The Pizzazz of Madeleine Albright

by Stanley Meisler

April 27, 1997


When Secretary of State Madeleine Albright showed up for a breakfast session with the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times recently (an event carried live on C-Span television), she began by chiding the reporters: "It is a sign of my undying affection for the Los Angeles Times that I'm here, but I don't know why I came, because you're the only paper in the United States that did not put my picture on the front page, my brilliant performance throwing out the ball."

The editors probably showed poor judgement in keeping the photo off the front page, for it was a wonderful picture: a short, round grandmother, wearing a baseball cap too far down her forehead, sporting an Orioles jacket, slacks and athletic shoes, subbing for an ailing President Clinton and awkwardly throwing out the first ball at the Baltimore home opener - a short, round grandmother, moreover, who is also Secretary of State, the first woman Secretary of State in the history of the republic.

After the laughter at her remark subsided, Albright tried to make a serious case for her antics. "What I am trying to do," she said, "is to explain to the American people what the stake is for everybody in foreign policy. That has something to do with why I threw the ball out - I think basically to show that foreign policy is not something that is discussed in high academic circles or in meetings of men in suits. It is something that affects the American people directly."

Much of Secretary Albright's first few months in office has been devoted to pizzazz, and she is now the most popular member of the Clinton Administration, easily besting both the president and vice president in public appeal. According to the well regarded Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 65% of Americans have a favorable view of her while only 14% look on her unfavorably. She is the star of Washington, the Pew Center reports, even though most Americans care little about foreign affairs. Unlike her elegant, competent but soporific predecessor, Warren Christopher, she is adept, articulate and attractive on television and enthusiastic about calling attention to herself. As Secretary of State, she is clearly a Henry Kissinger kind of guy.

She actually started out on the wrong foot. Soon after she took office, Michael Dobbs, the industrious and thoughtful diplomatic correspondent of the Washington Post, approached her for comment for an article that would be published in a couple of weeks in the Post's Sunday magazine. He had collected surprising evidence on a trip to the Czech Republic that she had been born Jewish and had lost three grandparents in the Holocaust. The Secretary, who had been brought up Catholic but joined the Episcopal Church upon her marriage, expressed puzzlement at the news, called Dobbs's evidence "fairly compelling," and said she would have to conduct research into this "very personal matter."

The matter, which is very personal, might have rested there, but Albright chose to call in Associated Press Diplomatic Correspondent Barry Schweid the next week to give him her version of the family history. Since the Post magazine story had not appeared yet, this was an obvious attempt to co-opt the momentum of the story before publication. Reporters looked on the Albright maneuver as dirty pool. Magazines are put together long before publication. To protect his material, Dobbs could have told her nothing. Instead, he gave her the courtesy of a chance for comment. She repaid the courtesy by undercutting him.

To make matters worse, her aides did not like the first version of the AP story and successfully pressured Schweid's editors into changing it. Later, she seemed to modify her account - and acknowledge she was not completely in the dark about the conversion of her parents - after the New York Times described various attempts by Czech family members and hometown officials in the last few years to alert her about the fate of her Jewish grandparents. All this to-ing and fro-ing left the impression that the Secretary wanted to hide something. It was a P.R. disaster.

By now, she has put that disaster behind her and is busily making and planning triumphant tours overseas, peppering the American countryside with speeches, sitting for local interviews (in one hour recently she gave brief separate television interviews by satellite from Washington to stations from Cincinnati, Birmingham, Memphis, San Antonio, San Diego, Seattle and Denver), breakfasting with editorial boards, stroking the ego of Senator Jesse Helms (Republican - North Carolina), popping up in elementary school classrooms, and, of course, throwing out the first ball. Some correspondents say they find this endless quest for attention cloying. But, if she manages through this campaign to awaken the American public's interest in foreign affairs and to intimidate some senators into trying to understand foreign affairs before mouthing off about it, more power to her. Pizzazz is not bad so long as it is not used to hide lack of substance.

Is it doing just that in Albright's case? We simply do not know. Albright has not been on the job long enough to take her measure. Her four years as U.N. ambassador do not tell us enough. At the U.N. she dutifully carried out policies hatched in Washington, at times carrying them out in an almost truculent manner. She stared down the minions of Saddam Hussein and belittled Fidel Castro's pilots for demonstrating "cowardice, not cojones" in shooting down the Cuban-American planes. She shook off the pleas of other ambassadors and held fast to the veto of Boutros Ghali. She was such a loyal member of the Administration that she never boasted about her own input into decision making and never revealed the extent of her disagreement, if any, with policies she pumped for in public. At the most, we know she advocated early bombing of the Serbs in the Bosnian war, championed the establishment of a war crimes tribunal, and pleaded at the White House for endorsing a broad ban on land mines. She has not come to office with any obvious agenda.

Her most forthright act as Secretary deserved far more public notice than it received. At the U.N., she often chafed at the way reporters and other diplomats continually compared her with Thomas Pickering, the U.S. ambassador during the Persian Gulf War. Pickering was probably the most masterful American diplomat to serve on the Security Council, and many observers felt she did not measure up. Albright, however, insisted the comparison was unfair, for she, unlike Pickering, served as a member of the cabinet and of the White House principals team making foreign policy. She simply did not have the time that Pickering, a career diplomat, had for cajoling and lobbying other ambassadors. A mean-spirited and vindictive secretary might have passed Pickering by when picking her new team. Instead, she named Pickering to the No. 3 post in the department, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs. The very wise, intelligent and good-hearted choice delighted the career foreign service. It also encouraged hope that the Secretary of State might have a lot to offer beyond pizzazz.

April 27, 1997
Washington D.C.

see also:

United Nations in Crisis: The American Challenge
May 7, 2004

The Revenge of Boutros Boutros-Ghali
July 21, 1999

June 14, 1999

Madeleine's War?
April 11, 1999

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© 1996 - Stanley Meisler. All Rights Reserved.