When President-elect Bill Clinton promised an Administration as diverse as the nation, he meant a mix of genders and races. In Madeleine Albright, whom he designated Tuesday as his ambassador to the United Nations, he gets another degree of difference: the first foreign-born member of his Cabinet.
But this distinction, with due respect to her Czech roots, is a less defining feature in her profile than many others. Once asked for a shorthand biography, she began: “Woman, Democrat, international affairs specialist, university professor, mother of three daughters.”
Personally, she is unpretentious, sometimes effusive, tough and assertive when necessary. But she is also anxious that she stop short of being aggressive or strident.
A critic who admires her professionalism nonetheless calls her “a mean Democrat” who wanted very badly to return to public office, particularly following her divorce a decade ago from journalist and newspaper heir, Joseph Albright.
Typical of her openness is her comment about her failed marriage: “Everyone knows Joe walked out on me.” The couple had been married 23 years. But she has enjoyed “this fantastic life,” she says, arriving in the United States at age 11 and reaching the top levels of U.S. government. “I am a kind of American story.”
Born Maria Jana Korbel in Prague 55 years ago, she remembers herself as “the little blond girl in the newsreels who would be handing flowers to arriving diplomats.” Her father, a prewar Czechoslovak diplomat, fled the Communist take-over in 1948, was granted U.S. political asylum and became a professor at the University of Denver.
Madeleine--her mother informally re-christened her with the name--was graduated with honors from Wellesley College and married Joseph Albright, scion of the Alicia Patterson newspaper family, whom she met when both were at universities in New England.
She once aimed at a career in journalism, starting at the Rolla Daily News in Missouri, before moving to Chicago with her husband, where an editor for a competing paper, after calling her “Honey,” advised her to find a career more suitable for a woman.
“I listened to him and gave up the idea--I would fight it now, of course--but I think I’m better at what I do now than I would have been as a journalist,” she says.
In the mid-1970s, while married with young children and living in Washington, she earned a doctorate by commuting part time to Columbia University in New York. She became legislative assistant to former Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Me.) in 1976, then moved to the White House national security staff under her Columbia mentor, then-National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
An interviewer last year called Albright “a 1950s woman of upper-class privileged background and superior education.” She admits her education is superior but notes she earned it on a scholarship and she smiles at being called privileged. What wealth she has came late, only with marriage.
Albright served as chief foreign policy adviser to Michael S. Dukakis during his run for the presidency in 1988, where she was widely liked by reporters. Those who have traveled with her say that her good humor departs only when she cannot have a bath.
A very long day in the industrial Ukraine last year ended in an extremely inelegant hotel where she found no stopper for the bath tub. Fluent in Russian (as well as Polish, French and Czech), she berated the manager until he explained: “But madam, you know that no bathtubs in the Soviet Union have stoppers.” At which point she collapsed in laughter and went to bed unbathed.
Albright presumably would have been offered a top job if Dukakis had won. After his loss, she became president of the Center for National Policy, a Democratic-oriented think tank in Washington, and a professor at Georgetown University. She also has served on numerous boards, including the National Endowment for Democracy.
She was an important, early adviser to former Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel after the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989. She was also a consultant to the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press on foreign and domestic policy surveys.
Albright on Tuesday called Clinton a “tough-minded internationalist,” a phrase that would describe herself as well. A Democratic Party centrist and a specialist on Eastern Europe and the states of the former Soviet Union, her foreign policy criticism of the Bush Administration has been more often a matter of degree than kind, on such issues as the pace of aid to post-Soviet Russia. She also would have delayed the start of the Persian Gulf War to give the boycott of Iraq more time to work.
Albright had not set foot in the White House since the days of the Jimmy Carter Administration until this month, as part of Clinton’s transition team. A guard, studying her identification, asked if she had not worked there before. “Yes,” she replied. “And we’re back!”
But her pride at being foreign-born took precedence over other pleasures Tuesday. “As a result of the generous spirit of the American people, our family had the privilege of growing up as free Americans,” she said. “You can therefore understand how proud I will be to sit at the United Nations behind the nameplate that says ‘United States of America.’ ”