In the 1990s, while I was covering the United Nations for the Los Angeles Times, Madeleine Albright approached my table at a banquet in New York. My wife hugged her warmly, exclaiming: “Madeleine, you’re doing a wonderful job as U.N. ambassador!” “Yes,” Albright replied, “but Stanley doesn’t think so.” I grinned foolishly. I kept recalling that encounter as I read this engaging memoir of a remarkable foreign-born woman who came here as a refugee child and later negotiated the political thickets of Washington to become this nation’s first female secretary of State. No one could accuse Madeleine Albright of timidity; she is always blunt and direct. Perhaps more important, the remark reflected a troubling reality: Although I admired and respected her, I often found her words and actions as U.N. ambassador and secretary of State disappointing. I was not alone. She faced a barrage of criticism from reporters, foreign policy wonks and State Department professionals throughout her tenure. This book is her spirited defense.
On the whole -- though there are exasperating omissions and distortions, though she is sometimes disingenuous and always self-serving -- it is a persuasive defense. She makes a strong case that she was a tough, relentless and hard-working diplomat who confronted tyrants abroad and tried to instill some backbone into the flabby foreign policy teams of the Clinton administration. This is no delicately dry diplomatic memoir. Miramax, the movie company, published it, and it was undertaken when Tina Brown, the princess of buzz, ran such projects at Miramax. Albright wrote it with Bill Woodward, her longtime speechwriter, and the work is chock-full of anecdotes and moving accounts of her feelings toward both her native Czech Republic and her adopted United States. Albright was a secretary of State with pizzazz -- she made the front pages of every major newspaper in America (except the Los Angeles Times) by throwing out the first ball at a Baltimore Orioles opener -- and the book reflects that pizzazz.
Miramax may see a movie in this book someday. The story line is wonderful. Marie Jana Korbelova, born in Prague, takes refuge in England from the Nazis during World War II, escapes communism in Czechoslovakia, settles with her family in Denver, strives to become “a plain vanilla American” though she was “more apple-cheeked and round than tall and blond,” takes the name Madeleine, graduates from Wellesley, marries the scion of an American newspaper family, raises three children, works for Sen. Edmund S. Muskie and the Carter White House, loses her husband to a younger woman in a divorce that shatters her self-esteem, teaches at Georgetown University, attains prominence in Democratic Party and foreign policy circles, is appointed U.N. ambassador, campaigns for and wins President Clinton’s nomination as secretary of State, and faces down Slobodan Milosevic and Serbian aggression in a notable triumph.
Those who followed diplomatic news and her career closely in the 1990s will find few surprises here. About her Jewish origins, she again insists that she was thoroughly shocked by the revelations of the Washington Post’s Michael Dobbs in January 1997 that three of her grandparents and several other relatives died as Jews in the Holocaust. Raised a Catholic, Albright says that not until two months before the Dobbs piece appeared,when she received a letter from a Czech woman about her family, did it dawn on her that she might be Jewish.
She is so guarded in discussing her family history that the dearth of comment raises questions about her lack of introspection. She writes that her father “told me a lot about the Holocaust” when she was a teenager. Now she knows he lost both his parents to it. A reader might expect her to explore this memory with some care. Does it hurt to know that he could talk about the horror without revealing how close it came to all of them? There is not a word about this. In 1967 and 1990, she met her cousin Dasa in Prague. Dasa, who lived with Albright’s family in London during the war, lost both her parents and a sister in the Holocaust. Albright’s murdered grandparents were Dasa’s murdered grandparents. Can Albright remember any hint from Dasa about this personal tragedy? Did the cousins, who hadn’t met for decades, fail to talk about their relatives? Albright doesn’t say.
One account in the book did strike me as new. I was surprised to learn how actively she campaigned for the job of secretary of State. She says Deputy Secretary Strobe Talbott told her in 1994 that she might be a logical successor to Secretary Warren Christopher if he resigned. “This planted the idea in my mind in a serious way for the first time,” she writes. Other influential Washingtonians encouraged her, and she made it clear to the White House that she was interested. Her positioning may explain why she seemed more involved in her duties as part of the foreign policy team in Washington than as a member of the U.N. Security Council. When Christopher resigned after Clinton’s reelection in November 1996, Albright was ready. “Some of the Democratic Party’s most influential ‘wise men’ advised me early on not to ‘campaign’ for the job,” she says. “I thought, hmmm. Obviously, I wasn’t going to manufacture campaign buttons, but I doubted that George Mitchell and Dick Holbrooke [her evident rivals] were demurely sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring.” She enlisted a company of influential friends and supporters, mostly women, to sing her praises and bat down any news report that cast doubt on her chances. It is likely that Hillary Rodham Clinton echoed the chorus inside the White House.
Sometimes her show of candor is disingenuous. On Rwanda, for example, she apologizes for the failure to stop the massacre of hundreds of thousands of people in 1994, writing that she deeply regrets, as U.N. ambassador, not advocating the creation of a U.S.-led force to establish order there: “We would never have won support from Congress, but I would have been right, and possibly my voice would have been heard.” What she does not make clear is that she did more than fail to act; she was the main force slowing action by the Security Council. She even boasted about it. “Sending a U.N. force into the maelstrom of Rwanda without a sound plan of operations would be folly,” she told Congress at the time. That quote does not appear in the memoir.
But Albright’s historical reputation will rest on her accomplishments as secretary of State, not as U.N. ambassador, and she devotes more than half her book to those four years. She did a creditable job in that pre-9/11 era, when the public did not care a whit about what happened elsewhere, a know-nothing Congress ridiculed any foreign adventure by the administration, and the president devoted most of his energy to the impeachment. Albright and her colleagues managed the most significant foreign policy issues with wisdom and sensitivity. They contained Saddam Hussein, intervened in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so audaciously that they came close to forging a settlement, reached a fragile nuclear agreement with North Korea (which the current administration has allowed to unravel), bombed Sudanese and Afghan sites associated with Osama bin Laden when the world had never heard of him, and defeated Milosevic in Kosovo.
She regards the Kosovo war of 1999 as her finest triumph. Her assessment makes sense -- even though the war exposed some of the traits that most irritated her critics, both outside and inside the administration. Albright seemed to have an unblinking faith in air power and a penchant for describing issues in stark, almost simplistic terms. When Milosevic began killing Albanians in the Serbian province of Kosovo, she insisted that he must be stopped and held little hope that this could be done just by diplomacy. She tried to rally the administration’s key players to her side but failed at first. After one meeting of the administration’s national security and foreign policy team, she writes, “As I looked around the table, I saw ‘There goes Madeleine again’ glances being exchanged.” But as Serbian atrocities against the Albanians mounted, she finally persuaded Clinton. NATO began to bomb Serbia. Albright, enamored of air power, expected Milosevic to give up quickly under the pounding, but he did not. Atrocities increased instead of abating; Europeans fretted over the damage to Belgrade; critics derided the bombing as “Madeleine’s war.” Albright worked hard to keep the European alliance together and shore up support for the war within the Clinton administration, knowing NATO couldn’t afford to let Milosevic win. Within months, Milosevic succumbed and let NATO peacekeepers replace his troops in Kosovo. Within 15 months, the Serbs threw him out of office and dispatched him to a special U.N. tribunal for trial as a war criminal. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said, “Well, if it was Madeleine’s war, it is now Madeleine’s victory.”
After almost three years out of office, Albright is obviously intent on speaking out again on foreign affairs; she has, for example, written the lead articles in recent issues of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy. This memoir, despite its flaws and omissions, will make more Americans willing to listen. *
Sign up for our Book Club newsletter
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.