago Tribun


By Kim Barker

The last time I spoke to Benazir Bhutto, she was on a cell phone inside her home in Lahore, behind a razor-wire police cordon to prevent her from holding a mid-November rally after President Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency.

In between tongue-lashings for Musharraf, she joked she had fielded so many calls from Western and Pakistani media that she hadn’t had a chance to eat breakfast or lunch.

Just as she always tried to remain accessible to the Pakistani people – a tendency that left her dangerously exposed – Bhutto kept an open pipeline to the media. Having been educated at Harvard and Oxford, she understood how important a tool it was, whether she was planning her return to Pakistan in October or trying to outmaneuver her opponents once there.

It was normally fairly easy for a journalist to get at least a telephone interview with her, if the journalist pushed a little and then waited a day or so.

In person, she could comport herself like a queen, captivating you with her gaze while snapping at aides for mistakenly reaching in front of her. If you sat next to her at one of her news conferences, she would chitchat, maybe ask your advice on how to conduct it.

In a phone interview Oct. 14, just four days before her return from exile in Dubai, Bhutto said she was not worried about threats from Islamic militants in her homeland.

“I don’t think about the threats that have been made to me, because I have faith in God,” Bhutto told me. “If there is a threat, there is a threat from inside the government.”

On the day of her return, even in the moments before a suicide bomber attacked her caravan, killing 140 people, she seemed almost oblivious to the risk. She ignored government requests for her to take a helicopter from the airport, and she stood at the front of the platform roof on a truck, waving at the crowd.

At a news conference the day after that first attack, Bhutto said she would not be surprised if there was another attempt on her life. She blamed elements of the Pakistani government, although not Musharraf himself.

“The attack was not on me,” she said. “The attack was on what I represent—it was an attack on democracy.”

In that last cell phone conversation in Lahore, which I shared with five other journalists sitting in a car outside the police cordon, unable to enter the house, Bhutto had scathing words for Musharraf. He had just declared the state of emergency, and she vowed she would not proceed with a power-sharing deal promoted by the U.S.

“I feel very let down,” she said. “I will not be able to work with Gen. Musharraf, because I simply would not be able to believe anything he said to me.”

She said a crackdown on her party members and other opposition activists “left my party with the conclusion that he does not really want to do business with us. It made it clear that he was using us as icing on the cake to make sure no one notices the cake was poisoned.”

This piece appeared in The Chicago Tribune.