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What It Takes: Benazir Bhutto

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Benazir Bhutto
What It Takes: Benazir Bhutto
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00:00:02 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.

00:00:08 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.

00:00:14 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.

00:00:19 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.

00:00:27 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”

00:00:35 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.

00:00:40 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.

00:00:53 ALICE WINKLER: This is What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance from the Academy of Achievement's recorded collection. I'm Alice Winkler. For today's episode, we pulled an interview from the vault that is profoundly inspiring but also unsettling. The interview is with Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s former prime minister, and it’s unsettling because her words take on a painful resonance when you realize that she spoke them in exile, seven years before she was assassinated by a suicide bomber. Here’s a news clip from that shocking day in 2007.

00:01:33 NEWSCASTER: We begin with the assassination that is reverberating around the world. Pakistan's former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, made her triumphant return from exile just two months ago. It ended today in horror as she was struck down only 12 days from an election it was widely expected she would win.

00:01:52 Benazir Bhutto was the first elected female leader of a Muslim nation. She was also one of the youngest heads of state ever, becoming prime minister at the age of 35. She served in that role twice, in the late 1980s and again in the mid-‘90s. She was devoted to democracy and to modernizing Pakistan. She tried to tackle her country's deep poverty and gender inequality, and she was adamantly opposed to violence of any sort.

00:02:23 BENAZIR BHUTTO: When I was a very young child, I remember I was always against violence. It was an era when people used to go shooting and hunting, and I remember once coming out on the veranda in our home in the countryside, and my father was teaching my brother to shoot a parrot. And I remember seeing the parrot fall down dead and bleed, and I remember being appalled by it, the parrot fluttering. And I can’t bear to see blood to this day, or killing, and I'm very much against war and conflict and the taking of life.

00:02:52 And I think that seeing that little bird, green and beautiful and living and chirping in the tree, and then falling down dead, did have a profound effect. It sounds silly to say that. Why should I feel so strongly about a bird? But I remember my father telling me, when he was facing the death sentence, that, "I remember the little girl who cried so much because a bird died, how she must feel."

00:03:14 ALICE WINKLER: Benazir Bhutto's father was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, an extremely popular statesman. During the 1970s, he served as both Pakistan's president and its prime minister. He was overthrown by a military dictator and was executed, just days after Benazir returned home from Oxford University. But in this interview with the Academy of Achievement, Benazir Bhutto began her story before all of those events, describing the Pakistan she was born into in 1953, a country with few cars and extreme poverty.

00:03:53 BENAZIR BHUTTO: The gap between the rich and the poor was greater too. I remember people walking barefoot and barebacked because of the poverty. It was a very privileged life that we led, with huge homes and scores of staff, with everything looked after. Now the world has changed much more. There's a greater appreciation of each human being, being equal and entitled the same opportunity, as well as emphasis on human dignity.

00:04:25 In those days, there was much less dignity. I remember that the poorer people would greet the richer people by bending down and touching their feet or prostrating them and throwing themselves on the feet. So it was a totally different kind of world, and it's changed for the better in that sense.

00:04:46 ALICE WINKLER: Even as a child living in luxury, Bhutto said, she was aware of the disparities.

00:04:53 BENAZIR BHUTTO: Well, my father was always championing the cause of the poor. He was very much against the status quo, so he was always telling us that it's wrong that there should be people in such abject poverty, unable to feed their children. I mean, I'd be sitting there when women would come to my mother and say, "Take our children. We can't feed them." My father was a lawyer. I remember him coming back and saying that a man came and said, "I don't have any money to pay you for this case," — some murder case he'd been involved in — and he said, "Take my cow because I don't have any money," and that was the cow that would give the milk to feed the children.

00:05:29 So it was quite shocking to me, and I was sensitive to it because my father was sensitive to it. And he'd take us — we were landowners, large landowners, and he'd take us to the lands, and he would tell me, "Look at the way these people sweat in the heat and in the sun in the fields, and it is because of their sweat that you will have the opportunity to be educated. And you have a debt to these people because it's — they weren't born to sweat like this, and you have a debt, and you've got to come back and pay that debt by serving your people."

00:05:59 ALICE WINKLER: Her father was clearly her greatest influence. As Bhutto told journalist and documentary filmmaker Irv Drasnin, who conducted this interview for the Academy of Achievement, it was her father who was most against the gender constraints of the era that threatened to hold her back.

00:06:17 BENAZIR BHUTTO: My mother, she used to be a working woman herself. She joined the National Guards. She was a captain in the National Guards. She was the first woman in Karachi to own a car and to drive, and people used to talk about her because they said, you know, "Women aren't supposed to drive cars." But when I look back on it, it was my mother who taught that a woman grew up to be married and to have children, and she would tell my father in front of me, "Why do you want to educate her? No man will want to marry her."

00:06:48 So all the time, for her, success depended on having a good catch as a husband and having children. But as for my father, he broke free of those constraints, and he insisted that I have an education. He said, "Boys and girls are equal. I want my daughter to have the same opportunities."

00:07:06 IRV DRASNIN: How do you account for that?

00:07:09 BENAZIR BHUTTO: I don’t know. I really don't know because I never had a chance to ask him. I just assumed this is what fathers did. And when I finished university he was in prison, and then he was unjustly hanged by a military dictator. And now, in reflection, I would like to ask him and say, "What made you do things differently?" Although I’d go to other people's homes, and I remember a friend of mine, they couldn’t eat food until the brothers had finished, and the leftovers would be given to the daughters.

00:07:39 That never happened in our home. I remember that I used to sit at the head of the table because I'm the eldest child. That never happened in other homes, and I should have asked my father when I had the chance, but he enabled me to appreciate that a woman is not a lesser creature.

00:07:56 ALICE WINKLER: There was one other lasting and maybe surprising influence on Benazir Bhutto, the nuns who educated her at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, a Catholic girl’s school in Karachi, where the majority of the students were Muslim.

00:08:11 BENAZIR BHUTTO: And I remember very much Mother Eugene, who used to teach us literature and poetry and, you know, “Reach for the moon and the lodestar,” and — inspiring us more to — it was very inspirational and motivational that one could conquer the moon and the stars if one reached out. So it was all about reaching out. I think the two powerful influences in my life and my childhood were my father and my teacher in the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Mother Eugene.

00:08:43 I was fascinated with literature. My father gave me a love for books. He loved reading books, and he'd make sure that I bought books, and he'd buy me books, and then Mother Eugene made my imagination run wild through Shakespeare and Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, and Keats and Browning, Byron.

00:09:04 ALICE WINKLER: Mostly, Benazir Bhutto loved historical biographies, beginning with Alfred the Great, the king who defended the English against the Viking conquest and, as Bhutto remembered with a smile, was scolded for burning cakes by a commoner who didn’t know his identity. She also loved reading about Alexander the Great, who was told that whoever untied the Gordian knot would conquer Asia. He took out his sword and cut it, instead, or so the legend goes. Basically, Bhutto said, her favorite books were about great achievers.

00:09:42 BENAZIR BHUTTO: My father was himself an achiever, and maybe it was a time of achievers. It — you know, I grew up at a time when colonialism had just ended, and the whole inspiration behind colonialism had been to discover the world and to achieve more. There was a sense of adventure, going to unmapped places, braving beasts of unknown description to conquer the world.

00:10:07 So it was very much still within that phase when words were more grandiose, and expressions were more grandiose, and the imagination was more grandiose. Now things are much leaner. And meaner.

00:10:20 ALICE WINKLER: Benazir Bhutto may have inherited some of the colonial-age spirit of achievement, but her politics were more the product of the post-colonial protest era. She was at Harvard during those years, and, she told interview Irv Drasnin, they changed her.

00:10:38 BENAZIR BHUTTO: I went there at a time of great social ferment, at a time when the Vietnam War was being fought. I, as a nation, was against the Vietnam War, but I found that my American fellow students were against that war, too, so it — and they didn't want to fight the war. They were protesting it, and I found that if you didn’t like something, you could do something about it. It was also a time of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King and idealism, Chavez — I mean, the great boycott from California, laborer's rights — so I was very much into saving the world.

00:11:14 My generation grew up in saving the world. We thought education wasn't important, exams weren't important, although I still did it because I was scared my father would get cross. But I discovered that life was more than my homework and my tutorial. Life was about the larger issues, where we could all play a role, and the women's movement had just started. Kate Millett had just written her book, and I remember a very dear friend of mine from college years — who I've hardly seen since, Wendy Lesser. She's taking out a literary magazine now in California, the last I heard.

00:11:45 But we'd sit there having these intense conversations about women succeeding, and could they succeed? Could they break the barriers? Because at that time still women, many women, thought that the objective in life was to go on and be married and not so much to have a career. It was the time of President Nixon's impeachment, and recycling newspapers; I’d go around trying to recycle. And I see a bit of that age come back in the sense of the environmental issues, which are getting important, but less in issues of sacrificing yourself for the larger community.

00:12:22 Now I think it's more an age of the individual comes first. Then it was more an age that we, as an individual, subordinate ourselves to the larger communal good.

00:12:33 IRV DRASNIN: So all of this you took back to Pakistan with you?

00:12:36 BENAZIR BHUTTO: Yes, I said, “Why can't we change our presidents?” Because I saw the power of democracy. It was really — I felt powerful. I felt my voice counted, and meantime, in Pakistan, my father had been trying to empower the ordinary Pakistanis, and telling them that they could break free of the shackles of feudalism and military-industrial complex. So when I went back, my own experience put me a bit ahead because I'd had a broader experience.

00:13:05 I'd had experience in Pakistan and in America, and I'd seen it succeed, so I went back, really, at the right time.

00:13:13 IRV DRASNIN: Did you have any doubts about what a woman could do, could accomplish, in a Muslim country?

00:13:20 BENAZIR BHUTTO: I didn't have doubts somehow. I didn’t have any doubts. Somehow the other, for me — because my father was so important. He thought a woman could succeed, and he would tell me that, "My daughter's going to make me more proud than Indira Gandhi made her father." So for me, it was, like, it's normal for daughters to go on to succeed, and then Indira Gandhi was there, and she was a very powerful leader.

00:13:42 Mrs. Bandaranaike had been there in Sri Lanka, the first woman prime minister. Then, of course, we had Fatima Jinnah, who was also a presidential candidate — unsuccessful, but a presidential candidate. So I grew up in a region full of powerful women, and I thought, "Well, if they can do it, I can do it too." But when I used to talk to others, they'd say, "You're mad. How can a woman succeed?” — not necessarily in politics, but I wanted to be a diplomat.

00:14:07 I wanted to have — run a newspaper. You know, I wanted to do things, and other people, men and women, would find that very surprising. So others doubted it. Even my own husband, when he married me. He thought I was under delusions that I could meet a — beat a military dictator. And he thought that, “When she wakes up and finds out that it's all wrong and she can't, then I'll be there to console her,” little knowing that I was the one who had to console him when I won.

00:14:37 So it was a time when people would say, "How can you think that people will elect you?" When I first got elected, I mean, they said that a woman has usurped a man's place. Said, "She should be killed. She should be assassinated. She's committed heresy." But I always felt — I mean, even when I didn’t want to go into politics — that I could become prime minister if I wanted to. I had a faith in myself, but at that stage, I didn’t want to, because I'd seen the assassination attempts on my father.

00:15:07 I'd seen the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur, Bangladesh, or maybe there was some kind of subconscious fear of what politics could bring, so I didn't want to do it. I didn't want the fear.

00:15:20 IRV DRASNIN: But the execution of your father changed that?

00:15:22 BENAZIR BHUTTO: His execution changed that, because I felt I just couldn't let his blood and the blood of all those others who had died — because the dictator hanged so many people who were supportive of him. And they were coming on the streets to have him freed, and he'd had them whiplashed or hanged. And I thought they all did so much, and he did so much, and how can we let the dictator win and let all this blood go to waste?

00:15:46 ALICE WINKLER: That decision, while prompted by the execution of her father, did not come overnight. She would spend the next decade either in prison or in exile.

00:15:57 BENAZIR BHUTTO: It came gradually. It was not a — there were two moments, let us say, when it happened. You see, one of the moments was when my father died, and I had my — before he died, I had my last meeting with him in the death cell, and he said that, "You have suffered so much." I had been in prison myself, and he said, "You're so young. You just finished your university. You came back. You had your whole life, and look at the terror under which we have lived."

00:16:21 So he said, "I set you free. Why don't you go and live in London or Paris or Switzerland or Washington — and you're well taken care of — and have some happiness, because you have seen too much suffering." And I reached out through the prison bars, and I remember grasping his hands and saying, "No, Papa. I will continue the struggle that you began for democracy." And so that was one of the points where I decided that I didn't want out. I'd stay back, but I still didn't think I'd ever be prime minister.

00:16:53 I thought my mother would be the prime minister, and that I'd work for her to be the prime minister. And that's what I did, but my mother got sick, and actually, she had lung cancer, but we didn’t know she was getting Alzheimer's. So she started behaving differently, and we thought it's because she's had this serious illness and she's reflecting on how to lead her life. And suddenly I found that since Mommy was away, the whole party was about to collapse unless I was there, so I started looking after the party at that stage.

00:17:23 And when I went back, I remember people were shouting, "Prime Minister Benazir," and suddenly it struck me that looking after means — Mommy ill — looking after means that I will be the prime minister. So it was in that sort of moment when I realized the responsibility that I had taken over could lead me all the way to an office that could govern the destiny of more than a hundred million Muslims of Pakistan.

00:17:49 ALICE WINKLER: Benazir Bhutto was elected prime minister the first time in 1988. The political ups and downs that followed are serpentine and would require a retelling of the history of modern-day Pakistan, which is, frankly, beyond the scope of this podcast. But briefly, Bhutto was dismissed by Pakistan’s president three years into her term, her government accused of corruption.

00:18:15 But her popularity grew again, and in 1993 she became prime minister for the second time. Once again, after three years in office, Bhutto was caught up in a swirl of corruption charges against her, her husband, and her government. The accusations against her were never proven. Her husband was tried and convicted and served eight years in prison, though Bhutto continued to insist he was simply the victim of politics.

00:18:46 She took their children and went into self-imposed exile, and it was during this period, in the year 2000, more precisely, that this interview with her was recorded by the Academy of Achievement. At the time, Benazir Bhutto was considering whether to return again to Pakistan to run for office. Her husband was still in prison, and she was worried about her children, who hadn’t exactly had much semblance of a normal life.

00:19:14 She said she was leaving the decision to God what was best for her and for her country, but she sounded sanguine and openly offered an assessment of her political career up until that point.

00:19:28 BENAZIR BHUTTO: When I look back on my life, I really think of the different stages when we were so raw and naïve and little realized how things were. I think back to my first tenure as prime minister, and I didn't get on with the president because he wanted to have a kind of presidential system, and I believed in the parliamentary system. But then I remember that my own president was from my party. Amount of power I gave him, and he treated me so shabbily, and I think if I’d treated the first president with half of — given him half the powers that I gave my own president, maybe he wouldn't have knocked us out and democracy could have taken stronger roots.

00:20:05 So in those terms, you know, I really look back on it. I look back also — you know, they say in politics there'll be the appointed and the disappointed, so there'll always be the critics. One has to take it. I learned that after my first election. I thought, "All I have to do is win an election, and all my critics will disappear," and, according to Barbara Cartland, we'll live happily ever after.

00:20:28 BENAZIR BHUTTO: But I realized, the day you wake up later, your critics are still around, and you still have to factor them in, and my experience has made me a more inclusive person. Not inclusive to the margins, but inclusive to those people who are — have differences with us but were still moderates. So I tried to be more inclusive. It's not easy because the other side has to respond too, but ultimately, there will be critics, but one has to do what is right, as long as the majority of people support that.

00:21:00 Building schools was right. I tried to placate even the clerics originally. I adopted a very aggressive — you know, I thought I had to prove I was as tough as a man because I was in a man's world. It was supposed to be a man's world. Now I think it's not a man's world anymore, but in those days. So because it was to be in the man's world, I also tried to be very aggressive and warmongering in my second term to try and co-opt. I am a consensus sort of person.

00:21:28 I like to win people over or co-opt or compromise, not the core of my values, but I seek the middle way, and I tried to do that. But I think, in retrospect, it was wrong, because I did not co-opt them, and I alienated some of my own supporters. Power is such a strange phenomenon that one gets isolated from the real world. People can't see you. They can't phone you. They have to go through the operator, and it's up to the operator who he puts through.

00:21:56 They can't write you because the secretary is going to read the letters and decide which ones are going to come to you. So really, one becomes a prisoner. And I used to meet my party people; I used to meet poor people in the villages, and they were all very happy because we were doing poverty alleviation and so on. But the people in the urban middle classes were very unhappy, and I realize now that I should have been out more meeting people who worked with us, or meeting people who were the representatives of organized groups.

00:22:25 The other thing I learned — in the past when I used to meet people, I used to want to tell them what we were doing. Now I’ve realized that you have to listen to people and what they are saying we ought to be doing. Even much more critical to my own life was my failure to understand that the world is moving towards transparency. I had lived through this era of military dictatorship, when the press would write all sorts of things, and it would be water off the duck's back.

00:22:52 Now I say that when there were these demands, why didn't I have the — I did say make an information act but didn't follow it through, so I wish I had given more freedom of information. I wish I had tackled the so-called corruption issues more deeply. It was a precedent, you know. We all knew kickbacks must be taken. Not personally, but on the level that, "Well, these things happen." And it wasn't like, "Well, we're here to change it." It was like, "This is how business is done."

00:23:19 So I — in retrospect, I think that it — I really would have done many things, many, many, many things differently. But then you learn from your own experiences. Like somebody told me, "How do you succeed?" and they said, "Right decisions." But how do you come to the right decisions? Well, through experience. And how do you get experience? Through wrong decisions.

00:23:38 BENAZIR BHUTTO: So you've got to make — one does make wrong — I mean, in retrospect, one is older and wiser.

00:23:45 ALICE WINKLER: Interviewer Irv Drasnin asked Benazir Bhutto whether she still felt she could be an idealist after all that had happened to her and to her country.

00:23:55 BENAZIR BHUTTO: I feel that society's like a canvas, and that if you get an office, you're given an opportunity to paint it, and it's up to you whether you make a good picture, whether you make a bad picture. I think it's very, very important to have ideals, because when one has ideals, one thinks the suffering is worth it. And, for me, the suffering has been worth it because I think I could change things, and I'm still idealistic, and I'm still optimistic, and people tell me, "Why are you still idealistic and optimistic?" And I say, "Because there could be ten people who are bad, but there are 90 people who are good."

00:24:28 ALICE WINKLER: Benazir Bhutto’s closing thoughts, haunting to hear now, were words of advice she offered to students interested in making change in the world.

00:24:38 BENAZIR BHUTTO: If a young person came to me, I'd tell them that, “If you believe in something, go for it, but know that when you go for it there's a price to be paid. Be ready to pay that price, and don't be afraid.”

00:24:51 ALICE WINKLER: Benazir Bhutto eventually did decide it was her destiny to return to Pakistan to run in the 2007 general election. Her chances of winning were considered very good, but the dangers were clear. As she left an election rally and paused to wave once more to the crowd, she was killed by a teenage gunman and suicide bomber. As of the recording of this podcast, no one has been convicted of her murder. High-up officials, including the military ruler at the time, General Pervez Musharraf, were charged, but charged with negligence for providing inadequate security when the threats against her life were well known.

00:25:37 In the intervening years, witnesses have recanted, trial motions have caused endless delays, and one of the chief prosecutors investigating her murder was himself gunned down on the way to a court hearing. It seems no one may ever be held responsible for her death.

00:25:59 BENAZIR BHUTTO: In life, there are challenges, but I think leadership is very much predicated on the capacity to absorb defeat and overcome it. Now, after having been in politics for more than two decades, I have come to the strong conclusion that the difference between somebody who succeeds and somebody who fails is the ability to absorb a setback, because on the road to success there will be setbacks, and there are those who give up and those who say that, "No, we are going to go on."

00:26:32 And then, I also — when I was in prison, I became very devout. I'm not a fundamentalist, but I am very devout. In solitary confinement, when I had nobody to turn to — see, I was brought up ritualistically religious, as everybody is. Their parents take them to church or teach them how to say their prayers, like my mother taught me, but it's all ritualistic. It was when I was in prison and everyone was cut off from me — my family, my friends, food — I even couldn't get a glass of water without having to beg somebody — nothing.

00:27:04 I had nothing. They cut — took everything away — material, physical, everything — and suddenly I realized they can take everyone away. I couldn’t read newspapers; they wouldn't give me newspapers or Time magazine. So suddenly I realized, "But they can't take God away from me." So to pass the time, I started passing it in prayer. So from that moment I realized that God is always with one, so what gave me the faith and the sustenance was my belief that God places a burden on people to bear, and He places only that burden which they can bear.

00:27:40 The second was the love of ordinary people. The love was so much that it was enriching. It gave me strength, nurturance, nourishment. Maybe I'm a needy person, maybe I need love, because why would sometimes I think, "Why would someone go on doing it?" But when I get so much love, I feel that — at the mass level — I feel I must go on. So I think that those are the two factors that really kept me going because in the worst of my moments I always had vast reservoirs of love.

00:28:19 ALICE WINKLER: Former Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto talking to the Academy of Achievement in 2000. To watch video excerpts of Benazir Bhutto telling other stories from her life and lessons in leadership, you can download the Academy of Achievement’s e-textbook Social Justice. It’s free from iTunes University. This is What It Takes. Join us for the next episode in two weeks. So a little heads up, from here on, we’ll be posting new episodes every other week, but we’re sticking with Mondays because we can all use some inspiration on Mondays.

00:28:59 I’m Alice Winkler, and tremendous thanks to the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation for funding What It Takes. See you next time.

What It Takes is a podcast of conversations with well-known people in almost every field. The interviews have been recorded over the past 25 years by the American Academy of Achievement. They offer life stories of people who have had a huge impact on the world. They offer insights you can apply to your own life.