Madeleine Albright

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
April 25 1999 3:30 AM

Madeleine Albright

The diplomat who mistook her life story for statecraft.

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The last few publishing seasons have produced a stream of books about the major figures of postwar American foreign policy: James Chace on Dean Acheson; Kai Bird on McGeorge and William Bundy; William Bundy on Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger; Henry Kissinger on himself, to name a few. These books are all works of diplomatic history, thick with policy analysis, institutional boilerplate, and unabashed second-guessing. They focus, as one might expect, on the big issues--containment, détente, China, Vietnam--and on the day-to-day contingencies of democratic politics and imperial diplomacy. Personality is for the most part an analytic construct, of interest only to the extent that it can help in the understanding of historical events.

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The two new biographies of Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright do the opposite, using historical events to explain the personality of their subject. Ann Blackman and Michael Dobbs, the authors, respectively, of Seasons of Her Life: A Biography of Madeleine Korbel Albright and Madeleine Albright: A Twentieth-Century Odyssey, are both accomplished Washington journalists and experienced foreign correspondents. But, for all the light they shed on the substance and conduct of U.S. foreign policy, they might as well be writing for the style pages. "Madeleine's story can be read as a personalized version of the twentieth century," announces Dobbs, the Washington Post reporter who first broke the story of Albright's Jewish background.

Blackman, a writer for Time who has served as both Washington bureau chief and Moscow correspondent, sketches a virtually identical biography, but her view of Albright is more personalized. "Albright's greatest appeal," she declares, "is that she is just like us, only wealthier. She has had bad hair days and skirts with spots, runs in her stockings, a dog that was skunked. ... Americans see her as vulnerable, a wife rejected, a single mother who went back to work, prevailed, and raised good kids."

Continuing in this vein, Blackman titles her last chapter--about the first year or so of Albright's tenure as the most visible diplomat in the world--"Celebrity." Undoubtedly, Madeleine Albright is a "celebrity," a word one would hesitate to apply to Warren Christopher, Cyrus Vance, or Dean Rusk. Of her predecessors, only Kissinger exercised a comparable hold over the public imagination, but he achieved it by exploiting the drama and mystique of his diplomatic undertakings. Albright's celebrity is less a matter of what she has done than of who she is: a candid, funny, and appealing woman with a life story rich in human interest and historical resonance. She has also received the star treatment usually accorded pioneers of diversity. As the first woman in charge of a department that traditionally combines gentleman's-club exclusivity with macho bluster, she has figured out how to present herself to the public, to the media, and to other world leaders without the benefit of role models.

She has, for the most part, succeeded brilliantly, becoming the most popular and visible member of Clinton's second-term Cabinet. According to an anonymous State Department official quoted in the Washington Post, "Madeleine Albright, more than anyone else in this administration, is driven by her own biography." And she has used her life story--even those aspects of it that apparently took her by surprise--in the service both of her public image and of the policies she advocates. Her status as an American who fled both Hitler and Stalin gives Albright a certain moral authority, just as her success, against long odds, as a woman in a man's world makes her an appealing figure. But the foreign policy of the world's superpower cannot be explained by--and should not be based upon--the life experience of a single person, no matter how tough, charming, or admirable they might be. Albright's biographers offer an inspiring narrative of how she succeeded in becoming secretary of state, but they offer scant grounds for evaluating what has happened since. And neither, so far, has she.

Albright was born Marie Jana Korbelova (Madeleine is the anglicized form of Madlenka, her childhood nickname) in Prague in 1937, the eldest child of Josef Korbel, a diplomat, and Mandula Spiegel. Though Josef's birth certificate declared him "Jewish and legitimate," he habitually wrote "no confession" on official forms that asked him his religion. His assimilation, like that of many Czechoslovakian Jews between the wars, seems to have been motivated by a combination of fear, ambition, and patriotism. Before the Nazis erased his country from the map, Korbel served as an attaché to its Belgrade embassy. During the war, the Korbels fled to England. Many of their relatives, including Madeleine's grandparents on both sides, died in the concentration camps. Korbel returned to Prague, and then to Belgrade, to serve his government in the brief period between liberation from the Germans and the Communist coup of 1948. The family ended up in Denver, where Josef was a revered professor of international relations until his retirement in 1969. Madeleine and her sister and brother were raised as Roman Catholics; no mention was ever made of the Korbels' Jewish origins. Until Dobbs confronted her with evidence of her ancestry and of the deaths of her relatives in the Holocaust, Albright seems to have lived in a state of willed ignorance, declining to challenge her parents' account of the past.

If Albright's childhood is marked by the catastrophes of 20th-century European history, her early adulthood unfolded amid the complacencies of the American '50s. She attended Wellesley on a partial scholarship, and soon after graduation she married Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, scion of two prominent newspaper families. As she raised their three daughters and moved from Washington to Long Island and back in the service of her husband's rather lackluster career in journalism, Albright inched her way toward a Ph.D. under Columbia University Professor Zbigniew Brzezinski. In the meantime, she worked on the staff of Sen. Edmund Muskie, D-Maine, and then, when Brzezinski became President Jimmy Carter's National Security Adviser, as his liaison to Congress.

After her husband left her for a younger woman, Albright's professional ambition accelerated. In 1984 she was foreign policy adviser to vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro. By 1988 she was advising presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. In the course of that doomed crusade she met Bill Clinton and wrote him a letter of recommendation to the Council on Foreign Relations. A few years later, he named her ambassador to the United Nations.

Albright's U.N. tenure is best remembered for two things: her sandbagging of Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and her proclamation that Cuba's shooting down of planes flown by anti-Castro exiles took "not cojones" but "cowardice." Both of these statements were calculated to play well at home and to outrage the rest of the world. Since becoming secretary of state in early 1997, Albright has similarly done better on the domestic front than in the international sphere, enjoying a long media honeymoon, holding hands with Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., persuading a recalcitrant Congress to ratify the chemical weapons conventions, and pushing for NATO expansion. But halfway through her term in office, the Middle East peace process is moribund, U.S. China policy is mired in incoherence, and the Indian subcontinent is locked in a nuclear arms race. And this is not to mention East Timor, Southern Sudan, or Saddam Hussein. It can be argued in Albright's defense that international affairs is no longer the grand chess match of the Cold War years--it's more like a floating crap game. But the complexity and instability of the world are hardly excuses for the muddle and indirection of the world's only great power.

It was Albright, after all, who titled a 1993 memo to Clinton "Why America Must Take the Lead." The subject of that memo was Bosnia, and while Ambassador Albright emerged as the administration's leading hawk on a number of fronts, arguing for intervention in Haiti and in Rwanda, she made the case for how the United States should take the lead--by threatening and, if necessary, using force--with special passion about the American role in the Balkans.