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I Look Pretty Good
in a Stetson
The gospel-rock voices of the Knights for Christ Singers swelled through the hall. The audience clapped and swayed. And then the Reverend Lewis M. Anthony, smartly turned out in a cherry-red suit with matching derby hat, stepped forward to present the guest of honor, "the baddest thing this side of heaven"—Madeleine K. Albright, the secretary of state, emissary to the world of the United States of America.
The setting was not some inner-city church but the Dean Acheson auditorium in the stuffy State Department headquarters building in Washington. Albright, just back from a grueling round-the-world trip, was celebrating Black History Month with rank-and-file employees.
Welcomed by a standing ovation from the mostly black crowd, Albright joined them and the beaming Anthony in belting out "Lift Every Voice in Song," the harmonies spilling out into the normally hushed corridors. At its conclusion, Albright took the microphone to make a promise: She would not sing solo. "I've been called many names since I was named secretary of state," she said. "To my regret, Aretha was not one of them."
This allusion to the popular African-American singer Aretha Franklin, delivered as an inside joke between cultural soulmates, drew laughter and more applause from the delighted workers. Career employees of the State Department, they had never heard any secretary of state speak to them this way. And that was the idea. Madeleine Albright wanted it known that she was as different from her predecessors as a pink skirt is from a pinstriped suit. Hurricane Madeleine was blowing through the decorous halls of diplomacy, which would never be the same.
* * *
Madeleine Korbel Albright was in the right place at the right time.
When President Bill Clinton selected her in December 1996 to be secretary of state in his second term, political Washington and the American media were hungry for a new star. The United States was prosperous and secure, but inside the Beltway there was a celebrity vacuum. In the capital's fickle culture of transient acclaim, the novelty of Bill and Hillary Clinton and their Arkansas cronies had long since worn off. Newt Gingrich, the hot ticket of the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives two years earlier, had been diminished by miscalculation and scandal. Colin Powell had taken himself off the screen. General Norman Schwarzkopf was history; so was Ross Perot. Bob Dole, thrashed by Clinton in the 1996 election, was making television commercials. Vice President Al Gore was boring. Ron Brown was dead. Monica Lewinsky had not yet surfaced. Who was there to get excited about?
Then Clinton nominated Albright, who was permanent representative, or ambassador, to the United Nations in his first term. She would be the first female secretary of state in the nation's history and the highest-ranking woman ever to serve in the executive branch of government. It was the perfect moment for the tough-talking, wisecracking former Georgetown University professor to command the stage, and she was ready. She sought the job and accepted it eagerly, making no pretense of reluctance and offering no sham modesty about her credentials. She loves being a celebrity, and she understood from the start that personal fame and popularity could be effective levers in negotiations with Congress and with foreign leaders. Unlike the monochromatic Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court, Albright appeared all over town—and all over the television screen—in bright suits and eye-catching jewelry. She craved acclaim and embraced it without embarrassment. Instantly, she became a magazine cover celebrity and a household name; the afternoon after Clinton announced her appointment, passengers on an Amtrak train taking her back to her job at the United Nations in New York cheered and applauded, asking for autographs as she worked her way through the cars.
Political Washington, including Republicans in Congress who invited her to visit their districts, embraced her. Newsweek and Vogue published admiring profiles. She appeared on 60 Minutes and Larry King Live. Dignitaries from overseas praised her and sought her attention. The Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt gushed over her "abundance of smarts, charm, toughness, and political prowess." Schoolgirls wrote her touching letters.
Albright was recognized everywhere she went and was ogled as though she were a show-business celebrity.
When she went to the ladies' room at the Washington Hilton Hotel during the annual White House correspondents' dinner, other women inside—tourists and hotel guests—pulled cameras out of their purses and snapped her picture. In Milwaukee, she got a standing ovation from workers at a Harley-Davidson motorcycle engine factory, whom she buttered up with remarks about the "land of the cheeseheads," in reference to Green Bay Packers fans who wear hats shaped like wedges of cheese. Vanity Fair put her at the top of its list of the 200 most influential women in America, ahead of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Tipper Gore, the women on the U.S. Supreme Court, Janet Reno, Martha Stewart, and Katie Couric. "Albright battles superbly in velvet gloves," the magazine burbled. Even after she had been in office two years and the early raves were inevitably being soured by criticism as troubles mounted overseas, she rated an admiring cover profile in the Gannett newspaper chain's Sunday supplement, which saluted her as "The Most Powerful Woman in the World."
Guests at the Laromme Hotel in Jerusalem found in their rooms a photograph of Albright with the hotel's public relations manager, Anat-Adi Atis, with this comment: "It's wonderful to experience the promotion of women in the hotel industry. It always makes me proud to welcome those women who really make a difference in world, like Madeleine Albright."
The owner of an art gallery in Philadelphia, struck by Albright's habit of wearing pins and brooches appropriate to the diplomatic theme of the day—such as the dove of peace she wore in Israel—invited jewelry designers around the word to create pins in tribute to Albright. (One of them, by the American designer Daniel Jocz, depicted a fist striking a distorted face, celebrating Albright as "a person able to deliver the ultimate punch in negotiations." Another, by designer Merrily Tompkins, was presented as "a brooch for Madeleine Albright to wear when she visits people who condone the practice of female genital mutilation.") The collection, assembled in a show called "Brooching It Diplomatically: A Tribute to Madeleine K. Albright," toured museums in Belgium, Estonia, and Finland as well as the United States.
In Vancouver, Washington, 5,000 people, half of them students, packed a high school gym to hear her speak, and gave her a foot-pounding welcome worthy of a rock star. They cheered enthusiastically when Mayor Royce Pollard introduced her as "a wonderful example of the very best in public service." Teenagers scrambled across rows of seats to get in position to snap her picture.
When six girls there interviewed Albright for the high school newspaper, she wowed them with what she called the most important advice she could give to young women trying to make their way in a competitive world: "Interrupt!"—that is, don't wait for men to solicit your input. She said she learned that lesson while teaching at Georgetown, where she instituted a no-handraising rule. If students were told to raise their hands before speaking, she said, the women tended to do so, politely waiting to be recognized, whereas the men would speak right up.
Albright had been telling that story for years, but the young interviewers had no way of knowing that; it was all new to them. Their breathless account of the encounter ended with these words: "The Albright interview was an event which will always be remembered by those who participated. The group's opinion was summed up by [Liz] Harper in just four words: `What an amazing woman!'" The headline called it "The Interview of a Lifetime."
Albright was elected to the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, even though, as she said at her induction ceremony, she could not "sing like Ella Fitzgerald, write like Emily Dickinson, act like Helen Hayes, or shoot like Annie Oakley." Surrounded by admiring women, she hailed the "courage, vision, and brilliance of our foremothers" in building the nation. It was Albright in her favorite role as woman and real person, showing the folks out there in America that she was not one of those self-important Washington policy wonks.
Unlike her reserved predecessor, Warren Christopher, Albright is often seen at social and theatrical events and is happy to make small talk—about gardening, children, fashion, journalism, food, whatever comes up. (I once found myself seated next to her at a dinner in Cape Town, South Africa, engaged with her and one of her assistant secretaries of state, who had just had a baby, in a discussion of whether fathers should be present in hospital delivery rooms. Albright naturally agreed that they should. On another occasion, at a trendy Asian restaurant in Seattle, she treated me to delicious, nasty gossip about a prominent hostess whom we both dislike.)
On her worldwide travels, Albright was a star and was treated like one. The only time I saw her come in second in the crowd-appeal sweepstakes was while shopping in a mall in Cape Town. She was upstaged by two other shoppers, Andre Agassi, the tennis star who was playing in a tournament there, and the actress Brooke Shields, who was then his wife.
The acclaim couldn't last, of course. Washington's fascination with celebrities is balanced by a culture of cynicism that turns on everyone sooner or later. The more adulation accorded a new star in the beginning, it seems, the more intense the disillusionment and criticism that follow; the higher the profile, the more visible and inviting the target, and nobody in Washington other than the president had a higher profile than Albright.
Albright's modern predecessors were all white men in suits, and except for Henry Kissinger their personal styles and idiosyncrasies varied only within a predictable range. Christopher, William Rogers, Cyrus Vance, Dean Rusk, Christian Herter, all spoke guardedly and played by well-known, if unwritten, rules. Albright's relative openness and flamboyance set her apart from them as much as her gender did. At first these traits were an asset, boosting her popularity with Congress and the public. But as time passed and the novelty wore off, they would become liabilities, too. Kissinger was one of the few public figures in Washington who could be voluble and still appear profound, but that was because he was duplicitous as well as brilliant. Albright is neither. She is smart and relatively straightforward, but in Washington, the more an official talks, the harder it is for that official to be perceived as deep. As time went on and trouble erupted around the world, Albright would increasingly find the currency of her word devalued by overuse and the novelty of her style diminished to some extent by its irrelevance. Her determination to be up front with the public resulted in overexposure, fostering the impression that the real foreign policy director in the administration was the much less visible, much more circumspect White House national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, known as Sandy.
There is no specific list of qualifications required to become secretary of state. Albright's predecessors included lawyers, generals, professional diplomats, bankers, scholars, senators, and political intriguers. Other than the fact that they were all white men, they had little in common. Still, to those who knew Albright only from her résumé, she might have seemed an unlikely choice as the nation's chief diplomat and foreign policy steward. At the age of fifty-nine, she had never held or even run for elective office, never managed a major organization, never as an adult worked for a profit-making enterprise, and, like the vast majority of American women her age, never served in the military. She had never been in the diplomatic service. She was thirty-nine years old before she secured her first full-time paying job. She had good but not brilliant scholarly credentials. As a refugee from communism and an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, she was well versed in European issues but knew relatively little about Asia or Latin America, or about international economic matters. She lacked the personal relationship with the president that James A. Baker III had had with George Bush. Her greatest assets were a commitment to hard work, a worldwide network of connections, and a deep affection for what she often called "this amazing country," the United States.
On another level Albright was the obvious choice. As permanent representative to the United Nations in Clinton's first term, she held cabinet rank, keeping an office at the State Department and participating in the administration's highest-level foreign policy deliberations. She built a reputation as a vigorous advocate of American global interests, blunt to the point of rudeness in her argumentation, effective and politically well tuned in her public appearances.
She had the support of women's groups and of the most influential American woman of all, the president's wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had enjoyed Albright's company on a trip to the Czech Republic earlier in 1996. Albright spoke five languages. And she knew Washington inside and out; unlike election-campaign insiders who are rewarded with prominent jobs only to founder in Washington's peculiar culture, Albright understood that culture and would use it to her advantage. Nor was she one of those aggressive status seekers who arrive in Washington with every administration hoping to use a prominent position in government to advance their political or business careers. To be secretary of state was itself the summit of Albright's aspirations.
"Let me say I'm very proud to have had the opportunity to appoint the first woman secretary of state in the history of America," Clinton said as he announced her selection. "I'm proud of that. But it had nothing to do with her getting the job, one way or the other. She got the job because I believe, amid a list of truly outstanding people, she had the best combination of qualities to succeed and to serve our country at this moment in history."
That was not the whole truth; it sounded a bit like George Bush insisting that he had selected Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court because he was the best person in the country for the job. There had in fact been a vigorous campaign by women's groups to support Albright for the post over high-profile male rivals. Nevertheless, it was true that Albright had legitimate credentials.
Before her prominence at the United Nations made her a public figure, Albright was the classic Washington insider, well connected on Capitol Hill, in academic circles, and in the Democratic party. Washington is like a big company town in which the product is not steel or chemicals but ideas and influence; the assembly lines run through congressional offices, trade associations, law firms, classrooms, political caucuses, and the news media, and the producers all know each other. Albright had been at home in that environment for two decades.
As director of the Women in Foreign Service program at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, she had developed a network of women in diplomacy and academia who supported her candidacy for the job of secretary of state.
Even while serving at the United Nations in New York, she kept her home in the capital's tony Georgetown neighborhood and an office in the gloomy State Department building near the Lincoln Memorial. For years she had presided over dinners at her home at which foreign policy specialists met for conversation and connections. People tend to like her; she is an engaging dinner companion and a witty observer of life's peculiarities. Her credentials as an insider were part of the reason Clinton found her interesting when they first met during the ill-fated 1988 presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis.
Most people who achieve prominence within this Washington culture remain virtually unknown to the rest of the country. They become assistant secretaries of state, or directors of study programs at organizations such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or staff directors for influential congressional committees, or partners in well-regarded law firms. If their field of interest is foreign policy, they are probably members of the Council on Foreign Relations, which Clinton joined after the Dukakis campaign with Albright as his sponsor for membership. They may work for famous bosses, but outside the Beltway they are usually as anonymous as the colonels who carried out the orders of Powell and Schwarzkopf during the Persian Gulf War.
With her appointment as secretary of state, Albright was immediately propelled to an international prominence that most of her peers in this inner circle could never imagine attaining, a prominence enhanced by the fact that she was a woman, a single mother, a refugee, and an immigrant with a dramatic personal history that was politically irresistible.
By the time Albright was appointed, women had already served in cabinets; Franklin D. Roosevelt had selected the first one, Frances Perkins, more than half a century earlier. But Albright seemed to capture the public's imagination more than any of her female predecessors for two reasons: The story of her life epitomized many of the things Americans like best about their country, including the opportunity to rise to power from immigrant penury; and she so conspicuously relished being a woman, flaunting colorful outfits, big jewelry, audacious hats, and jokes about motherhood.
"It used to be that the only way a woman could truly make her foreign policy views felt was by marrying a diplomat and then pouring tea on an offending ambassador's lap," Albright said in an address to the Women's Foreign Policy Group in Washington shortly after Clinton's reelection, when she was conducting an undeclared campaign to be named secretary of state. "Today women are engaged in every facet of global affairs, from policymaking to dealmaking, from arms control to trade, from the courtroom of the War Crimes Tribunal to the far-flung operations of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Even in the U.N. Security Council, there is, thanks to President Clinton, one skirt to balance the fourteen suits. I like to think that is just about even odds."
At the time of that speech, Albright was competing for the top State job against several prominent men, including George Mitchell, the former majority leader of the Senate, and Richard Holbrooke, a former assistant secretary of state who had presided over the negotiations in Dayton, Ohio, that had ended the war in Bosnia. Clinton liked Albright and admired her performance at the United Nations, but Vice President Gore and others in the president's inner circle favored Holbrooke. What put Albright over the top was the energetic support of influential women, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, and Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman nominated for vice president by a major political party.
When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee met on January 8, 1997, to consider whether to confirm Albright's nomination, the members heard first from her predecessor, Warren Christopher. Evoking her past as a refugee, he told the committee that "Ambassador Albright's entire life has prepared her to be our chief diplomat" because it reflected the history and ideals of the nation she would represent.
"Her family twice took refuge from totalitarianism," Christopher said, "first from Hitler and later from Stalin. Her childhood taught her that freedom can never be taken for granted and that American leadership is always critical to the defense of liberty. Throughout her career, she has applied those lessons to the benefit of the United States and of the world as a whole."
The life Christopher was talking about began on May 15, 1937, in Czechoslovakia, where her father, Josef Korbel, was a member of his country's diplomatic corps. The family fled to London when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938, an event that began a decade of fear and turbulence for the family. After World War II, during a brief interlude of democratic government in Czechoslovakia, Josef Korbel was posted to Belgrade, Yugoslavia, as ambassador, while Albright was sent to a boarding school in Switzerland, where she learned French to go with the Czech and English she already spoke.
The communist coup of 1948 dragged Czechoslovakia behind the Iron Curtain and put an end to Korbel's career as a representative of its government. He, his wife, and their three children made their way to the United States the following year and were granted asylum as displaced persons. Eventually they settled in Colorado, where Ambassador Korbel became dean of the School of International Affairs at the University of Denver.
Excerpted from Madeleine Albright and the New American Diplomacy by THOMAS W. LIPPMAN. Copyright © 2000 by Thomas W. Lippman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|1||I Look Pretty Good in a Stetson||1|
|2||They Can Call Me Madeleine||37|
|3||A Marine Corps Kind of Girl||89|
|4||I Was Queen of the May||130|
|5||We Stand Ready for a Dialogue||172|
|6||I Somehow Lost My Instincts||186|
|7||We Did Not Blow It||211|
|8||We Will Prevail||243|
|9||This Is What People Care About||272|
|10||Freedom Is America's Purpose||309|