Madeleine Albright Reflects On Memoirs As She Entertains Online Audience
By Donald Gilpin
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright offered wit and wisdom, anecdotes, and insight on a wide range of topics Friday evening in a conversation with Anne Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America and Princeton University professor emerita of politics and international affairs. The Princeton Public Library (PPL)-sponsored virtual benefit was attended by more than 500 people.
Albright, who is on a book tour to promote her latest memoir, has established several additional careers since she stepped down as the first woman secretary of state in 2001 at the end of the Clinton administration. She is a professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University; a six-time New York Times best-selling author; a business entrepreneur, as chair of the Albright Stonebridge global business strategy group and founder of Albright Capital Management investment advisory service; and is also continuing her service as chair of the National Democratic Institute and as a member of the U.S. Defense Department Defense Policy Board.
Throughout the conversation, Albright demonstrated that one of her most powerful attributes is humor. “I never thought of myself as being funny,” she said. “I was a serious child, but I did discover that I had a sense of humor and I did try to deploy it in a number of ways. I do think it can disarm people.”
Albright, who was celebrating her 83rd birthday on Friday, explained the origin of the title of her new book, Hell and Other Destinations: A 21st-Century Memoir, which she wrote before the current pandemic. “But the title is so apt right now for what’s going on,” she said. “The most famous thing I ever said is ‘there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.’ It was so famous it ended up on a Starbucks cup.”
Albright graduated from Wellesley College, “a women’s college where we had all the leadership roles.” She got married three days after her graduation, and later decided she wanted to go back to graduate school for a Ph.D. “The people who criticized me the most were other women,” she said. “I think we’re very judgmental about each other. They would say things like ‘Why aren’t you with your children instead of in the library?’ and ‘My hollandaise sauce is so much better than yours.’ And I thought women needed to support each other.”
Despite her love of politics and foreign policy issues, it never occurred to Albright, born in Czechoslovakia the daughter of a professor and diplomat, that she could become secretary of state. She was late in starting her career, after raising her three daughters — “I didn’t have a real job until I was 39 years old” — but quickly got involved as Senator Edmund Muskie’s chief legislative assistant; then on the Michael Dukakis presidential campaign, where she first worked with Bill Clinton; then on the National Security Council with her former professor Zbigniew Brzezinski during the Carter administration.
As a member of the transition team as the Clinton administration took office in 1992, she expected to be offered a job, “maybe assistant secretary of state for Europe,” but was surprised when she was appointed ambassador to the United Nations. Four years later, when Secretary of State Warren Christopher stepped down, she was even more surprised to be under consideration for secretary of state.
She recalled, “Somebody at the White House said ‘a woman can’t be secretary of state because the Arab leaders will not deal with a woman,’ but the Arab ambassadors at the UN got together and said ‘we’ve had no problem dealing with Ambassador Albright. We’d have no problem dealing with Secretary Albright.’”
She described her reaction when she heard she was to be appointed secretary of state. “I didn’t believe it until I was,” she said. “I freaked out.” She recalled her doubts as she waited in her pink bathrobe for the phone call from Clinton.
“You inspired a generation,” said Slaughter, who served as the first woman director of policy planning for the State Department under Hillary Clinton. “It’s hard to overstate the impact Secretary Albright had. It was an earthquake for women like me who wanted to be in foreign policy who had never known a woman as America’s top diplomat.”
In her new book, Albright noted, she focuses on the 21st century, after she moved on from the state department. “I’ve always tried to make whatever I’m doing more interesting than what I’ve done before,” she said. She noted the importance of continuing to learn and using her knowledge and experience in new fields of endeavor. “What I show is how one thing leads to another,” she said. “And what I’m learning in one thing I transfer to another. I can actually see how things fit together and I hope the book tells a story in terms of what you can do with your knowledge and experience. ‘Retire’ to me is an insult. I want to do other things with what I have learned.”
She emphasized that business and politics must work together, as she discussed some of her work over the past 20 years. “Public and private, political and economic change go together,” she said. “Economic development is a part of a functioning democracy. People want to vote and eat. Democracy has to deliver all the time.”
Prompted by Slaughter, who praised her earlier memoirs and her career for the way they humanized the position of secretary of state and government service in general, Albright continued with tales about her life in government and business. She told about her friendship with Robert Redford, who kissed her once, and “I’m still waiting to exhale”; about being mistaken for Mother Teresa once on a plane when a man asked her to bless him; about her extravagant collection of pins; about performing skits at the meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional forum, where one year she dressed up as Madonna to sing “Don’t Cry for Me Asean-y” and the next year teamed up with the Russian delegation and came out singing “Yevgeny, Yevgeny, the most beautiful sound I ever heard.”
“Having fun is important,” she said. “You have to be able to have a functioning relationship with the people that you deal with, put yourself into their shoes and also mix the serious things with some of the personal things and have a sense of humor. The humor really does help.”
Albright for the most part avoided any direct references to the current president and his administration, but many of her inferences were clear. “Being in the government is a team effort,” she said. “And I think a lot of what one does is figure out who you’re working with, finding out how the team works together, and actually have a decision-making process of some kind.”
She continued, “This is the essential part: to respect the views of those who are sitting around the table. The decision-making process is something that’s essential to a democracy. An authoritarian leader does not care what other people think. A democratic leader understands the system and wants to hear what other people think who are helping him make decisions, and in our case members of Congress who have been elected to do it.”
She stressed the importance of multilateralism and collaboration. “Partnership, that’s what’s needed to solve this problem.”
The PPL event was supported by the Phyllis Marchand Leadership Lecture Fund and Labyrinth Books.