Musharraf on the Main Line

PM in courtHe likes the ambience of Savona in Gulph Mills, enjoys the food at Alma de Cuba in Center City and Fleming's Steakhouse in St. Davids, and appreciates the views from the Water Works overlooking the Schuylkill. Craig LaBan? No, Pervez Musharraf.

Pervez Musharraf (right) in court with Raza Bokhari, who returned to Pakistan with the former president last month. (APML) 

The former (and maybe future) leader of Pakistan has become a fixture in Philadelphia in the last few years, a fact I first learned through a rather surreal encounter.

A few years after 9/11, I grew disenchanted with the way the Bush administration was pursuing Osama bin Laden, convinced that we'd placed too much responsibility in Musharraf's hands. I said so in eight columns, as well as on radio and television. Not long after Musharraf resigned the presidency in 2008, one of my neighbors invited me to dinner - with Musharraf.

I should have known that Raza Bokhari wasn't kidding. Bokhari is a medical doctor-turned-entrepreneur, a U.S. citizen who was born in Pakistan. His wife, Sabina, is a dentist who was born in India and is also an American citizen.

At the Bokharis' one Saturday night, I was seated next to Musharraf and took the opportunity to politely share with him my criticism, including that the United States had "Paki-sourced" the hunt for bin Laden. After listening patiently, Musharraf lamented that at home he is seen as a "U.S. lackey," while here he is perceived as "double-dealing." Neither, he assured me, was true.

Two days later, we sat for a formal interview in Bokhari's wine cellar. On the record, I shared my concern that we'd taken our eye off the ball. His response: "Nothing you are saying is true."

In the three years since, it has been widely reported that Musharraf has been in a self-imposed exile in Dubai and London. But the Main Line could be added to that list, given that Bokhari estimates he has hosted Musharraf no fewer than 14 times, enough that he and his wife refer to their back patio as the "Musharraf deck." "The president often mentions that it is one of the most relaxing places that he finds," Bokhari told me from Pakistan. Late last month, he accompanied Musharraf to Pakistan, seated next to him on a flight from Dubai to Karachi, while managing the former president's social media. I asked him about the mood on the plane amid the security concerns.

"Abstract" is how Bokhari summed up that experience.

"It was very difficult to describe," Bokhari said, "but I think it was in every way an exclusive opportunity or a unique opportunity to be on the sideline of history being made, notwithstanding how the final chapter would be written, but to be there with a man that has the world's attention captivated on his actions." Bokhari then accompanied Musharraf for a court appearance, where he was seeking an extension of his bail, as he still faces charges in Pakistan stemming from his time as president.

The two met in 2001, when Bokhari became the national president of the Pakistani Political Action Committee, which afforded him access to Musharraf. A fast friendship arose.

"I think it is just the majesty and humility of his persona all at the same time," Bokhari said. "He has common values; he comes from an educated, middle-class family. He is self-made. He is someone, when you meet him and you relate to him, you think that you can get inspired. You know, if he can do it, you can do it.. . . "And he has just been very affectionate toward Sabina and myself for so many years, so you feel a very special and personal bond, and we find great comfort in saying that we have become just better human beings by virtue of our association with him."

Bokhari told me that during his repeat visits to our area, Musharraf has established his own friendships with the likes of Rob McCord, the Pennsylvania treasurer; Dick Fox, the namesake of the Temple business school; Moshe Porat, the business school's dean; State Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery); and Congressman Patrick Meehan (R., Pa.).

"He has built quite a close affinity to all of them," Bokhari said.

When a Musharraf visit in 2010 coincided with our midterm elections, my wife suggested I take him when I voted. (He's the second most important person to ride in my car. One morning I drove Charlie Manuel down the Schuylkill to the ballpark.) At my quaint polling place in Lower Merion Township, we walked past yard signs for Pat Toomey, Joe Sestak, Tom Corbett, and Dan Onorato as I told him of American voter apathy and bragged that I had never missed an election. I will not forget his reply:

"You said you've always voted. Let me shock you by saying that I have never voted - except in the last eight years [while president]."

When we exited, Musharraf told me that because of the number of illiterate Pakistanis, they record ballots for symbols, not parties or individuals. He also shared that he would compete in Pakistan's 2013 election. He'd already settled on his party's symbol: a shaheen falcon.

"It flies higher than all other birds," he told me. "It doesn't fly in a flock. It is independent. It flies alone. It doesn't come back to a nest. . . . So I think it's a symbol which shows independence, which shows courage, which shows confidence."

I spoke to him again last month as he was planning his return to Pakistan. Our conversation returned to where we'd begun: the hunt for bin Laden. I asked what he would say to Americans who are suspicious that Pakistanis knew of bin Laden's whereabouts.

"I don't give it much credence at all," he replied. "The military schools are not at all security-oriented. They have their own security inside, but they are not looking at these elements. Abbottabad is entirely recruit training, soldier training, and officer training. They are not security-oriented, so I don't blame them.. . .

"I know that after the killing of Osama, all TV channels in Pakistan [were] asking people whether they knew who was living in this house. Not one person said that we knew Osama bin Laden is inside. . . . So I don't think it's, it's just a simple case of - not a simple case, it's a very serious case - of negligence, but not of complicity."

Musharraf is no shoe-in for his old job. But if things don't work out, given how much time he's spent here, he can add his name to the long list seeking Allyson Schwartz's congressional seat.

Follow Michael Smerconish on Twitter @Smerconish, or at  ;id=201703711&viewAll=y#more