Bhutto's Warm Smile

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Benazir Bhutto in a photograph taken when she was a student at Oxford.

Correction appended: December 31, 2007

The most striking characteristic of Benazir Bhutto, back when she was a student in the 1970s, was the contrast between the intensity of her eyes and the warmth of her very large smile. It was one of countless contrasts that she embodied. She tended to wear blue jeans and baggy sweatshirts, fitting in with the dress code of the day, but she told me she dressed that way (never shorts, skirts, or t-shirts) also because it honored the Muslim custom of covering her body as a woman. Another contrast was between her nickname Pinky — she even typed some of her essays on pink paper — and her serious personality.

When I first met her at Harvard, her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had not yet been elected to office. Still, she stood out as a powerful figure in the dining hall of Elliot House, where she lived, and she displayed a passion for international politics that went beyond the antiwar rhetoric that passed for political discourse in those days. Later at Oxford, where we both ended up as grad students, she became even more intensely political. The summit of student politics there is the presidency of the Oxford Union, the venerable debating society, and she viewed it as her mission to become the first Asian woman in that post. She lost her first campaign for the post, but in early 1977, just before her father was deposed, she won the job on her second try.

Benazir Bhutto navigated through personal as well as political turmoils that were far more intense than most of us can imagine. Over the years, on those rare occasions when we’d meet and reminisce, I’d notice how the features of her face had hardened a bit, as had the intensity of her stare when she talked to you. But she never lost the warmth in that very big smile.

Walter Isaacson, TIME's Managing Editor from 1996 to 2000, is now the President and CEO of The Aspen Institute.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Bhutto's election to the presidency of the Oxford Union happened after her father was overthrown.