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A Diplomatic Core : Madeleine Albright is the first line of defense for U.S. foreign policy. Her star may still be on the rise: Some say the U.N. ambassador could be the next Secretary of State.

February 08, 1995|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Don't make me into this airy-fairy, moralist, idealist because I'm not," she insists. Then she pauses. "Really, I have to laugh because there was a whole set of stories that made me sound like the Dragon Lady, you know, 'tough this and tough that.' Then there is this business about 'gooey.' The bottom line is I am a pragmatic idealist."

*

In January, 1994, Albright had one of those moments in life, a source of constant marvel. After flying on Air Force One to Prague, where she was born, she found herself walking off the plane behind the President of the United States and greeting the president of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, who also happens to be an old friend. "It doesn't get any better than this," she later told Clinton.

To understand why you must go back 40 years and envision a teen-age Madeleine Korbel, a 5-foot, 2-inch frame with oversized blue eyes, at the dinner table with her father, listening to him talk about the home country he loved and had to leave twice, and how it had been ravaged first by Nazis and later by Communists. Josef Korbel, a Czech diplomat, had a huge influence on his oldest daughter.

"I have tried to pattern myself after him," she says, picking through a salad in the State Department cafeteria in Washington. "When he was with the U.N. Commission in India, I wrote a paper on Gandhi. When he wrote books on Eastern Europe, I wrote school papers on similar topics."

Today she mentions her background in almost all her formal speeches. So many of her moral views seem traceable through her family's experiences.

Those who wonder why Albright has been such a hawkish voice for bombing the Serbs in Bosnia and punishing them in a war crimes tribunal need only look at a framed photo in her bedroom of a 10-year-old Madeleine bobbing contentedly between her parents in a Yugoslavia lake when her father was Czech ambassador.

Those who reduce her world vision to nothing more than "pro-democracy" need only to know that her father's diplomatic career ended when the Communists invaded Czechoslovakia in 1948.

That was the year Josef and Anna Korbel sought and received asylum in the United States for themselves, Madeleine and two younger children, Catherine and John. Soon after arriving in New York, Josef Korbel landed a position teaching at the University of Denver, and the family set off for the West in a new, green 1948 Ford.

Although relieved to be in America, Korbel wanted his children to have a proper European upbringing, which meant receiving a superior education. For Albright's own good and over her protests, she was forced to attend Denver's best private high school on scholarship.

On weekends, Korbel, a popular professor who wrote seven books, would take to the slopes on ski outings with his family, sometimes wearing a tie and jacket.

Shortly before her freshman year at Wellesley College, Albright's father agreed to buy her a typewriter on the condition she write letters home in longhand in Czech. But when the letters were returned with the grammar corrected, Albright discontinued her end of the correspondence.

"It was one of the few times I rebelled," says Albright, who in college aspired to be a journalist.

Albright's sister, Catherine Silva, an educator who works in Washington, credits both her late parents for her sister's intense drive and focus.

"Mother was a little emotional but still focused," Silva says. "They were both people who had changed their lives and believed determination was important."

Three days after graduating with honors from Wellesley, Madeleine Korbel, who had been raised Roman Catholic, was married in a nearby Episcopal church to Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, an heir to a successful American publishing family. They moved frequently as he took various newspaper jobs, settling eventually on Long Island. Meanwhile, Madeleine Albright's hope to become a reporter was eclipsed by her husband's career, and she was casting about for a new direction.

In June, 1961, she gave birth prematurely to twins, Anne and Alice. To pass the time while they were isolated in incubators, Albright--a relentlessly serious student--took an eight-week, eight-hour-a-day Russian language class. When her father visited that July, she greeted him in Russian, her fifth language. He was thrilled and suggested that she pursue teaching.

Over the next decade, while raising the twins and a third daughter, Kate, Albright earned a master's degree and eventually a doctorate from Columbia University in Russian history. During the research for her dissertation on the press's role during the 1968 Prague Spring, she made friends among the dissidents who 20 years later would introduce her to Havel, whom she would guide during his first state visit to Washington.

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