From Madlenka to Madeleine: a life’s courseMadeleine Albright tells of simultaneously holding two seemingly conflicting views: that for most of her life she would never have considered heading the State Department a realistic possibility, and yet that her entire life story was in a way a preparation for that role.
That theme runs through “Madame Secretary,” her memoir of her years in the Clinton administration, as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and later as secretary of state.
Waiting for Bill Clinton’s phone call letting her know whether she had been chosen as secretary of state, she says, “Neither in my heart nor in my head did I ever believe the President would select me.”
After her nomination, Ms. Albright recalls thinking, “I had arrived in [New York] harbor half a century before, an 11-year-old immigrant from Prague staring up at the Statue of Liberty. How astonishing that that girl was about to become the 64th secretary of state and the highest-ranking woman in U.S. history.”
The memoir covers a lot of ground, beginning with her childhood in Prague and Belgrade as the daughter of a Czech diplomat, her family’s flight to England at the outbreak of World War II and eventual arrival in the United States in 1948.
Its range extends from the mundane (there are several references to “bad hair days,” in the literal sense) to the very personal (her reactions to the breakdown of her marriage to newspaper scion Joseph Albright and her discovery of her Jewish ancestry) to the world events that she participated in and helped shape.
Yet many readers may be more interested in learning about the inner workings of the Clinton administration and how foreign policy decisions were made and carried out, and the second half of this 562-page book is devoted to the major issues of the Clinton years, including Somalia, Rwanda, the Balkans, the Middle East and North Korea.
Unsurprisingly, Ms. Albright defends the administration’s policies, while acknowledging that mistakes were made, particularly in Somalia and Rwanda, which many see as a nadir of U.S. foreign policy in the 1990s. But anyone hoping for major revelations will be disappointed.
The chapters on North Korea and the Middle East are among the strongest, partly because Ms. Albright humanizes the events and players, describing, for example, the hijinks and pique of both Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, at a summit in October 1998.
Equally vivid is her discussion of her visit to North Korea in late 2000, in the waning days of the Clinton administration, and her meeting with the North’s leader, Kim Jong-il. She tells of almost being overwhelmed by the welcoming extravaganza Mr. Kim had arranged for her, calling it an “Olympics opening ceremony on steroids.”
The debate over the Clinton administration’s policy will not be resolved by this memoir, but it does provide a look at the life of a woman who was involved in many of the major events at the end of the 20th century, yet is someone with whom we can identify because of her warmth and humor.
Madam Secretary: A Memoir
By Madeleine Albright
Miramax Books, 562 pages
At Kyobo Book Store for 39,490 won
by Linda Mattson