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Madeleine Albright: The Voice Of America

TIME Magazine

The new secretary brings the heart of a teacher, the scars of a refugee and the skills of a talk-show host

By Nancy Gibbs

(TIME, December 16) -- "When I work I really work. I rub my eyes and my makeup comes off, and I stick pencils in my hair. So I've given up. If some days my hair doesn't look great or some days I look overdone, so be it. Or if I wear a red suit and one of the female reporters says I look like a fat little red ball, that's her problem."

Madeleine Albright has never been the type to sit by her phone knitting, waiting for guys to call, unless the guy is the President and the date is with History. And so she was pleased last Tuesday when the phone rang and it was Clinton on the line. They talked for a while. He asked about the health of her friend Czech President Vaclav Havel, who has lung cancer. Clinton mused about the messy U.S. effort to unseat Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Then there came a pregnant pause. And then he thanked her and hung up.

When word spread, as it does, that the chronically coy President had called Albright, she started getting congratulatory messages from friends. Sheepishly, she had to tell them she hadn't got the Call. It wasn't until 48 hours later, early Thursday morning, that Clinton came on the line to ask her to be his next Secretary of State. And from that moment on, a friend says, she has been "walking 12 inches above the ground."

It was necessary and predictable that Clinton would insist he hadn't picked Albright because she is a woman, or because Hillary likes her, or because women's groups keep reminding him that they did much to get him re-elected. So it was left to her friends and admirers to revel in the idea of a Secretary of State who sorted out the future of Bosnia while cuddling a grandchild on her lap, who knits and cooks and wears red suits and goes antiquing with Barbra Streisand, who keeps a miniature broom in her office sent by a critic who called her a witch for supporting sanctions on Saddam Hussein, who passed out bags of cookies decorated with hearts to members of the Security Council on Valentine's Day. "I like this appointment better than anyone else," says Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan's U.N. ambassador. "This really represents a breakthrough."

Clinton likes the appointment too, for lots of other reasons. In Albright he has found an iron-willed, deeply political, media-savvy advocate for his foreign policy, whose lack of strategic vision matters less to him than her muscular instincts and ability to talk like the popular professor she once was. When he was trying to make up his mind whom to choose, he kept recalling a conversation with Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, who lobbied hard for Albright. A lot of diplomats may grasp the complexities of Bosnia, she told the President, but only Albright could explain why we were there in a way that Mikulski's late mother the grocer could understand.

The first U.S. ambassador to the U.N. to have her own Website, Albright understands communication to the point that she calls CNN "the 16th member of the Security Council." She also understands politics well enough to have so charmed Senate Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Jesse Helms that he was among the first to applaud her appointment. And she understands the world like a refugee, a multilingual, multicultural warrior for human rights and democratic principles. "At last," says a former diplomat in the Reagan and Bush State Departments, borrowing from Albright's well-known diatribe against Castro last year, "we have a Secretary of State with cojones."

Her critics charge that she is too tough, too reckless in her faith in U.S. military power, as when she heartily endorsed the effort that Bush had started to rebuild Somalia and that Clinton expanded to disarm its warlords, only to back down after the effort proved fatal to 18 U.S. soldiers. Which gives Clinton his crowning irony: his pick for the first female U.S. Secretary of State is both praised and attacked for being macho.

Albright got her first lessons in diplomacy as "the little blond girl in the national costume," the daughter of a Czech diplomat who greeted dignitaries with flowers. She got her first lesson in tyranny when the Nazis overran her country in 1938 and her family fled to London. When the family returned, her father and role model, Josef Korbel, might have become Foreign Minister had the communists not taken over in 1948. Instead, Korbel and his family sought asylum in the U.S., where he taught international relations at the University of Denver.

Madeleine was never a lighthearted American kid. In eighth grade she won a United Nations contest for being able to name all the U.N. member states of that time. As a scholarship student at Wellesley and later a graduate student at Columbia, Albright was distinguished by her ability to rise early and work late, study hard and make friends easily. At first she thought she might like to go into journalism, and she got herself a summer job working in the morgue at the Denver Post. There she met a guy named Joe--Joseph Patterson Albright, grandson of the founder of the New York Daily News, heir apparent to his aunt Alicia Patterson's Newsday.

They married three days after Madeleine graduated from Wellesley. She studied Russian while her twin daughters were still in the hospital incubators, then had another daughter six years later. She earned her master's and eventually her Ph.D. at Columbia by getting up at 4:30 and squeezing in the studying whenever she could. She got her first political job soon after earning her doctorate, serving as Maine Senator Edmund Muskie's chief legislative aide. Her Columbia adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski brought her into the White House as congressional liaison when he served as Carter's National Security Adviser.

It was a low-ranking staff job, but Albright made the most of it. She learned what would become essential skills, massaging congressional egos, acquiring mentors and quietly asserting her views on everything from normalizing relations with China to the Camp David accords and the hostage crisis in Iran.

The darkest point of Albright's remarkably sunlit life came in 1982 when Joe Albright announced without preamble, "This marriage is dead. And I'm in love with somebody else." They had been married 23 years, and she didn't want a divorce. But by the time he walked out, she was building an academic career and turning her home into a think tank, where she ran a sort of salon for Democratic foreign policy makers. She taught international relations at Georgetown, where students voted her the most popular professor four years in a row. In 1984 she pitched in as Veep candidate Geraldine Ferraro's foreign policy adviser. "She was the perfect teacher," says Ferraro. "We'd discuss arms control, missile throw weight, geopolitics, you name it. I'd make a tape of the briefings and listen to them again when I was in the bathtub at night."

In 1988 she reprised her role, this time as Michael Dukakis' foreign policy adviser, a volunteer assignment that brought her into contact with a certain ambitious Arkansas Governor who went up to Boston to help Dukakis prepare for his debates. Albright and Clinton stayed in touch; she wrote a recommendation so he would be admitted to the Council on Foreign Relations. When he won the election in 1992 and set out to assemble a Cabinet that looked like America, Albright was a natural choice for the U.N. slot.

For a U.N. ambassador she wielded impressive power, holding full Cabinet rank and attending the "principals meetings" where American policy was thrashed out. She knew that to stay in the loop, she had to be present, which meant she practically lived on the New York-Washington shuttle, even catching the 6 a.m. flight only to find when she landed in New York that her beeper was going off, informing her of a last-minute Cabinet meeting back in Washington. More than once she had to climb back on the shuttle and fly home. Now she will get her own plane.

From her post at the U.N., Albright was the perfect complement to the dry Warren Christopher, winning over the military as she toured U.S. installations overseas and dropping in to foreign capitals that didn't rate a visit from the Secretary of State. She became the most visible public promoter of U.S foreign policy in the Administration as well as a regular tour guide for Hillary Clinton. "She has two valuable attributes," says an old friend. "A wide interest in foreign policy and the ability to tie in to key people."

She was at times less successful winning over her counterparts at the U.N., which, like Napoleon's army, travels on its stomach. She avoided the buffet wars as much as possible. "There's too little time," she says, "to go schmoozing around the halls. I don't go to receptions. I sometimes think I came up here to eat for my country, but they are not my cup of tea." She was often anything but diplomatic. Her favorite opening line with a foreign minister: "Look, I've come a long way. I'm going to be frank." Nothing gets in the way of work. As she told the New York Times, "When I work I really work. I rub my eyes and my makeup comes off, and I stick pencils in my hair."

Women in the U.S. foreign policy establishment have been able to rise to the Under Secretary level and as senior advisers at the National Security Council, but no further. "There is no harder glass ceiling," says Richard Moe, former chief of staff to Vice President Walter Mondale, who worked with Albright in the Carter Administration. "Madeleine broke through it by working twice as hard as a lot of her male counterparts." Which is a useful skill now that she finds herself with a job twice as hard as any she has had before.

--Reported by Bonnie Angelo and Marguerite Michaels/New York and Ann Blackman and Douglas Waller/Washington

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