Memories of Albright: A legacy of bluntness and conviction

The last full working day of Bill Clinton’s presidency ended with a dreary Washington winter afternoon. Wind-swept rain and sleet pounded on the windows of Madeleine Albright’s seventh-floor office at the State Department, obscuring her usually clear view of the Lincoln Memorial.

Next door, in the office of her chief of staff, Albright had joined a small group to commemorate the end of her term as America’s first female secretary of state and her time as the highest-ranking woman in the history of the U.S. government.

Eyes were only partially on the television in the room that was tuned to a replay of Albright’s final television appearance as a government official: on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” which had been taped several days earlier in Chicago.

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EDITOR’S NOTE — Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright died Wednesday of cancer. AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee knew Albright not only as America’s top diplomat, but also as a professor of his at Georgetown University.

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A bottle of obscure liquor — a gift to her from some foreign leader — was cracked open as stories were told, many about her historic trip to North Korea a few months earlier, some about her epic travel pace, her predilection for exotic shopping, but also the bitter fight over the 2000 presidential election that had just ended in a controversial Supreme Court decision that would bring George W. Bush to the White House in just three days.

Albright was a lifelong Democrat who had famously forsworn partisan politics during her four years as America’s top diplomat but had been increasingly frustrated by the nasty tone of the election dispute between Bush and his Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore. I mentioned that the weather didn’t look great for the upcoming inauguration and she looked out the rain-spattered windows and remarked with a wry smile: “I hope it rains on those f – – – – – s’ parade.”

The remark was jolting because it was so unlike the Albright that I had known. She often said that she had had her “political instincts surgically removed” when she became secretary of state. I had covered her for nearly three years as a State Department reporter for the French news agency AFP, and, while most people including the traveling press corps, knew well her political leanings, she had striven to mask them and was unfailingly polite to Democrats and Republicans alike.

I had certainly never heard her use such coarse language. Not in off-the-record encounters during her frenzied travels to locales that former secretaries of state had never ventured to — Kano in northern Nigeria; Samarkand and Bukhara in Uzbekistan and perhaps most famously Pyongyang, North Korea, to name just a few. And not ever in lectures or other events of hers that I attended a decade earlier at Georgetown University, where she had been a professor of mine at the School of Foreign Service.

The closest anyone could recall was when she castigated the Cuban government at the United Nations for shooting down a civilian Brothers to the Rescue plane by saying it hadn’t been “cojones” but rather “cowardice.” Or her studied and stern visage of annoyance, anger and aggravation when she learned that Clinton had lied when he swore to her that he had not had an inappropriate relationship with a White House intern.

Her rare political comments were almost always tame in nature. Albright once recalled asking one of her diplomat father’s most gifted students at the University of Denver to serve as a foreign policy adviser on a Democratic campaign. “But Madeleine, I’m a Republican,” she said Condoleezza Rice had replied. Four years after Albright left government, Rice became the second female secretary of state and the first Black woman to hold the office.

Madeleine Albright was a woman of conviction and determination who liked to say she told things like they were and not the way she might like them to be. She often punctuated her otherwise conservative attire with a fancy brooch, often picked to send a message to her interlocutors. They ranged from the mundane to the menacing — including one of a snake.

Having fled eastern Europe from the horrors of the Nazi era and subsequent Soviet suppression, she abhorred dictators and authoritarianism. And yet, she met with some of the worst. Syria’s Hafez al-Assad, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, Sierra Leone rebel leader Foday Sankoh and others can all be found in her appointment books. She liked to say that America was “THE indispensable nation” as she lobbied for more support for U.S. diplomacy at home and abroad.

She believed in the promise of the United States and as the glass-ceiling-breaking first woman to run the State Department tried tirelessly to change the “pale, male, Yale” culture of the foreign service. She championed the creation of a U.S.-led “Community of Democracies” to promote greater global respect for human rights and freedom even when some of America’s closest allies, notably France, sneered at the idea.

Once, in the middle of a Clinton state visit to India, Albright broke off from the trip in Delhi to fly nearly 12 hours to Geneva, Switzerland, with a refueling stop in Crete, to deliver a 15-minute speech excoriating China’s human rights record before what was then known as the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Having made her case, she turned around and flew back to India, rejoining the presidential visit in Mumbai.

Albright drew criticism in left-wing and humanitarian circles for her support of punishing sanctions imposed on Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s rule, telling an interviewer once that the humanitarian suffering that many blamed on the sanctions had been an unfortunate but unavoidable side effect of implementing U.S. policy. “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it,” she said in comments that remain anathema.

Yet, her active participation in several Mideast peace attempts — both between Israel and the Palestinians at Camp David and between Israel and Syria in Shepherdstown, West Virginia — and her mission to North Korea led others to believe she might be too willing to negotiate.

From running after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in a Parisian driveway to stop him from walking out of peace talks to listening to Assad rant for hours about Syria’s rightful place in the region and admiring a surreal mass gymnastics performance beside Kim Jong Il in a packed Pyongyang stadium, Albright was never embarrassed or afraid to take diplomacy to the limits.

None of those efforts would result in success, but Albright was convinced they had value and was determined to keep trying. After the failure of Camp David, for instance, Albright sought until the very end of the Clinton administration to keep Israeli-Palestinian peace talks alive.

And there was Kosovo. She was such a strong advocate for NATO’s intervention in the conflict, some called it “Madeleine’s War.”

She was was greeted as a hero by thousands of Kosovars when she visited a refugee camp in neighboring Macedonia during the war. Chants of “Al-bright!” “Al-bright!” sprang up spontaneously when her presence became known.

Later, signs appeared saying “Our future is All Bright.”

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EDITOR’S NOTE — AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee has been covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs since 1999.

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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