Most Americans take their system of government for granted, as if Moses himself had delivered the Constitution engraved on marble tablets. However, for outsiders, apart from the circus of primaries and the system of institutionalized bribery and corruption that passes for campaign
finance, perhaps its strangest anomaly is the Cabinet, which, unlike in a parliamentary system, contains people who may never have been elected to any public office. Like the hereditary principle, this arrangement occasionally throws up outstanding incumbents, but as generations of Windsors and Hapsburgs proved, they are the exception.
Reading Madam Secretary, one is forced to the conclusion that Madeleine Albright is no such exception to the rule. Before she joined the Clinton Cabinet, initially as US ambassador to the United Nations, Albright’s highest elected office was to the board of the Beauvoir School–a private establishment catering to the first three grades, affiliated with the National Cathedral in Washington. One suspects that it was not a contested election, but it certainly was a good place for an uncertain arriviste with social and political ambitions to network with the capital’s elite.
A desire for social respectability has always been intense in Albright, a former Catholic who became an Episcopalian after marrying into money, and who long suffered from a curiously convenient amnesia about her Jewish relatives. Her claim never to have heard or suspected that her family died in the Holocaust and her belated public acknowledgment of her Jewish origins are thoroughly unconvincing. But then she was dealing with real politics. In his bean-counting mode, Bill Clinton had lots of Jews but not many women in his Cabinet, and it could actually have tipped the balance against her appointment.
A noticeable aspect of her memoirs is the convenient lacunae whenever she tries to cover her own rear and secondly Bill Clinton’s–and she does often. But her prejudices come through loud and clear. As the child of Czech refugees, she had more justification than most for her reflexive anti-Communism and perhaps even for her Eurocentrism, which accounts for her enthusiasm for intervention in the Balkans and her absolute (and carefully skirted) scuppering of any intervention in, say, Rwanda.
It is true, as Albright has argued, that sometimes the American liberal school of foreign policy really does forget the big stick that Teddy Roosevelt advised should accompany soft talk. One need only look at Jimmy Carter’s redemptive embrace of every bloodthirsty tyrant as soon as an ultimatum matures. But the other wing of Democratic foreign policy, the Scoop Jackson school, is based on a visceral anti-Communism, often tinged with uncritical support for Israel. Its difference from the official Republican version of the same has been that it is more cosmopolitan and less isolationist–and often more ideological. A pragmatic Republican like Bob Dole saw no reason for Kansas grain farmers to suffer because some of the East Coast policy-makers had a feud with Moscow and wanted sanctions.
Madeleine Albright’s problem was that she was working with the wrong President. Her ideological roots made her strident and tough-talking, but Clintonian caution meant that her tough talk was usually backed up by only the tiniest and most detumescent of sticks. Ironically, Albright tried to spur Colin Powell into committing the US military and met far more resistance from him than he has offered to the hawks in the Pentagon since he succeeded to her position.