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Commentary: Bhutto was essence of Pakistan

  • Story Highlights
  • Benazir Bhutto sacrificed personal interests for a better Pakistan, writer says
  • Bhutto was called high-handed, power-driven, short-tempered, Tom Plate says
  • She and her husband were hounded by corruption allegations, he writes
  • She overcame family tragedies to dedicate her life to political change, writer says
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By Tom Plate
Special to CNN
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Tom Plate, a syndicated columnist and a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, has been writing columns about Asia and America since 1996. His latest book is "Confessions of an American Media Man."

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Tom Plate says that despite her faults, Benazir Bhutto will be remembered as a true Muslim heroine.

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- A gift given to me years ago from Benazir Bhutto, an elegantly decorated wood jewelry box slathered in lacquer, still adorns a sideboard in our home. Bhutto had wanted everyone in the room of visitors to remember her for her best. This was in 1993, not long after her second election as prime minister of Pakistan.

No Pakistani leader ever knows how long she, or he, will be around. Pakistan is no Switzerland. In 1979, Bhutto's father was hanged by the Pakistani military dictator then in power; his last will and testament to her and to the world was a book titled "If I Am Assassinated."

In 1996, even while his daughter was still prime minister, her brother, Murtaza Bhutto, was ambushed and executed. And just the other day, Benazir herself, organizing another run for power in the hopes that the third time would prove to be the charm, was assassinated in Rawalpindi -- the very city where almost three decades before, her father had been hanged.

The jewelry box reminds me of Benazir -- the latest of the late members of the Bhutto family -- for many reasons, besides simply being a nice gift from her. The first is that, like her, it's gorgeous. Not an inch of it is plain or commonplace. It's a Scheherazade sort of period piece, a felicitous comparison, in a sense, with the heroine of The Arabian Nights. Because in educating and enlightening the ruling authorities, Scheherazade was transformed in mythic Persia and Arabic culture into one of history's true, few heroines.

We sense that the late Benazir Bhutto is destined to become a historic Muslim heroine.

Keep in mind that pristine saints do not routinely make enduring historic figures. Not everything about the bawdy and religiously narrow-minded Catherine the Great was so great. Marie Antoinette, Evita Peron and Margaret Thatcher were no goody-two-shoes. Neither was Mrs. Bhutto.

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This dynastic dame of Muslim Pakistan was notoriously high-handed, dismissive of contradictions, endlessly content to be surrounded by rear-kissing acolytes, power-driven, short-tempered, snakily self-serving and a creature who required considerable creature comfort in the elegance department.

She would have denied this all, probably. She would say there was no truth to the corruption cases pending against her and her husband in Switzerland, Spain and Britain; she denied knowing anything about the beyond-opulent diamond necklace that rests in a bank box paid for by her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, himself having served time for corruption; and she would have railed as calumny the widespread charges that she and her family over the years had raked in enough money stored in Switzerland from looting Pakistan that they were close to being able to afford to purchase their own country.

Whatever the truth of all these charges, this child princess of Pakistan -- she was only 35 when she first became prime minister -- was obviously not a woman of cheap tastes. As the young twig is bent, so grows the tree: the early education at Lady Jennings Nursery School in Karachi, the college degree from Harvard, further study at Oxford.

There was the apartment in the Barbican section of London, the occasional family reunion in the French Riviera, the lavish family home in an up-market section of Dubai, and the sense -- as the British-Pakistani historian and author Tariq Ali has memorably put it -- that Benazir viewed her Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) as her personal "family heirloom."

Predictably, Mrs. Bhutto's final will and testament, just made public, underscores her sense of entitlement as she shamelessly denotes her husband as the inheritor of her Pakistan People's Party.

Husband Asif Ali Zardari is some piece of work, of course. Widely alleged to have suspicious stashes of cash in Switzerland, he is now to be the Pakistani Raj behind the PPP throne. He handed off the title to their eldest child, 19-year-old Bilawal. The unflustered young prince quickly announced he was taking on the Bhutto name and ditching the Zardari; but would finish his studies at Oxford before doing anything new.

Reflecting amid reports of the breakup of her marriage-alliance to Zardari earlier this year, Benazir Bhutto wrote candidly: "In the end, personal life is sacrificed on the altar of political commitment. This is because the public is the political family. To succeed and reach the top, most families, irrespective of gender, whether in politics or other professions, have to go the extra mile, consequently sacrificing personal interests to the larger cause."

For this announced admirer of Thatcher was herself a kind of Asian iron lady of history. The vicious political killing of her father radicalized her to the core and galvanized her political ambitions. She came to realize that her life was not her own and that any Bhutto would never have any private life.

In the end, oft-troubled Pakistan paid her back by killing her, as it had her father and her brother. But history plays by its own rules, has its own code of morality and sets its own legacy agenda. History will show that Benazir Bhutto amounted to more than some mere dynasty darling, more than some commonplace coquette of corruption, more than a spoiled striver for ambition's sake.

For inside the box of a puzzle that was Mrs. Bhutto was the essence of Pakistan, with all its irresistible attractions and off-putting contradictions.

Please note that the shiny gift box from her came with a lock, but when we took it home, we found that it had no key. Somehow we jiggered it open, but found nothing inside. But the more we -- the people, the journalists, the historians -- pry open the glistening Benazir box, the more we will say that there was a whole lot there, contradictions and all.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About Pakistan Peoples PartyBenazir BhuttoPakistan

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