Fresh from an ill-fated entanglement with a Las Vegas cocktail waitress, George Clooney, Hollywood's Armani-suited Renaissance Man-on-call, is reported to have fallen for 26-year-old Fatima Bhutto, the new star of Pakistan's greatest political dynasty. Across the sub-continent the excitement spread like Valentine's Weekend wildfire. And why not? George is radical, Fatima is chic. It has to work out this time.
For while George has been the subject of more Random Couple Alerts than almost anyone else in showbusiness, the signs are unmistakable that, at 47, greying, childless and possibly losing his vogue, he is ready to settle down. He has done all the liberal cause-mongering an actor of his stature could reasonably do, and with his hero Obama safely in the White House ("the best candidate there has ever been," he said), it was time to turn his attention to international affairs.
Nowhere could they be stickier than in Pakistan, where Fatima, niece of the assassinated former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, enjoys a reputation as the smartest and most glamorous of her extended, perma-feuding clan. The pair are said to have met last year at a conference (George goes to them in his capacity as a United Nations Messenger of Peace, Fatima as a journalist) and agreed to keep in touch. When he broke up with shapely waitress Sarah Larson, 30, late last summer, his interest in Fatima apparently began to grow.
"He's still out there with his usual assortment of Hollywood eye-candy hanging from his arm," claimed the American magazine which first reported the romance, "but George insists those days could be coming to an end if Fatima wants to take their relationship to the next level and spend some serious time with him in the US."
Beauteous she may be, but Ms Bhutto lacks little by way of seriousness. Her family name goes hand-in-hand with the turbulent politics and violent, 60-year fashioning of Pakistan, and with the country writhing in a state of crisis – riven by religious fundamentalism, awash with factionalism and corruption and beset by economic collapse – the clamour for her to stand for office is growing. While she has resisted the pressure so far – saying that she doesn't believe in "birthright politics" – nobody pretends that any Bhutto of sufficient brains and class can stay out for ever, and it is widely expected that she will contest Benazir's old seat, in the family fiefdom of Larkana, north of Karachi, in the next general election. While such a move is guaranteed to unleash the colourful and uproarious celebrations that traditionally accompany the entry of a new family member into the fray, it will do little to answer the questions of what actually Fatima stands for, and whether, given Pakistan's fabulous record of failure, it will make any difference.
Until now she has made her name largely as a newspaper columnist for forthright, if stodgy, opinion and as the author of two books of poetry. Educated in New York and London, equally at home in the cultures of the East and West, her celebrity has grown to the point where she causes a stir wherever she surfaces. Attracted by her good looks and glossy aura, a film producer recently offered her a part in a big-budget Bollywood musical, but she backed-off. The Bhutto brand, she sensibly reasoned, will only stretch so far.
What can be said for certain is that Fatima's life to date has been shaped by tragedy, particularly the 1996 killing of her father, Murtaza, Benazir's younger brother. Like almost everything that happens within or around the wealthy Bhutto dynasty, Murtaza's death remains rich in intrigue, and from it has flowed much of the suspicion and bitterness that now characterise family relationships.
Murtaza came to prominence when his father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's prime minister from 1973-1977, was arrested and sentenced to death by the country's military dictator, General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq. The aim of the execution was to put an emphatic end to the Bhuttos' influence on national life, but its effect was to radicalise the family's followers, and Murtaza, with his brother, Shahnawaz, having fled abroad, embarked on a campaign of violent reprisals. While living in exile in Kabul, Afghanistan, Murtaza married a local woman, and in May 1982, Fatima, their only child, was born. The marriage did not last, and Bhutto whisked his baby away, first to Tripoli, then France and later Damascus. Thus she grew up, effectively stateless, always on the move, and constantly menaced by the pursuing agents of Pakistan's security forces. In Syria, Murtaza fell in love with Ghinwa Itoui, a Lebanese ballet teacher, whom Fatima considers to be her real mother and political mentor. For all the complications and privations of life on the run, it is clear, too, that she worshipped her father, "a wonderful man" she says, and continues to cherish his controversial legacy.
In 1993, with Zia gone, and Benazir newly-elected as prime minister, Murtaza returned home to wild celebrations. Yet any hopes that the country would enter into a benign Bhutto-ruled period of constructive calm were shattered as brother and sister clashed over the sharing of power, and, particularly, the role of Benazir's ambitious but much-distrusted husband Asif Ali Zardari, today the country's president.
Three years later, after returning to his home in Karachi, Murtaza was shot dead in a confrontation with police. The circumstances remain disputed – the police say Bhutto's bodyguards pulled guns on them, survivors of the entourage say it was a straight rub-out – but the result was a rift between Benazir and her niece, that lasted until the older woman's own violent death in December 2007.
A few months earlier, when Benazir returned to Pakistan after many years of exile in London, Fatima had indignantly written: "Ms Bhutto's political posturing is pure pantomime… I am suspicious of her talk of securing peace. My father, a vocal critic of her policies, was killed in a carefully planned police assassination while she was prime minister."
It was only with the shock of Benazir's death that Fatima showed a glimmer of forgiveness. "My aunt and I had a complicated relationship," she wrote in her weekly column. "That is the sad truth. In death there is, perhaps, a moment to call for calm. To say, enough, we cannot take this madness any more."
Today the Bhuttos, in so far as their schisms will allow, are regrouping. The country's myriad problems present, if nothing else, an opportunity, and most observers believe Fatima is listening to the mood music, and waiting for the right moment to make a move.
Which is, more or less, George's technique. The tastefully-tanned smoothy, oozing concern for the earth's poor and downtrodden – albeit from his magnificent villa on Italy's Lake Como – is the kind of asset any Third World presidential aspirant could use. He has expressed his belief in love at first sight, but, as we know, Pakistan is a tough place for foreign born political consorts, and George will need to think carefully before he signs up to a new role as this year's answer to Jemima Khan.