Magazine article Book

Living Her Story: Combining Her History-Making Service as a Diplomat with the Remarkable Story of Her Own Life Is the Trick Behind Madeleine Albright's New Memoir

Magazine article Book

Living Her Story: Combining Her History-Making Service as a Diplomat with the Remarkable Story of Her Own Life Is the Trick Behind Madeleine Albright's New Memoir

Article excerpt

AFTER SIDNEY BLUMENTHAL, AFTER HILLARY, DO we really need another Clintoinite's reflection on the way things were? If it's Madeleine Albright doing the reflecting, we just might. The sixty-six-year-old former secretary of state and ambassador to the United Nations has lived a life that, if presented as fiction, would be rejected by an editor as too symmetrical, too symbolic, too full of coincidence. In Albright's September memoir, Madam Secretary, she interweaves that personal story with a thorough and efficient recounting of the historical events in which she's participated. Characters and situations that usually get the spotlight--Bill and Hillary, the United Nations, the Balkans and various African hot spots, for instance--play supporting roles in an account of a little refugee girl, born into the middle of the last century, who comes to perfectly illustrate the potential of her adopted country.

Albright collaborated with her longtime speech-writer Bill Woodward on Madam Secretary, and the result is, if lengthy, the best kind of bait-and-switch: Readers are likely to stick with the book's foreign-affairs minutiae because of the hook of Albright's own frank and funny take on recent history. A fervent believer that foreign relations is unfairly dismissed as soporific by too many people, Albright makes it clear in an interview that she means to proselytize: "I hope the book will make people love international relations," she says.

"I also do think I've got a pretty good story as far as women are concerned--not just women of my age," she notes, pointing out that her "zigzaggy" life shows that women can achieve anything they want. "A lot of young women come up to me and say that I made a difference for them," she says.

Albright, a college professor since the 1980s, further believes that people who participate in history have an obligation to write about it. She considers political memoirs essential teaching tools, and while she is quick to say that Madam Secretary isn't the definitive report on Clinton-era foreign policy, she is well aware of the words and facts she feels were misconstrued during the administration. ("One of the things that I think you learn in public service," she says, "is that words are all you have, basically, as tools; and that used in the wrong way, they can do terrible harm or be misinterpreted.") Accordingly, she devotes some pages to pointing out threats--such as Al Qaeda and North Korea--that she feels the Clinton crew tried to address before they got worse.

The book is leavened by surprisingly frequent laugh-out-loud moments: Albright turning around a skirt to avoid being photographed with a salad-dressing stain on its front ("Not a move with which Henry Kissinger could have gotten away," she writes); Albright and Russia's then-foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov singing an altered West Side Story medley ("Madeleine Albright--I just met a girl named Madeleine Albright") at a 1998 Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting; Albright getting so aggravated that she has to unwind by knitting gifts for her grandchildren; Albright--known for her distinctive brooches--picking out a spider pin for the "(rare) occasions when [she] was feeling devious." Often, her tale reads like an entertaining lecture from the popular professor that she is: Albright knows that the important stuff goes down best when interrupted by something funny or by a story. …

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