In winding up her far-ranging autobiography, Madeleine Albright tells us with amusement that once, after leaving office as U.S. Secretary of State, she was mistaken in public for Margaret Thatcher.
It's worth a chuckle to the reader --- but there are indeed interesting similarities between the two women, even though their political leanings are light-years apart. They both reached the highest rank ever attained by a woman in their respective democratic governments, were fiercely partisan political figures, and held very strong opinions and were never afraid to battle for them (Albright's favorite expression for this is that she never hesitated to "push back" at those who opposed her).
Albright is best known for serving as U.S. ambassador to the UN in the first Clinton term, and as Secretary of State in the second. Readers of this book will learn in detail about the early years and long political apprenticeship that led up to those two high-profile jobs. They will also learn, in perhaps more detail than they care to absorb, about the many foreign policy crises in which she was a major player under Clinton.
The other thing about Albright that most people will recall is that only after she became Secretary of State did she learn that her family ancestry was Jewish --- that three of her grandparents had died in Nazi concentration camps. This personal revelation is duly covered but not dwelled upon in extraordinary detail.
Her life, though unsettled due to wartime exigencies, was not a rags-to-riches tale. She was born Marie Jana Korbel in Prague into a comfortably situated family. Her father was a respected Czech diplomat and college professor. Fleeing the Nazis, the family spent time in England during World War II. They arrived in the United States when she was 11, and her father took a teaching job in Denver. She entered Wellesley College in 1955 and became an American citizen two years later. She married into a wealthy and well-connected American family in 1959. Her first political idol and mentor was Edmund Muskie, in whose doomed presidential campaign she took part. After the breakup of her marriage, her career in government and politics took off during the Carter presidency, her only personal setback being a painful divorce in 1983.
This is all dispatched in the first 100 pages or so of her lengthy book. The rest of it details her UN and State Department years with a thoroughness that seems at times compulsive. All the heroes and villains of those years pass in review --- Carter, Havel, Milosevic, Helms, Clinton, Putin, Arafat, Barak. The complexities of Rwanda, Serbia, Kosovo, the Middle East, Somalia and other trouble spots are laid out in prose that can get ponderous --- but her incisive personal portraits of these people lighten the mood.
Albright makes no pretense to real objectivity. She is a committed Democrat who admired both Carter and Clinton, and she defends them against all the charges that have been flung at them by their opponents. She defends such controversial actions as Clinton's successful ousting of Boutros Boutros-Ghali as Secretary General of the UN, and his policy of opening up trade with China and warily seeking a somewhat civil relationship with North Korea. Her two biggest regrets are the failure of the UN to stop genocide in Rwanda and Clinton's failure to forge a solid peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (in that regard, while gently critical of Israel on occasion, she holds Arafat mainly responsible for the breakdown). The two biggest villains in her cast of characters, not surprisingly, are Arafat and Milosevic.
There is naturally a strong feminist slant to her narrative. There is also a vein of sharp observation, character analysis, and even humor. The writing, when not bogged down in the minutiae of crisis management, can be bright, though we are left to wonder how much of the credit is hers and how much belongs to her collaborator, Bill Woodward.
Mercifully, Monica Lewinsky remains a bit player in Albright's narrative. Two other things, perhaps more important, are also missing: detailed assessments of the effect of the 9/11 tragedy on America's global course and the George W. Bush administration. Those would have made an already long book longer, but one wishes she had covered them anyway.
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on September 15, 2003
Madame Secretary: A Memoir