CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A certain fashion accessory became a way for the former secretary of state to wordlessly share sly diplomatic messages. But when she visited here to preview “Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection,” she was more direct. “It took me a long time to find my voice,’’ she told me,
“and I’m not going to be quiet now.”
When I asked if she ever gave her friend and current secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton “advice by pin,” she said no. Is Secretary Clinton really ready to retire?
Albright says yes, she believes Clinton will retire from public service after her time as secretary of state. “One has to take even people you don’t know well at their word, and if somebody’s a good friend then you owe them that — to take them at their word.”
She judges the current administration’s foreign policy accomplishments as “remarkable,” particularly in this last year. Albright said they were able to weaken al-Qaeda — “Osama bin Laden is still dead” — have fulfilled a promise to bring troops home from Iraq, and improved relations with a number of countries, particularly China.
“They have also laid down some very important markers on climate change, on international health issues. Foreign policy is very difficult these days, as difficult as anything I’ve ever seen.” On Iran, she said the administration understands the issues while making clear the strong relationship between the United States and Israel.
“This is what diplomacy is about,” she said — monitoring issues very carefully, talking to friends and foes — “to figure out ways to sort out the problems.”
The exhibit at the Mint Museum, which features more than 200 examples of her fashion diplomacy, is of a piece with her work at the National Democratic Institute, the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization she chairs. It’s in about 70 countries, she said, “doing nuts-and-bolts democracy work — how campaigns work, how voting is done.”
“Read My Pins” opens June 30 and will be on display during the Democratic National Convention here in September when, as she has done since 1984, Albright will present programs for hundreds of international foreign leaders and diplomats. “National Democratic Institute began to realize it would be very useful to offer seminars and various other activities for the foreign visitors so they could understand and see really what goes on at conventions,” she said.
Lessons in democracy don’t always run smoothly. Albright is now in close touch with NDI workers in Egypt, where authorities “closed our offices and took files,” she said. “At the same time that we’re being harassed,” she said, “they requested that we monitor their elections. I think it’s mostly an awful lot of confusion that’s going on.”
At 74, Albright has never strayed from foreign policy work. “This is my love,” she said. “I’ve never had any choice.” Her father was a Czechoslovak diplomat, and she likes telling stories of being that little girl in the national costume offering bouquets at the airport. “That’s what I used to do for a living.” She also has a global strategy firm, teaches at Georgetown and does projects for the administration.
The most recent of those followed President Obama’s Cairo speech about improving relationships with Muslim majority countries and communities. Secretary of State Clinton and others wanted Albright “to put meat on the bones of that.” That began her involvement in the public-private Partners for a New Beginning, which is in Indonesia, Turkey and across North Africa.
Of her pioneering role, Albright says, “I kid about this with my friends; there’s this Madeleine Albright character, and then there’s me.” She said her three daughters and six grandchildren always bring her back to earth. “I have to laugh because my youngest granddaughter, when she turned 7 a couple of years ago, said ‘So what’s the big deal about Grandma Maddie having been Secretary of State? Only girls are Secretaries of State.’ ”
“I am not a born American; I was born in Czechoslovakia. And nothing makes me happier than to think that I actually have played some small role in American history and that I’ll always be one sentence in the history books.”
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3.