If revealing one's self-doubts, vanities, ambitions and heartbreaks is an indication of fundamental honesty, then former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has written a very honest book, indeed. Madam Secretary is a funny, imprudently gossipy memoir. It's also a fascinating handbook on how national policy is made and diplomacy works—or doesn't work.
The first fifth of the book covers Albright's life from her birth in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1937 to her appointment in 1992 as America's permanent representative to the United Nations. The remaining pages are crisis-by-crisis glimpses into her work at the U.N. and her subsequent duties as head of the State Department, the thorny position she held from 1997 to 2001.
Albright's family fled Czechoslovakia and lived in England during World War II. When they returned, her father, Josef Korbel, served as the country's ambassador to Yugoslavia and Albania. After the Communists took over Czechoslovakia, the Korbel family moved to America and Korbel accepted a teaching post at the University of Denver. (One of his students there was the future National Security Advisor, Condoleeza Rice.) Although the Korbel family suffered a measure of privation during their international wanderings, Madeleine had the advantage of a superior private education that helped her win a scholarship to Wellesley College. There she availed herself of the social and political network made up of the well-to-do and the well-connected. While at Wellesley, she met newspaper heir Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, whom she married after graduation. The marriage, which produced three children, lasted for nearly 24 years. Albright's account of her husband leaving her for another woman shows both her vulnerability and tenacity.
First involving herself in politics as a legislative assistant for Senator Edmund Muskie, Albright moved steadily up the ladder of power, always mindful, she says, of the example she was setting for other women. She served in the Carter administration, worked as a foreign policy advisor for Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale and taught at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. By the time Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, she was well groomed for the big time.
Albright valiantly defends Clinton's foreign policy and her part in shaping it as the Cold War melted away. She clearly relishes walking among the mighty and admits to particular fondness for Hillary Clinton, Czech president Vaclav Havel, and, oddly enough, the former senator and raging conservative, Jesse Helms. Her darkest villains were Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic.
The most engaging behind-the-scenes stories in the book include her meetings with North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and her attendance at the failed Wye River Conference, which sought to end hostilities between the Israelis and Palestinians. Her descriptions of places, people and temperaments are brightly cinematic, not the dull stuff of politics one might expect.
Besides photos and editorial cartoons (not all of them flattering to Albright), the book has a chronology of the author's activities, a list of her travels as U.N. ambassador and secretary of state and a thorough index. This is a remarkably readable book.