‘Madame Secretary’

Albright Recounts Ups and Downs of Life, Career in Memoir

Posted September 15, 2003 at 3:15pm

Madeleine Albright, the petite female pioneer who stood unflinching in a political world dominated by men, said her last few weeks have been exciting but also as nerve-racking as standing on the edge of a diving board looking down.

But perhaps she can be forgiven for her nervousness in view of the fact that today is the day she lays out her life, the good and the bad, for the entire world to see.

“Madame Secretary,” which goes on sale today across the country, is Albright’s extraordinarily frank life story that takes the reader through both the successes and failures of this World War II refugee who rose to become America’s first female secretary of State.

“I have read many autobiographies and found the best to be the most honest,” she writes in the opening pages of her book. “So, honest I have tried to be, even when it was hard.”

Albright’s honesty carries through in stories from both her personal and professional life. She lays out her embarrassment in a story of how a high school crush only dated her to show what price he would pay to date another “certain upper class girl.” She openly tells how her husband fell out of love with her and left her for another woman. She speaks of her failure to recognize sooner the genocide that occurred in Rwanda, and also of her regrets over her inability to secure a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

It is a personal story of a woman with the will to succeed, but it is also reads as a study of recent history that attempts to explain how the world came to be where it is today.

The story blends her personal world with her role as a high-ranking government official as she relates the discovery of her Jewish background and her grandparents’ death in concentration camps and her visits to Ugandan AIDS clinics. In the end, Albright concludes that her pursuit and love of democracy has always been her guiding star.

“It was hard recalling some of the grim things I saw,” Albright said in a recent interview. “I thought it was really important to make clear where I thought we had succeeded and where I thought we had failed, and so it does take a certain amount of turning yourself inside out to do it.”

She said it is a strange feeling to finally be finished with her book after two and a half years of work and a significant amount of cutting to make it a manageable 500 pages.

“One of the things I wanted to do in this book is to make people understand the importance of foreign policy and make foreign policy less foreign,” Albright said. “Little did I know that the book would come out at the exact moment when national security issues are front and center again.”

Albright started her book not long after leaving office in January 2001, and she said one of the hardest parts of publishing her work was trying to find a place to stop writing. Indeed, in the time after she finished her original manuscript and before the book’s printing, Albright found herself sending numerous footnotes updating her work as events unfolded in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, American politics and other areas.

“If you’re not writing about Roman history you wish you could keep updating it,” Albright said. “The publishers, especially on the Iraq and North Korea chapters, wanted us to stay as up to date as possible, but at a certain point you have to close it.”

She said she hopes that, on her upcoming book tour, the book will provide a framework through which today’s issues can be viewed and allow her to engage in a dialogue about those issues with her readers.

One of those topics Albright foresees herself discussing is American policy toward global terrorism before and after Sept. 11, 2001.

“The book explains the specific actions we took and, I hope, puts it into the context of what life was like pre-9/11,” Albright said. “And that’s the hardest part, because there is now an acuteness to the issue and a real understanding in the American public about the stakes we have in foreign policy and fighting terrorism which … was not present when we were in office.

“I think what I try to explain now is that we consumed all the intelligence we had and that it was a different kind of moment and that President Clinton started speaking about terrorism from the very beginning,” she said.

“So I’m hoping that what the book does is provide the context. I’m sure it will be an ongoing debate, and I’m prepared to update as I speak,” she added.

And while those questions and debates are sure to arise in inside-the-Beltway circles, Albright said she’ll be more interested to hear how the general public will receive the book.

“I mostly will be fascinated to know if the public likes it, not the Washington types,” she said, “because I know what’s going to happen, because I’ve done it myself, you look at a book and see if you’re in the index and you see if they’ve said enough about you and if what they’ve said is nice.”

So the former secretary of State and U.S. representative to the U.N. — who noted that for now she doesn’t plan on endorsing anyone for the Democratic presidential nomination — said she is excited to leave the Washington world for her five-week book tour, which will take her across the country and eventually to the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, France and the Czech Republic. And since she became recognized for her unique and ever-present pins that accompany every outfit, finding the right pins to bring on the trip has become a major packing concern.

“I’m taking the eagle I got once I was told I was secretary of State and then I will probably take some that will fit my mood. I’ll probably take some shoes.”

Albright will be in Washington on Thursday to launch her book in D.C. and will appear at the National Press Club at 12:30 p.m. Friday for a lunch, discussion and book signing. Tickets are $16 for NPC members, $28 for guests of members and $35 for nonmembers. Call (202) 662-7501 for reservations.