A Diplomatic Core : Madeleine Albright is the first line of defense for U.S. foreign policy. Her star may still be on the rise: Some say the U.N. ambassador could be the next Secretary of State.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Madeleine Albright lives alone in the U.N. ambassador's apartment in the Waldorf Towers. Her own color sense dictated changes in the decor of the rambling suite once occupied by former ambassadors George Bush and Pat Moynihan.

The pink and green rooms were repainted cream. Borrowed contemporary American art--huge paintings by Jackson Pollack and Louise Nevelson--were hung on the walls. And personal touches were added with framed photographs of her three grown daughters, as well as a hint of glamour with a large black-and-white photograph showing Albright with her new best friend, Barbra Streisand.

Still, Albright's home--with its formal tables and chintz couches--looks like a museum.

"It's weird," Albright says. "I feel like Eloise.

"You know," she adds, pointing out another empty guest room, "other ambassadors lived here with families."

She doesn't have to spell it out.

At 57, Albright has had a full life--a childhood during which she fled Czechoslovakia not once but twice, a 1950s fairy-tale marriage that ended in a 1980s divorce, and a career that went far beyond her expectations to where few women have gone before.

She is the ultimate study in the graceful outsider always moving closer to being an insider. Her early years as the good daughter were shaped by a father whose principles drove him to live in exile. Her marriage exposed her to the American elite but it was not enough, so she plugged away to have her own career. Later she became a member of the loyal opposition during the Democratic Party's "out" years. And now as a player on President Clinton's foreign policy team, she pushes her own principles forcefully in private but speaks for the group in public as its unified voice.

Finally, Albright has the chance to move center stage: For about six months her name has been in play as a possible replacement for Secretary of State Warren Christopher. He doesn't seem to be going anywhere any time soon, but the rumors of Albright's candidacy raise the question of whether this accomplished outsider can become the consummate insider and really run things.

"I've had my ups and downs," Albright says. "These days I am very up. I love what I'm doing. I'm having the time of my life."

But if she sometimes feels lonely in her repainted life in the Waldorf Towers, wait until she goes south on Monday. Wait until she hits Jesse Helms country.

Albright is launching a public relations campaign to sell internationalism to an America that couldn't care less and for a President more occupied with domestic issues than the world. (He devoted about eight of 81 minutes in his State of the Union address to foreign policy.) In the next six months she plans to deliver speeches in six cities, stopping first in Helms' native North Carolina. She'll also talk to editorial boards and give interviews.

Across America she'll pitch the value of the United Nations and its embattled peacekeeping operations in a spirit of "Let's fix it, not reject it." Specifically she'll talk about what is going right in Haiti, where the U.S. military has brought order, and what went wrong in Somalia, where American troops helped feed tens of thousands of starving people but where 30 U.S. soldiers died. Albright pushed hard for both operations.

To make her case she'll trot out statistics such as:

"The United Nations budget cost the average American $7, the same price as a ticket to 'Jurassic Park' or 'Ace Ventura,' " she says. Then with a touch of uncertainty that public people rarely allow themselves, she stops to wonder, giggling: "Is it 'Ace Ventura' or 'Ventura Ace'?"

Helms probably isn't any more familiar with the pet detective than Albright is, but if his remarks during her Senate confirmation hearing two years ago are any indication, he also isn't partial to her reasoning.

"You can justify everything that is bloated and irregular in this world if you break it down to how much it is costing per capita. . . . But I do not think it's relevant to anything," the Republican senator told Albright, addressing her as a "nice lady."

Indeed, Helms, the new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and other GOP leaders would probably like to celebrate the United Nations' 50th anniversary this year by tipping its landmark building right into the East River--or at the very least by slashing the $1.5 billion Congress contributes to the U.N.'s already shrinking funds.

Albright faces a tough sell, a position that has become all too familiar. In the last two years she has become the first line of defense in the media for Clinton's oft-criticized foreign policy.

In fact, an official portrait of Madeleine Albright would not be of her behind the horse shoe-shaped table in the Security Council and not in the White House situation room next to Clinton and not on the New York-Washington shuttle, a trip she makes so many times a week that she has been known to order pilots to "fly faster, the President is waiting."

Rather, the quintessential Madeleine Albright image would be one of her next to ABC's David Brinkley on Sunday morning talking about how Saddam Hussein "really blew it" again or facing PBS' Robert MacNeil any night of the week bluntly standing up for the boss.

The job of diplomatic mouthpiece became hers by default. Which is also how she got the U.N. job. But her life of always forging ahead had certainly equipped her to fill vacuums that large.

Clinton first offered the U.N. position to Ron Brown, the 1992 Democratic Party chairman; he turned it down. Reportedly he didn't want to be just another black ambassador after Andrew Young, Donald McHenry and Edward J. Perkins. Condolezza Rice, a former Bush aide who is black, was the next considered. But rather than go outside the party, Clinton turned to Albright. They had met years earlier in Washington think-tank circles. A professor at Georgetown University, she had advised every failed Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter on world politics. She'd worked on Clinton's campaign too.

To avoid rivalries among the key advisers, the Clintonites had agreed to make the Secretary of State the primary foreign policy spokesman. But in time it became obvious that Christopher, dapper consigliere that he is, was not cut out for the evening news.

So in addition to responsibilities at the U.N., on the Cabinet and on the National Security Council, the sound bites fell to Albright.

"The White House was comfortable with her doing the morning shows," according to a high-level source. "She was good at the rat-a-tat-tat." But the ease with which she reduced complicated policy to catchy phrases has come back to haunt her.

Albright, for instance, coined the term "assertive multilateralism," words to describe Clinton's preference for joining U.S. forces with U.N. troops to fight rogue regimes. But when U.S. soldiers died in Somalia and their deployments seemed futile in Bosnia, the Clintonites cooled on multilateralism and faced the political reality: Sometimes the U.N. flag was the wrong cover, and American troops had to go it alone.

Albright has had to recognize that "assertive multilateralism" has its limits. She doesn't use the term much anymore. Nevertheless, it stuck.

Her right-wing critics insist that she believes U.S. military action to be immoral unless blessed by the U.N. Friendlier observers simply say what frustrates them about Albright is similar to what frustrates them about Clinton: They identify the right moral concerns--a holocaust in Bosnia, starvation in Africa--but falter when it comes to the appropriate response.

More specifically, people question Albright's motives: If she believed so ardently in "assertive multilateralism" as a means to mediate world conflicts, why did she turn on it just about overnight?

Naturally, these criticisms that she simply moves with the political winds or worse--that she is less than patriotic--enrage Albright, who regards herself as a confident decision-maker.

"I have always seen the United States as a force of good," she explains. "And I have learned that there is the idealistic part about what we can do at the U.N. and there is a doable part. And I have learned what is more doable."

But even while she grows in her job, she is always a savvy politician and will alter her vocabulary accordingly. These days she sounds more Cold Warrior. Aides volunteer examples of when she pressed a reluctant White House to use U.S. firepower unilaterally in Bosnia, Iraq and Haiti.

A larger question about Albright--even among her own staff in New York--is whether she is listened to at all, or is merely a message carrier for Warren Christopher and National Security Adviser Tony Lake.

But, one White House source says, "When Madeleine sits at the table, she is very often the voice of conscience saying we should do this or we should do that."

Other sources say that while she is often a voice of morality, she is primarily relied on to assess whether she can get a particular vote on a U.N. resolution; her friends point to last summer when no one in the White House believed she could get the Security Council to authorize the U.S. invasion of Haiti--but she did.

During a recent phone interview, Christopher said he frequently seeks her advice.

"We speak constantly on U.N. matters . . . Every time there is a key vote we're on the telephone. She has obviously been a key adviser on things like Bosnia and nuclear issues. She's very much part of the process here and that stems from our personal friendship and the high regard I have for her."

The notion that she is some sort of moral scold makes Albright most uncomfortable.

"Don't make me into this airy-fairy, moralist, idealist because I'm not," she insists. Then she pauses. "Really, I have to laugh because there was a whole set of stories that made me sound like the Dragon Lady, you know, 'tough this and tough that.' Then there is this business about 'gooey.' The bottom line is I am a pragmatic idealist."

*

In January, 1994, Albright had one of those moments in life, a source of constant marvel. After flying on Air Force One to Prague, where she was born, she found herself walking off the plane behind the President of the United States and greeting the president of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, who also happens to be an old friend. "It doesn't get any better than this," she later told Clinton.

To understand why you must go back 40 years and envision a teen-age Madeleine Korbel, a 5-foot, 2-inch frame with oversized blue eyes, at the dinner table with her father, listening to him talk about the home country he loved and had to leave twice, and how it had been ravaged first by Nazis and later by Communists. Josef Korbel, a Czech diplomat, had a huge influence on his oldest daughter.

"I have tried to pattern myself after him," she says, picking through a salad in the State Department cafeteria in Washington. "When he was with the U.N. Commission in India, I wrote a paper on Gandhi. When he wrote books on Eastern Europe, I wrote school papers on similar topics."

Today she mentions her background in almost all her formal speeches. So many of her moral views seem traceable through her family's experiences.

Those who wonder why Albright has been such a hawkish voice for bombing the Serbs in Bosnia and punishing them in a war crimes tribunal need only look at a framed photo in her bedroom of a 10-year-old Madeleine bobbing contentedly between her parents in a Yugoslavia lake when her father was Czech ambassador.

Those who reduce her world vision to nothing more than "pro-democracy" need only to know that her father's diplomatic career ended when the Communists invaded Czechoslovakia in 1948.

That was the year Josef and Anna Korbel sought and received asylum in the United States for themselves, Madeleine and two younger children, Catherine and John. Soon after arriving in New York, Josef Korbel landed a position teaching at the University of Denver, and the family set off for the West in a new, green 1948 Ford.

Although relieved to be in America, Korbel wanted his children to have a proper European upbringing, which meant receiving a superior education. For Albright's own good and over her protests, she was forced to attend Denver's best private high school on scholarship.

On weekends, Korbel, a popular professor who wrote seven books, would take to the slopes on ski outings with his family, sometimes wearing a tie and jacket.

Shortly before her freshman year at Wellesley College, Albright's father agreed to buy her a typewriter on the condition she write letters home in longhand in Czech. But when the letters were returned with the grammar corrected, Albright discontinued her end of the correspondence.

"It was one of the few times I rebelled," says Albright, who in college aspired to be a journalist.

Albright's sister, Catherine Silva, an educator who works in Washington, credits both her late parents for her sister's intense drive and focus.

"Mother was a little emotional but still focused," Silva says. "They were both people who had changed their lives and believed determination was important."

Three days after graduating with honors from Wellesley, Madeleine Korbel, who had been raised Roman Catholic, was married in a nearby Episcopal church to Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, an heir to a successful American publishing family. They moved frequently as he took various newspaper jobs, settling eventually on Long Island. Meanwhile, Madeleine Albright's hope to become a reporter was eclipsed by her husband's career, and she was casting about for a new direction.

In June, 1961, she gave birth prematurely to twins, Anne and Alice. To pass the time while they were isolated in incubators, Albright--a relentlessly serious student--took an eight-week, eight-hour-a-day Russian language class. When her father visited that July, she greeted him in Russian, her fifth language. He was thrilled and suggested that she pursue teaching.

Over the next decade, while raising the twins and a third daughter, Kate, Albright earned a master's degree and eventually a doctorate from Columbia University in Russian history. During the research for her dissertation on the press's role during the 1968 Prague Spring, she made friends among the dissidents who 20 years later would introduce her to Havel, whom she would guide during his first state visit to Washington.

Because of her husband's career, Albright had moved to Washington in 1968 and became serious about politics. She worked on Edmund Muskie's failed presidential bid and later joined his Senate staff. When the Democrats finally managed to claim the White House in 1976, Zbigniew Brzezinski, once her teacher at Columbia, got her a job at the National Security Council.

By 1980, the Democrats were out again. The next year her husband left her. She was 44 with two daughters in college and a teen-ager in private school. After the divorce, she could have simply enjoyed a life of privilege--a Georgetown lady during the week and Virginia hostess on weekends.

Yet, ever the driven daughter, Albright found a new life teaching at Georgetown University in the foreign service program. She earned accolades from her students, but the occasional cold shoulder from colleagues.

"I wasn't a normal professor," she says. "I had worked in government. I hadn't written nine zillion books. I was a hands-on professor."

But her students were her soldiers. She helped get them jobs and they are now steel tendrils in her network. "Helping younger women is a genuine conviction of Madeleine's," says Jan Nolan, a longtime friend and expert on nuclear proliferation. "If you don't make an effort in our field, the first 30 people thought of for every job will be middle-aged men."

In the 1980s, Albright flourished as a Democrat-in-exile just as her father had as a Czech-in-exile. During the Reagan and Bush presidencies, her dining table became the counterpoint to the Republican compass. By the force of her personality she beckoned the opposition brain trust--the pointy-heads, think tankers and politicians--to hone the foreign policy planks for a renewed Democratic presence. She didn't push agendas; she managed conflicts. The Georgetown dinners became legendary.

Says Nolan: "It wasn't like at Pamela Harriman's, where you always had to worry about whether you were sticking your fingers in the consomme bowls. The talk was the thing."

In separate interviews, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis praised Albright's ability to explain complex issues when they were overwhelmed presidential candidates.

"Madeleine's job was to keep me under control and keep me moving ahead on the important issues," Dukakis says. "She helped me feel confident in areas where I felt least comfortable."

Certainly, she was not a hostess unaware of the benefits of her largess.

Just before Christmas, 1992, when Bill Clinton announced his new foreign policy team in Little Rock, the faces were so familiar that Albright's daughter Kate, now 27 and a lawyer, couldn't help remarking: "Mom, they've all been around our table."

*

At the United Nations, in the "parliament of man," Albright is something of an anomaly.

First of all she is a woman. Of 185 permanent delegates to the U.N., four are women. In a crowd of gray suits, she is usually the one wearing jewel-colors, matching stockings and suede pumps, and three gold bracelets on one wrist.

In fact, much like her boss at the State Department--Secretary of State Christopher, who accents pin-striped suits with red silk pocket handkerchiefs--she is clearly concerned about her appearance. Between meetings it is not unusual for Albright to grab a blue plastic makeup bag and slip into the ladies' room for "a little touch up." She also has what can only be called a "Barbara Bush relationship" with her weight: She jokes about her constant dieting.

"I've never had job before where I had to both work hard and look good all the time," Albright says.

But it is not just her gender that distinguishes Albright from other members at the U.N.; her background is different. Most of the ambassadors are experienced diplomats who came up the ranks of their foreign ministries before they arrived in New York. Albright, on the other hand, spent her career teaching and cultivating a network of Democratic names.

Many members have not tried to hide their preference for her predecessor, Thomas R. Pickering, the most senior of American career foreign service officers and a master diplomat who deftly controlled negotiations at the Security Council without bruising egos.

The European ambassadors, in particular, have made a practice of subtly needling Albright and complaining privately to reporters that her constant consultations with Washington hold up the work of the Security Council.

In December, her month for serving as president of the Security Council, a European observer recalls the pleasure Russian Ambassador Sergei Lavrov seem to take in unsettling Albright. "He kept saying, 'I don't understand what you're saying.' And then her face would redden. . . . Lavrov thought this amusing."

If there is a tinge of jealousy in the carping at the moment, it has been quelled by the specter of powerful Republicans who find the wheel-spinning and bureaucracy at the U.N. a waste of American dollars. Recently, these ambassadors who love to whisper to reporters about "Ambassador Halfbright" have been declining interview requests, noting that they don't want to add to her burdens.

Albright can be thin-skinned about criticism from the press. Many blame her key aide, Jamie Rubin, who, diplomats and reporters alike complain, can be dismissive and rude. Recently Albright tried to make amends on his behalf. At a party Rubin threw for reporters last week at his New York loft, Albright announced, tongue-in-cheek, that he was being replaced--by his nicer twin.

As readily as she defends Rubin, she brushes off the sniping from the "professional diplomats."

"I hear the comments," she says. "But they're not just taking a shot at me but also at the United States. They're also taking a shot at a woman." But, she adds: "Some don't fall into that trap."

She could be referring to her debonair friend Emilio Cardenas, the Argentine ambassador who, with his wife, is a frequent guest at Albright's glittering diplomatic dinners. A banker educated at Princeton, Cardenas has had a similarly non-traditional career in diplomacy.

"I am like Madeleine," he says. "We believe that sometimes we have to call things by names, raise our voices, make our opinions known."

Another of Albright's qualities that unnerves some U.N. colleagues, but pleases others, is what she might call her democratic--"little d"--attitude.

As she hurries down drab corridors of the U.N. Secretariat toward a meeting of the so-called permanent five--elite ambassadors from Britain, France, Russia and China--speaking in Polish, she greets a small man in an old suit. "That's my Polish ambassador buddy," she says.

Albright can also be quite star-struck. (She seems to be awed by her own position, alternately remarking at casual dinners about what it's like to have "real" power and telling amusing stories.)

After taping one session with Larry King, she waited around because she had heard Lauren Bacall was next on the show. But before she had a chance to say anything, Bacall burst out with the cliche Albright had been planning to use: "I've always wanted to meet you!"

With even greater excitement, Albright recounts her first meeting with Streisand at a Hollywood Women's Political Caucus event in Los Angeles in March, 1993.

"I began my speech when this woman arrived wearing a hat slightly pulled down over her eyes," Albright says. "Then I thought, 'Jesus Christ, it's Barbra Streisand.' I was kind of undone."

But soon they began having conversations--sometimes on the phone, sometimes in New York where Streisand keeps an apartment. They shared thoughts on foreign policy over lunch and went to the movies. Albright threw a dinner in Streisand's honor; Streisand reciprocated by taking Albright to a performance of "Passion," after which they had dinner with Stephen Sondheim.

"I'm very glad to have her as my friend," Albright says, her face lighting up. "She's a very thoughtful and nice person."

*

The Secretary of State rumor seems to have no clear-cut beginning and no end in sight.

At the White House, sources say it started in the State Department. Over at State, they finger Rubin, Albright's sidekick. He asserts the "punditocracy" has kept his boss's name in play. But the columnists and talking heads point back to him and then speculate that the White House hasn't squashed the rumor as a way to get credit for considering a woman.

(Christopher apparently has no plans to leave his job and all he'll say about her as a possible replacement is: "She is one of the top people in foreign policy. That's the choice the President would make if he were replacing me.")

Larry DiRita of the Heritage Foundation says he thinks Christopher might have to stick around. "I don't think Clinton has the stomach for the aggressive scrubbing any new candidate would get in a Senate confirmation hearings," DiRita says. Others agree that the oxymoronic nature of Albright--the "pragmatic idealist"--would make her suspect to Republicans.

But others say she just might be the candidate for the moment--an agile politician who can verbally navigate a changing world that has seen the end of the Cold War and the eruption of 100 smaller ones.

This is one debate Albright tries to stay out of, calling the rumors "useless." But she can't resist the fantasy of what it would be like to move that far inside.

"There is a silver lining to this," she says with a smile. "At least now people don't consider the concept of a woman Secretary of State ridiculous."

* Teresa Watanabe of the Tokyo bureau and Richard Boudreaux of the Moscow bureau contributed to this story.

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