Georgetown. New Year's Eve, 1996. At the corner of 30th and N Street, inside the red brick Federal mansion that Abraham Lincoln's son Robert Todd once called home, a fire crackles softly at either end of the long, rose-colored living room. Tiny colored lights on the Christmas tree sparkle and dance off the 18-foot ceiling, and the silky voice of Ella Fitzgerald floats through the hallway. Guests are shoulder-to-shoulder, politicians and journalists, elegantly turned out in diamonds and black tie, toasting each other with clever, irreverent one-liners, clinking fluted, crystal champagne glasses shimmering with well-iced Moët & Chandon Brut. In the kitchen, Ernesto Cadima, crisp in his white jacket and chef's toque, is tossing a ham hock and sautéed onions into the pan of black-eyed peas. By 9:45, the annual party of Washington media stars Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee is well under way. Hollywood diva Lauren Bacall, "Betty" to her friends, has arrived. Colin Powell and Al Gore are en route. Their entrance will be noted, casually, of course. No elbowing and finger-pointing. Most of those in the room have met them before.
Just after 10 p.m., a 1992 bulletproof black Cadillac Fleetwood limousine, equipped with a "secure" telephone for conversations with the president, pulls up to the curb, followed by a black Chevrolet Suburban "war wagon" carrying four security agents. Out steps Madeleine Albright, the newly nominated secretary of state, radiant in black silk. As she enters the pine-decked hallway, all heads turn. Even before the butler whisks away her black velvet wrap, she is quickly embraced with hugs, kisses, and shrieks of joy. Albright had not intended to come this evening. In fact, she had not accepted the highly coveted invitation until that very morning when a friend persuaded her to put away her black briefing books for a few hours, that it was important to be seen at places like this, to do a drop-by. Albright mulled it over. She had no other plans, but something rubbed her the wrong way. It was so damned typical of Washington, a city obsessed with power, fickle to the core, a climate where who's up and who's down changes faster than the weather.
She had lived right here in Georgetown, only a few blocks away, for more than 30 years. Yet this was the first time that Sally and Ben had invited her to their fête, the first time she was thought of as part of their A-list. Albright told friends that she was not sure that she wanted to attend. This was the uptown crowd. Would she fit in? The irony was delicious.When Madeleine Korbel Albright became secretary of state on January 23, 1997, the white male establishment that has long dominated American foreign policy was taken aback. It was one thing to entertain the notion of a woman in charge, to put a woman's name on the "short list" to placate the feminists. It was quite another for a woman to actually move into the spacious, seventh floor office at the State Department, where even the secretary's private clothes closet had been outfitted with a sock drawer for men.
Clinton made a dramatic statement when he chose Albright for the Number One cabinet position. Although women have made considerable progress in breaking into middle- and upper-management, very few make it to the top. Of the Fortune 500 companies, only two have women CEOs. Female executives hold high-level jobs, but all too frequently, they are in departments that do not lead to advancement. There was another, more subtle irony to Clinton's choice. For a significant number of middle-aged male WASPs, who consider American foreign policy their private province, the day Madeleine Albright became secretary of state will go down in history for one reason: It was the day they were beaten by a girl.
Despite criticism that Albright is not a visionary like Thomas Jefferson, the country's first secretary of state, or a strategist like Dean Acheson in the Truman administration, she was, in other ways, more than qualified for the job. She had earned a Ph.D. in political science and international relations, worked on Capitol Hill, served in the Carter White House as a staff member on the National Security Council, taught foreign policy at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and represented the United States as the American ambassador to the United Nations. She had established herself as an outspoken advocate of human rights, an issue of growing importance in the United States' delicate relationship with China. And, having fled both Nazism and communism in her native Czechoslovakia, she understood the dangers of living in an oppressed society. "She knows what it means when the powerful decide about the less powerful and that when they divide spheres of interest among themselves, this always leads to wars and misfortune," says Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic and a friend of Albright since they met in 1989.
It is this visceral understanding of modern European history that distinguishes her from most American leaders. "This is what Madeleine experienced personally," Havel says, "so she is aware of the meaning of symbols like Munich, symbols of division that never lead to peace and stability. She knows all about appeasement, about democracy making concessions to a dictator." Albright knows firsthand what happens to a country when dictators raise their swords, tyranny reigns and everyone in the apartment building heads for the air-raid shelter.
Just as important to her selection, however, was the fact that Albright was the candidate with whom the Clintons--both Bill and Hillary--felt most comfortable. President Clinton realized that he had in her a dazzling speaker with unquestioned loyalty to the people she served, a natural politico who could handle the press while giving him credit for American foreign policy decisions and not seek acclaim herself, as Henry Kissinger had done under Richard Nixon. "She was tough and strong on the issues that I thought were important, especially on Bosnia," President Clinton says. "She supported what I did on Haiti. When we had to do difficult things that didn't have a lot of popular support in the beginning, she on principle agreed with me. I could see she was willing to take ... risks."
Perhaps Albright's greatest skill is her understanding of American politics, a game that requires a sharp eye, a well-tuned ear and, inevitably, a sizable dollop of good luck. Too often in the past, foreign policy decisions were made by politicians with no experience or feel for diplomacy. Or diplomats shaped policy with little understanding of the wishes or culture of those people in whose name the policy was formulated. Albright is a rarity among our national leaders, a person who understands both American politics and foreign policy and how one affects the other. In this delicate operetta that combines the two, Albright is a master, the crystalline voice of justice and common sense. "I thought she would be the person most likely to connect with the American people, to bring the message of our foreign policy home," Clinton said.
This is not a book that analyzes Albright's approach to American foreign policy. Rather, it is the life story of a woman whose climb to the top rung of American politics was as unanticipated as it was unconventional. While any serious biography about a secretary of state cannot ignore foreign policy, I leave it to others with far more expertise in world affairs to assess the official impact of her tenure. My mission was to follow the path Albright walked to shatter the glass ceiling and become the first female secretary of state; to understand how, in a society that treats abandoned first wives like driftwood, Albright blossomed after her divorce. Who is this woman? Where did she come from? How does she think? What makes her, among all the other brilliant men and women in America, stand out?
I began this book with no road map except the desire to trace Albright's life, which I already knew had far more texture than that of most public officials. I first met her when I was covering the vice presidential campaign of Geraldine M. Ferraro to whom Albright was foreign policy adviser. I interviewed her in my capacity as a TIME magazine correspondent when she was ambassador to the United Nations. She was once my guest at a White House correspondents dinner, and we have numerous friends in common.
My goal has been to show how the life of this Secretary of State was shaped: growing up in wartime Europe, coming of age in 1950s America, marrying into a family with more money than compassion, and spending her working years, like countless mothers for whom she blazed the trail, trying to master the precarious dance between family and job, vocation and avocation.
Albright has had a complete life--husband, children, dog--what Zorba the Greek called "the full catastrophe." She has known the security of loving parents, the comfort and rhythm of married life, the joy and challenge of raising children, the penetrating sadness of a stillbirth, the gnawing emptiness of her parents' deaths, the pain and anger of divorce. Ironically, the divorce liberated her, firing a fierce ambition that propelled her to the top echelon of American government.
This is the story of a woman who cares deeply for her daughters and family, a generous friend who regularly opens her home, whether to a friend needing respite from a messy marriage or someone simply stopping overnight in the city. It is the story of a homemaker turned politician turned diplomat, who thrives on friendships with women and enjoys the company of men.
Like many successful and driven people, Albright places great confidence in her skills and ability to get things done, but she is also a woman of abiding insecurities who needs constant reassurance. Off stage, friends find her surprisingly vulnerable, convinced that someone or something out there is going to bring her down. She is more obsessed with her image than almost anyone on the public stage today.
This need to prove that she is just as smart as men at the bargaining table is one shared by many professional women. "Prominent men are considered smart until they are proven stupid," says Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. "Women tend to be considered stupid until proven smart. The suspicion is that they do not deserve to be there."
Shortly after I started my research, Michael Dobbs, a veteran correspondent for The Washington Post and a one-time colleague of mine in Moscow, reported that Albright's parents had been born Jewish and that three of her grandparents had died in the Holocaust.
The story created tremendous controversy. Albright was raised in the Roman Catholic church, so the fact that she might have a Jewish heritage was interesting, but not remarkable. What was astonishing was that she claimed ignorance of her ethnic history. The Czech-born Secretary of State, who had spent her career studying the history of Eastern Europe, insisted that she had only recently learned that her parents might have been Jewish, that she knew her grandparents died in World War II, but that she had never asked how. Nor, she said, had her Czech-born father, Josef Korbel, ever discussed his own family history with his children, even though he spent the first part of his career as a diplomat in service to the Czechoslovak government and the latter part teaching and writing about Eastern European history. Albright's assertion of ignorance stretched the imagination. It appeared that she was either extraordinarily naive or evading the truth. For a leader who had been in office less than two weeks, neither thought was reassuring.
Dobbs' reporting opened new avenues as I tried to understand the family history and experiences that have shaped Albright's life. As I traced her life from Prague to London, back to Prague and Belgrade, to Long Island, Denver, Wellesley, New York, Chicago and Washington--from Georgetown to Capitol Hill, the White House to, eventually, Foggy Bottom--I found very few people who believe she was truly ignorant of her family heritage. In interviews in London and Prague with a dozen friends and colleagues of the Korbel family, not one thought it possible.
Yet, almost to a person, those who knew and worked with Albright's father say that at every turn, he distanced himself from his Jewish heritage, that he was an ambitious, pragmatic man who thought that being labeled a Jew would be an obstacle to his career and his children's future. "The Czech government was not anti-Semitic, but it didn't help to be a Jew in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs," said the late Lev Braun, a BBC announcer and a Czech translator who worked with Korbel during World War II.
Albright's love and admiration for her father are well known. At her swearing in as secretary of state, she cited him as the one "who taught me to love freedom." But there is more to Korbel's history than his daughter has discussed in public, hues of gray in a complex portrait of warring political ideals that she has painted more in black and white.
To understand Albright, one must understand Josef Korbel. Intellectually and emotionally, they are very much alike. As well as being an intelligent, gregarious and witty diplomat who spoke six languages and had a reading knowledge of two more, Korbel had an uncanny instinct for survival, an instinct that caused him to surrender his name, his citizenship, and his politics and to bury his religious heritage.
Korbel seemed to want to forget not only his roots, but even the Holocaust itself. While he wrote five scholarly books about modern Eastern European history, he barely mentioned the fate of Jews in World War II, the most horrific chapter in the period of his expertise. In his 1977 book, Twentieth Century Czechoslovakia, the Meanings of Its History, published almost 30 years after he arrived in America, Korbel notes the existence of concentration camps almost as an aside and makes less than a dozen minor references to the Czechoslovak Jewish population that was virtually wiped out by Adolf Hitler. His longest reference is three sentences. In his later life, Korbel became a professor of international studies at the University of Denver, teaching European history and mentoring scores of students. He could not have had a more attentive pupil than his daughter Madeleine. It was Josef Korbel who taught her that a leader must articulate foreign policy in ways ordinary people can understand, that in times of crisis, citizens will not rally to the cause if they do not understand the impact it will have on their daily lives. Korbel was a loyal aide to Czechoslovak President Eduard Benes and Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk, but he was critical of their handling of the Munich accord because they did not explain it clearly to the Czech people. Korbel also thought Benes would have been a more effective leader had he spruced up his appearance and looked more distinctive. "His unprepossessing appearance deprived him of physical charisma," Korbel wrote.
Consciously or unconsciously, Madeleine Albright absorbed these lessons well. Her father's analysis of what happened at Munich became the essence of the kitchen-table politics she takes to America's heartland at every opportunity. Her ability to reduce complex foreign policy issues to bumper-sticker slogans is one of her most celebrated qualities.
And unlike Benes, Albright looks like a leader. Although short of stature and hardly svelte, she has learned to cultivate a distinctive look, using her signature jewel brooches, patriotic silk scarves, and a black Texas Stetson to make her presence known--and felt. Unlike Pamela Harriman, the late ambassador to France and doyenne of Democratic politics, who conquered a host of prominent and wealthy men in her bedroom before she invited them into her salon, Albright is not a femme fatale. Raised in an Eastern European tradition by parents who taught her that a woman can be both intelligent and delightful, she uses coquettish charm to elicit support from men without alienating other women. Most important, Albright personifies values that we all celebrate. She is the immigrant who works harder than the rest of us to succeed, the physical embodiment of steely American patriotism. Despite her lifetime in Democratic politics and a reputation for bluntness, it is that patriotism, combined with her wartime experiences, that makes Albright acceptable to conservatives on Capitol Hill.
At the same time, Albright is the perpetual outsider: the Czech-born child in wartime London; the daughter of privileged diplomats in post-war Eastern Europe; the 11-year-old refugee girl arriving in New York; one of only a handful of foreigners at a fancy private school in Denver; the scholarship student and self-styled Democrat among well-heeled Republicans and Yankees at Wellesley College; the daughter-in-law of a prominent and wealthy newspaper family that never really accepted her, even after she converted from Roman Catholicism to Episcopalianism to please them. A sense of separation, and distinction, and a striving for legitimacy stretched through her life. In the '60s, when young mothers were expected to stay home to raise their families, Albright enrolled in graduate school to learn, of all things, the Russian language. As a young woman looking for a career, she did not choose teaching or nursing or art history, occupations deemed "appropriate" for women of her generation, but the arcane field of foreign policy, long the domain of Ivy League-educated men. In the early '70s, members of the Woman's National Democratic Club asked her to advise them as to how to have more of an impact on national policy, yet they rarely invited her to join them after the meetings for an informal lunch with the girls.
In many ways, Albright has been and is a bridge, spanning generations, cultures and party politics as few before her have been able to do. As a child, she was eager to meld her family's Czech background with her new life in America; as a young mother on the board of Washington's exclusive Beauvoir School, the National Cathedral Elementary School, she worked to improve communication between school officials and parents; as a career woman in the White House, she became a friendly link between her warring Polish mentors, Zbigniew Brzezinski, her boss at the National Security Council, and Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie, who had given Albright her first job on Capitol Hill. Now, as secretary of state, she has developed an unlikely and remarkable rapport with the conservative chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms, whose cooperation, or intransigence, could spell success or failure for foreign policy in the Clinton administration. As she moved from country to country, culture to culture, language to language, war zone to war zone, school to school, marriage to divorce, academia to politics, slowly climbing the political ladder rung by rung, Albright reached out, eager to make friends, generous in sharing her wealth and contacts, all the while remaining enormously ambitious and focused on success. Many people ask if Albright cooperated with me as I researched her life. The answer is no, and yes. When I began reporting in January 1997, Albright's friends reacted with enthusiasm. But several weeks later, when The Washington Post published its story about her Jewish roots, Albright issued an edict that she, her family, and her closest staff members would not cooperate with any of those writing books about her. Hoping to change her mind, I wrote Albright, as well as her brother, sister, and two closest staff members. I asked them to reconsider, arguing that those who know her best would be the most likely to paint the most compelling portrait of who she is. For nine months, I received no response.
Yet as I began interviewing Albright's friends and associates, it was clear that the secretary was monitoring my progress with an interested eye. On several occasions, her press secretary, James P. "Jamie" Rubin, told me Albright's staff was "re-evaluating" her decision not to cooperate with biographers, implying that if I wrote favorable stories about her for my employer, TIME magazine, they might be more compelled to cooperate. I told Rubin that I had never written a news story for what it would get me or the person in the news, and I would not write a book that way.
As time went on, Albright's team began to soften. When I was putting finishing touches on the manuscript, they provided me with an extraordinary document, an eleven-page, single-spaced letter, penned in longhand by Albright's mother, Mandula Korbel. The essay offers personal details of the Korbels' married life, as well as details of their escape from the Nazis. Written in hesitant English, with many phrases crossed out, it is a poignant love letter to her deceased husband, a wife's attempt to preserve on paper details of a life long since etched into her heart. Because women of this generation leave so few papers, their view of the world often goes unnoticed. Mandula Korbel's essay makes it clear that the couple struggled harder than they ever let on to deal with the horror of what they left behind. Yet in the eleven pages, it is never suggested that one reason they left Czechoslovakia was because they were Jewish.
In the end, less than a week before the manuscript was due, I had three sessions with Albright, totaling about six hours. The first was on Saturday morning, February 7, at her house. The black Chevy "war wagon" with four security agents was parked outside. When an agent unlocked the front door to let me in, the secretary of state was on her knees in front of the fireplace, fanning logs until they flamed. A second session the following week took place in her inner sanctum at the State Department.
In each interview, Albright was enormously forthcoming and open about her life, eager to recount stories and determined that I get the facts straight.
She was also aggressive, as well as dismissive of individuals who she suspected had said something negative about her. As my mom used to say, she is not breast of chicken. At one point, when I advanced a theory about men and women with which she took umbrage, she implored, "Don't write about yourself or other women. Write about me." When I repeated to her what innumerable aides have said--that if a story is 99 percent positive, she will focus on the other one percent--she looked me in the eyes and said without apology: "So eliminate the one percent."
Albright had noopportunity to approve or reject any material used in the book. It contains disclosures she will dislike and judgments with which she will disagree. In the name of accuracy and at her request, I went over with her the facts of what she calls "the Jewish business."
Six months after Albright became secretary of state, she visited her native Prague and, for the first time, confronted the raw proof of her family's Jewish heritage. As she stood outside the Jewish Town Hall, her eyes filled with tears as she explained what it meant to her to see her grandparents' names among the 77,297 Holocaust victims painted in red and black on the walls of the Pinkas Synagogue. "Identity is a complex compilation of influences and experiences--past and present," she said. "I have always felt that my life has been strengthened and enriched by my heritage and my past. And I have always felt that my life story is also the story of the evil of totalitarianism and the turbulence of 20th century Europe."
While the statement is a bit grandiose, it is also correct. And Albright has reason to be enormously proud of her personal history. She is part of a generation of immigrants, many of them optimistic, idealistic, and hard-working self-starters like herself, who are changing the face of America as it heads into the 21st century.
Hers is also the story of a woman who dared to dream, whose curiosity, ambition, and determination to master the rules of the game and explore new challenges distinguished her from her peers from childhood through middle age.
She is an individual with a deep reservoir of intelligence, savoir faire, and common sense, a woman who takes advantage of the seasons of her life, decade by decade.