On a Friday evening in May, I had the tremendous opportunity to moderate an interview with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Her candor on all things big and small is part of what makes her one of the greatest leaders of our nation.
Albright was born in Czechoslovakia just before the start of World War II. She spent the war years in London, as her father continued to work for the Czech government in exile. When her family returned to Czechoslovakia, her father became the ambassador to then-communist Yugoslavia. She attended boarding school in Switzerland, learning French and advancing her education away from communism. At the age of 11, she came to America when her father defected and requested political asylum. These early years formed her perspective on the world back then and today.
I just wanted to be an American. I became a citizen in between my sophomore and junior year at Wellesley. I really do call myself a grateful American.
The thing I like to do most of all is to give people their naturalization certificates. I gave this man his naturalization certificate and he walks away and he says, “Can you believe it? I’m a refugee and I just got my naturalization certificate from the Secretary of State!” And I went up to him and I said “Can you believe a refugee IS Secretary of State?!”
Secretary Albright was serving as the US Ambassador to the United Nations when she received President Clinton’s call. Upon acceptance, she became the first woman and highest-ranking woman in our nation’s history. Her nomination was confirmed by a unanimous 99 to 0 vote.
Somebody said a woman couldn’t be Secretary of State because the Arabs wouldn’t deal with a woman. The Arab ambassadors said we have no problem dealing with Ambassador Albright and we wouldn’t have a problem dealing with Secretary Albright.
My youngest granddaughter when she was eight, about seven years ago said, “So what’s the big deal about Grandma Maddie being Secretary of State? Only girls are Secretary of State.” She had only experienced Condi and Hillary.
Secretary Albright is well known for the pins she wears to embellish her attire. She began to wear pins to define good days and bad days, and ambassadors would take notice. Whenever she spoke about Iraq, she wore a snake pin because Saddam Hussein compared her to an “unparalleled serpent.”
Making a (Subtle) Statement
When I became Secretary, the Russians were bugging the state department. The next time I met Foreign Minister Primakov, I wore this huge bug and he knew exactly what it meant.
She also proudly wears an antique gold eagle pin, which she considers the symbol of her service as Secretary of State, and has created an exhibit of her pins because they tell the stories of foreign policy.
I love foreign policy and I love to talk about it and I like to make it less boring for people because what it is are the relationships between people and countries.
I’m most proud of what we did in Kosovo. Because we needed to stop the ethnic cleansing. What I regret was that the job was never finished. Diplomacy and statecraft take time. Americans are the most generous people in the world but with the shortest attention span.
Secretary Albright doesn’t like the word tolerance; she believes it suggests a “putting up with…” rather than actually resolving conflict. She prefers “respectful, civil conversations.”
Her Best Advice
Find solutions that don’t lead you down the path of hatred and revenge. It’s not easy.
See something, say something… and then do something. Either run for office ourselves or support the people that are running for office.
In 2018, Secretary Albright released a book, Fascism: A Warning. It is rooted in history and shows us how we’ve gotten to a place where we need the warning. When people read it, they say it scares them. She says, “Good. It should.” Fascism: A Warning, by Madeleine Albright