Friday, September 16, 2011

Madam Secretary: a Memoir by Madeleine Albright

The first woman to hold the office of Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, has written, with Bob Woodward, a comprehensive and detailed personal account of her life and public service in Madam Secretary. The memoir is accessible, very readable, and thought provoking. I knew very little about Madeleine Albright before reading this book except for the facts that she was a Czech, graduate of Wellesley College, and Secretary of State. The Flower Library Book Club chose this as their first book of the year and my new book club at The Gables requested that the members read a biography of choice. And so it was that I picked up Madam Secretary.

Born in Prague in 1937, Albright was the daughter of Josef and Anna Korbel. Her father was a diplomat and supporter of democratic Czechs who with his family was forced to leave his native land during World War II and live in England. After the war and the liberation, the family returned to Czechoslovakia and Madeleine was sent to a boarding school in Switzerland. In 1949 the family was granted political asylum and moved to Long Island. Eventually Josef Korbel
moved to Denver and began teaching at the University of Colorado. He was well-known for his treatises on Communism in Eastern Europe and actually had another Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, as a student. Albright graduated from Wellesley College in 1959 and immediately married Joe Albright, a well- connected journalist from Chicago. After a series of moves the couple settled in Washington where Joe became Newsday's Washington Bureau Chief and Madeleine continued to balance raising her family (3 daughters) and continuing her education - PH.D degree from Columbia University. She was married to Joe Albright for twenty-three years before he decided that it wasn't working for him.

Suffice it to say that no moss grew under Albright's feet. She is incredibly intelligent, driven, and committed to making the world a better place. Madam Secretary
relates Albright's journey from a legislative assistant to Ed Muskie to the end of President Clinton's second term. She not only details the behind the scenes machinations of international diplomacy, but she also brings a personal side to the strategies involved. During her tenure as Ambassador to the U.N. and then as Secretary of State, global conflicts erupted with a vengeance. At times I felt that Albright was playing the arcade game of "Whack a Mole" as she tried to handle situations from Somalia to Bosnia to Iran, to Korea. Although the book at sometimes got bogged down in names and policy making, it served to illuminate all that is involved in trying to get nations to talk to one another instead of acting like kindergartners fighting over a cookie. Her description of an Israeli-Palestinian summit at Camp David was indicative of all that she was willing to do to affect a lasting peace in the Middle East.

Perhaps her greatest efforts were in the area of Kosovo, Sarajevo, Bosnia, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. Her dealings with Milošević were tough and unrelenting. This was an area of the world that meant so much to her and she was determined to make it safe for all people regardless of their ethnic or religious background. She likens her diplomacy to Bobby Fischer playing chess as a child prodigy when he would go from table to table and make his moves against opponents. Albright remarks,
"I was no child prodigy and the faces I saw as I proceeded from one table to the next were those of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Quadhafi, Fidel Castro, and Ayatollah Khamenei. The games were complicated because a change in the momentum of one altered the dynamic of every other; our moves were decided by committee and leaked in advance by those who disagreed; new and contradictory strategies were being shouted out by a chorus from Capitol Hill, and the chessboard for the Middle East keep tipping over, requiring the contest to begin again. The game room was already crowded to overflowing early in 1998 when yet another familiar adversary—Slobodan Milosević—came crashing through the door." (p. 481.)
I was particularly interested in the personal side to all the strategies and inner workings of her office. She exuded confidence, but still had doubts as to how well suited she was for her job. She knew that she was a "skirt among 14 suits" but at the same time knew that her education had prepared her to be on an equal plane. She stressed over throwing the first ball out at a Nationals game, but did just fine. She was not afraid to accompany bodies back from Somalia, sleeping on a cot in the cargo bay. I am so impressed of all that she has accomplished and the means by which she influenced decisions and got HER point across. At the same time I empathize with her about her self-doubts, illustrated by the possibility of her marriage being salvaged if she had not pursued her career or if Joe had won the Pulitzer Prize. What kind of an ultimatum is that?

With a complete chronology of the major events in her life, an exhaustive list of her travels as Secretary of State and acknowledgments and index, Madam Secretary is an informative and inspiring read. I am looking forward to hearing her speak when she lectures in Pittsburgh in December.

No comments: