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Hardball diplomacy

Madam Secretary A Memoir Madeleine Albright with Bill Woodward Miramax Books: 562 pp., $27.95

September 28, 2003|Stanley Meisler | Stanley Meisler is the author of "United Nations: The First 50 Years." He covered the U.N. and the State Department for The Times in the 1990s.

In the 1990s, while I was covering the United Nations for the Los Angeles Times, Madeleine Albright approached my table at a banquet in New York. My wife hugged her warmly, exclaiming: "Madeleine, you're doing a wonderful job as U.N. ambassador!" "Yes," Albright replied, "but Stanley doesn't think so." I grinned foolishly. I kept recalling that encounter as I read this engaging memoir of a remarkable foreign-born woman who came here as a refugee child and later negotiated the political thickets of Washington to become this nation's first female secretary of State. No one could accuse Madeleine Albright of timidity; she is always blunt and direct. Perhaps more important, the remark reflected a troubling reality: Although I admired and respected her, I often found her words and actions as U.N. ambassador and secretary of State disappointing. I was not alone. She faced a barrage of criticism from reporters, foreign policy wonks and State Department professionals throughout her tenure. This book is her spirited defense.

On the whole -- though there are exasperating omissions and distortions, though she is sometimes disingenuous and always self-serving -- it is a persuasive defense. She makes a strong case that she was a tough, relentless and hard-working diplomat who confronted tyrants abroad and tried to instill some backbone into the flabby foreign policy teams of the Clinton administration. This is no delicately dry diplomatic memoir. Miramax, the movie company, published it, and it was undertaken when Tina Brown, the princess of buzz, ran such projects at Miramax. Albright wrote it with Bill Woodward, her longtime speechwriter, and the work is chock-full of anecdotes and moving accounts of her feelings toward both her native Czech Republic and her adopted United States. Albright was a secretary of State with pizzazz -- she made the front pages of every major newspaper in America (except the Los Angeles Times) by throwing out the first ball at a Baltimore Orioles opener -- and the book reflects that pizzazz.

Miramax may see a movie in this book someday. The story line is wonderful. Marie Jana Korbelova, born in Prague, takes refuge in England from the Nazis during World War II, escapes communism in Czechoslovakia, settles with her family in Denver, strives to become "a plain vanilla American" though she was "more apple-cheeked and round than tall and blond," takes the name Madeleine, graduates from Wellesley, marries the scion of an American newspaper family, raises three children, works for Sen. Edmund S. Muskie and the Carter White House, loses her husband to a younger woman in a divorce that shatters her self-esteem, teaches at Georgetown University, attains prominence in Democratic Party and foreign policy circles, is appointed U.N. ambassador, campaigns for and wins President Clinton's nomination as secretary of State, and faces down Slobodan Milosevic and Serbian aggression in a notable triumph.

Those who followed diplomatic news and her career closely in the 1990s will find few surprises here. About her Jewish origins, she again insists that she was thoroughly shocked by the revelations of the Washington Post's Michael Dobbs in January 1997 that three of her grandparents and several other relatives died as Jews in the Holocaust. Raised a Catholic, Albright says that not until two months before the Dobbs piece appeared,when she received a letter from a Czech woman about her family, did it dawn on her that she might be Jewish.

She is so guarded in discussing her family history that the dearth of comment raises questions about her lack of introspection. She writes that her father "told me a lot about the Holocaust" when she was a teenager. Now she knows he lost both his parents to it. A reader might expect her to explore this memory with some care. Does it hurt to know that he could talk about the horror without revealing how close it came to all of them? There is not a word about this. In 1967 and 1990, she met her cousin Dasa in Prague. Dasa, who lived with Albright's family in London during the war, lost both her parents and a sister in the Holocaust. Albright's murdered grandparents were Dasa's murdered grandparents. Can Albright remember any hint from Dasa about this personal tragedy? Did the cousins, who hadn't met for decades, fail to talk about their relatives? Albright doesn't say.

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