Flirtatious and ferocious at the same time, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stamps the world stage over Kosovo, threatening fire from heaven if Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic does not agree to peace terms. Just as over Bosnia, she may even believe what she says. Unfortunately, the Serb leader is much better informed. He knows that whatever the public differences, Belgrade and Washington are united in wanting to avoid NATO airstrikes (even if they come to pass). Albright’s grandstanding is a necessary part of the charade in which the United States acts scary and the Serbs act scared.
With her ability to be stridently parochial, and insular as well, in six different languages, Madeleine Albright has been the perfect Secretary of State for this Administration. Never one to let substance interfere with a good soundbite, she has reinvented herself whenever it has been advantageous to her ambitions.
But does she really merit a biography on the scale of Seasons of Her Life? As Ann Blackman frames the problem, “What makes her, among all the other brilliant men and women in America, stand out?” Almost inadvertently, emerging from Blackman’s hard work is a portrait of Albright that shows she would be outstanding mainly by dint of her mediocrity in any such gathering (thus well meriting the nickname Madeleine Halfbright, which State Department staff members gave her after her appointment as US ambassador to the UN).
However, she would also stand out for her burning ambition–and for her intensive cultivation of social and political connections of the kind available to someone of substantial wealth. (Madame Secretary benefited from a generous divorce settlement after what she has described as a “Cinderella marriage” to a millionaire.) Blackman actually writes that “Albright’s greatest appeal is that she is just like us, only wealthier”! This has perhaps unwitting overtones of Hemingway’s putdown of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s remark about the rich–“They are different from you and me”: “Yes, they have more money.” But it really sums up the secret of Albright’s success more aptly than any neofeminist reading of progress from the log cabin of Kinder, Küche, Kirche to political glory.
In becoming the first woman to head the State Department, Albright achieved cult status in some superficially minded quarters. People Blackman terms the golden girls–Democrats like Barbara Mikulski, Barbara Kennelly and Anne Wexler–spoke out prominently in her favor, for example. But many of us who followed the careers of Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi need convincing that the absence of cojones in itself guarantees wisdom, virtue or empathetic statesmanship. Even so, those redoubtable women, political warts and all, were elected despite their sex. Blackman’s account makes it clear that Albright was appointed to public office by a symbol-sensitive White House because she was a woman. “Frankly, [President Clinton] wanted another woman in the cabinet,” Blackman quotes a wisely anonymous but assumedly knowledgeable source as saying. In fact, cojones did help Albright directly, since her use of the word at the United Nations over Castro’s downing of a flight of Cuban exiles helped lock her in the media eye as a staunch anticommunist–and an electoral asset for the President in Florida.
Blackman’s bibliography cites Albright’s PhD dissertation, her MA submission for Columbia, one from Wellesley and a mere quartet of memorable public speeches, significant for their carefully crafted soundbites rather than their insights. Certainly no male so thinly qualified would have even been on the short list to head State–nor would a better-qualified woman lacking Albright’s social connections. Among her predecessors, Warren Christopher may not have played to the gallery, but he had a long record of public service and had been Deputy Secretary of State prior to his Cabinet appointment. Cyrus Vance had been Deputy Secretary of State as well (and LBJ’s emissary to North Vietnam) before he was elevated.
Blackman’s journalistic integrity rescues this book from the hagiographic gushing that it occasionally approaches. However, that creates a constant dissonance between biographical intent and delivery of the content. For example, she asserts that Albright has made sure that “women’s rights are a central priority of US foreign policy” but then goes on to report that there has been no great leap forward in the number of female ambassadors on her watch. She quotes a close friend of Albright as saying, “Gender didn’t hit her in any real way until she got to the United Nations. Feminism wasn’t an important cause for her until recently.”
Even at that, it appears mainly to be a stepping stone. For example, Blackman reports that while Albright was nominally in charge of the US delegation to the International Women’s Conference in Beijing, she disdained actual attendance, except insofar as she could share Hillary Clinton’s plane for the one-day fly-in visit. Significantly, the book is as silent as Albright was herself about the sexually adventurous Clinton’s sacking of Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders (another, more neglected female first) for her statement at the UN that masturbation did not carry a risk of AIDS. In a more political vein, Albright’s first move on arrival at the UN was to push out April Glaspie, the former chargé d’affaires in Iraq who carried the can for the Bush Administration in its confused signals to Baghdad before the start of the Gulf War. Glaspie had been serving her penance at the US Mission to the UN. In short, sisterhood may have been a force in getting Albright appointed, but it is not a concept she has put into practice much herself.
Blackman also records that her globetrotting protagonist was not going to attend the Copenhagen UN Social Summit at all, considering the war against global poverty too soft a subject for her consideration. Until, that is, Al Gore announced he was going, whereupon Albright, then UN ambassador, decided to hitch a lift with him. As Blackman says, she “understood that if she were to have any chance at higher office, she would need to spend time with people who could influence the decision.” Brown-nosing becomes an art form in these pages, which occasionally read like Diary of a Nobody in the third person, as they record Albright’s delight at getting this or that invitation, or mortification at being left off this or that power list.
Despite the log-cabin-to-State-Department nonsense that she and her spinmeisters have woven, it is clear that Albright came from a relatively affluent and privileged background. No amount of spin can transform a privileged, upper-middle-class upbringing, with governesses and Swiss private schools, into a life of deprivation.
Few people would regard being the daughter of a college professor and having to take a scholarship to Wellesley as swimming against the social stream. After marrying into money, Albright used her wealth to consolidate her position as a Georgetown hostess whose rabidly hawkish cold war sentiments, seemingly picked up through hero worship of her Czech émigré father, could always find a popular echo among Democratic movers and shakers. (Albright was an outsider of her own creation, since she had set herself on being rich, WASP and Wellesleyan and remade herself in this image, renouncing Catholicism for a comfortable Episcopalianism.)
At least we are spared any hint of a radical past. Albright, it seems, was a proto-neocon from the beginning. During the sixties, when, Blackman stereotypically tells us, “antiwar radicals who grew their hair long and smoked pot” and “black-power advocates sporting ‘Afros'” besieged college presidents, Albright found the demonstrations at Columbia “a pain in the neck.” Albright, we deduce, neither wore an Afro nor smoked the demon weed; instead, she struggled with her postgraduate work and wrestled with the dilemma of whether to leave the children at home with the housekeeper.
Interestingly, and once again reflecting the dissonance between the biographer’s task and this volume’s contents, the body of Blackman’s text takes seriously Albright’s amazing amnesia about her Jewish ancestry and the price her grandparents paid for their ethnicity. Blackman does record in her introduction that she found “very few people who believe [Albright] was truly ignorant of her family heritage.” As Blackman herself says, it “stretched the imagination.” Within months of her appointment as Secretary of State, in other words, Albright was revealed to be someone who was either suffering premature Alzheimer’s or who was pathologically covering up knowledge of her family history. On the face of it, neither is an optimal characteristic for running the foreign policy of the world’s only superpower. Blackman fails to consider what the effect of these revelations would have been if they had surfaced before her appointment: Discussions made public at the time reveal that Albright might have found herself scoring more negative points for her Jewishness than positive points for her womanhood at a bean-counting White House.
There is much in this book with the ring of truth–but what rings out loudest is the sound of silence when it comes to examining the record of Albright’s public life as opposed to her personal history. Blackman disclaims any attempt to analyze her subject’s approach to US foreign policy in favor of following “the path Albright walked to shatter the glass ceiling.” Would it be conceivable for a biographer of Henry Kissinger to write about his struggle with his Austrian-Jewish origins in an administration that was frequently tinged with anti-Semitism–and not mention Vietnam or Cambodia?
Yet in Seasons of Her Life, Blackman gives almost as much prominence to Albright’s presidency of the trustees of the Beauvoir Elementary School in Washington, DC–an affluent private establishment not much patronized by the majority population of the District–as she does to her career at the UN. In one way this is reasonable, since it was the nearest thing to public office Albright held before becoming ambassador to the UN in 1993.
There is much talk of facials, hairdos, dating and dresses, but not one single mention of Rwanda. In fact, in 1994 Albright fought single-handedly in the Security Council to stop any UN reinforcements whatsoever from going to Kigali while somewhere between half a million and a million Tutsis were being massacred. All agree that loyalty to Clinton has been one of her virtues. She was never more loyal than in this championing of Presidential Decision Directive 25, which ruled that the United States would veto any UN peacekeeping operation that did not directly benefit US interests. Her pride in her Czech origins is continually stated, but in this case it was ironically justified. “The crocodiles in the Kagera River and the vultures over Rwanda have never had it so good,” Karel Kovanda, the Czech ambassador to the UN, reprimanded his colleagues on the Security Council (and by implication one in particular) in an attempt to get reinforcements for the tiny UN contingent in Kigali.
In another example of diplomacy by soundbite and photo-op, Blackman reports that Albright went to Somalia to wear a flak-jacket with US troops for the cameras and that she decided Boutros Boutros-Ghali should be fired as Secretary General of the UN because of that organization’s failure there. However, Blackman does not mention her heroine’s role in pushing the UN to fight a vendetta with Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid, which could be regarded as the cause of the debacle in which eighteen US Rangers were killed. Nor does she mention that the key incident in which the soldiers were killed was an American operation initiated and carried out without even informing, let alone consulting, UN forces on the ground.
Blackman gives the dubious credit for sacking Boutros-Ghali to Albright without really explaining why she did it. Perhaps closer examination would have led Blackman to examine the most likely hypothesis: that, Salome-like, Albright danced in front of Jesse Helms with Boutros-Ghali’s head, in return for promises of easy confirmation as Secretary of State from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman.
Blackman fails to explore what is, on the face of it, a highly unlikely yet continuing alliance between Albright and Helms. In fact, they share an intensely parochial and reactionary view of the world. Perhaps the most germane comment is the cable home from former British Ambassador Sir John Weston, who, in best “Yes, Minister” style, alerted the Foreign Office to the failings of the new Secretary of State. “She is not always good at accepting the need to apply to the United States the same standards and expectations she requires of others…. There is a mildly irritating tendency to create a fixed position and then to look around for others to save her from the detailed consequences of it…. Her reaction to being exposed or brought under pressure from sudden turns of events are sometimes tetchy, verging on the panicky.”
It is perhaps significant that Weston has retired from the Foreign Service. Most of the other diplomats who were privately so dismissive of her joined the fawning chorus of congratulations once she became Secretary of State. The same process has been obvious in the media, where her career has been written up as if she were some combination of Metternich and Mother Teresa.
In fact, most of the press who covered Albright at the UN had as little time for her as she had for them. Her spinman would go straight to Washington to get the pliable coverage he wanted, bypassing the New York staff. From the time of her arrival at the UN, it was obvious where her ambitions lay, and her media effort was directed solely at the State Department. However, she had apparently been cautioned that it would not do to look too eager, so everyone was supposed to conspire in pretending that it was not so.
I must confess an interest here. Not long after Albright took over, her spokesman, Jamie Rubin, bell, book and candled me from the US Mission in 1994 for writing a profile of Albright in the New York Observer that referred to her “barely concealed ambitions…to become Secretary of State.” Rubin complained that I had not recorded his denial of any such ambition; she and her staff have a strong view of the proper role of journalists: as stenographers whose task is to write down every word.
When the Washington Post‘s Michael Dobbs revealed his findings about Albright’s family being massacred during World War II, Blackman records that Albright’s response was to call Post publisher Katharine Graham, who wisely realized that it was too late to do anything about the story. Rubin’s response was to spoil Dobbs’s scoop by leaking his results to other outlets who could assure a more sympathetic, if not sycophantic, stance. Later, one press occasion in Belgrade was canceled simply because Dobbs was the pool reporter.
Blackman says she asked Albright about the prevailing State Department doctrine that if someone writes something 99 percent positive and 1 percent negative about her, she will focus on the 1 percent. The champion of free speech and the American way of life told her chillingly, “So eliminate the 1 percent.” It is to Blackman’s credit that she has significantly exceeded the single percent. While most of her editorializations are in the traditional inside-the-Beltway mode of never attacking a possible source and the impressive negative percentage is always ascribed to others, I’d be surprised if Blackman ever got another exclusive interview. In Washington, access is given to stenographers, not investigators.
Blackman’s integrity and resourcefulness show through the pink cotton wool padding. I only wish she had adopted the persona of the little girl revealing the insubstantiality of Empress Albright’s new clothes and dug a little deeper. She could have explained just why Albright is the perfect embodiment of this Administration’s content-free foreign policy, in which one deranged Senator from North Carolina or a campaign donation from a banana magnate has more weight than all of America’s allies put together, let alone the rest of the world.