Plain-Talking Albright Campaigns for Foreign Policy
By Thomas W. Lippman
Madeleine K. Albright, the most media-savvy secretary of state since Henry A. Kissinger in the 1970s, was putting her message on the air.
Shortly before 10 a.m. Friday, she gave a televised interview to John Lomax of WKRC in Cincinnati to urge Senate approval of a controversial treaty banning poison gas weapons, calling the accord "good for the American people."
Seven minutes later, she gave virtually the same interview to Steve Gullien of WBRC-TV in Birmingham. Next in line was WMC-TV in Memphis. Then came a local station in San Antonio, followed by San Diego, Seattle and Denver.
In just over an hour, Albright reached untold thousands of ordinary Americans with the clear-cut, simply worded message that the Chemical Weapons Convention is good for them and that the Senate should approve it when it votes Thursday.
Albright did it without leaving her chair in a commercial television studio in downtown Washington, where the State Department had purchased satellite time to get her image and message out to the nation.
The event was more political campaign than diplomacy, and in many ways it was typical of how Albright has operated during her first three months in office. She has said repeatedly that one of her highest priorities is to convince Americans that foreign policy matters, and she is using techniques never before seen in Foggy Bottom to accomplish that.
So far, Albright has made more trips within the United States than overseas, addressed more Americans than foreigners and sought offbeat channels of communications to reach new audiences.
In addition to the usual Sunday television talk shows she was on NBC's "Meet the Press" yesterday and again pushed the chemical weapons treaty she has appeared on CNN's "Larry King Live" and National Public Radio's "Diane Rehm Show." For her only solo foreign trip so far, she gave a seat in the press section of her plane to Fox Television at the expense of the French wire service. She listed her e-mail address on the State Department's Web site. And her image was featured as the connect-the-dots puzzle for children in the "Mini-page" section of Sunday newspaper comics.
Her ratings in some opinion polls have soared so high that former president Gerald R. Ford last week called her "the Tiger Woods of foreign policy," as she recalled with relish in a brief interview after the serial television appearances.
"I think you know that one of my objectives has been to try to bring American foreign policy to the American people," she said. "Having me out there talking in very plain language on an issue that is important has its own value, but also it projects the fact that American foreign policy can affect their lives. I think we'll have a payoff for this [in Senate approval of the chemical weapons treaty], but we'll have a larger payoff in terms of people understanding what it is we do."
Like a political campaigner delivering the same simple, catchy message at every stop, Albright ignored the nuances of the chemical weapons issue in favor of broad, easily digested language that might prompt folks to call their members of Congress:
"This is a treaty that has 'Made in the U.S.A.' written all over it."
"People will wonder what's the matter with us" if the Senate fails to ratify an arms control agreement that "was initiated by President Reagan, signed under President Bush and embraced by President Clinton. We thought this treaty up!"
"Can you imagine what it would be like for us to be on the same side as Libya and Iraq?" That, she said, is where the United States will be if the Senate kills the chemical treaty.
"This is not a political issue. This is an issue where the national interests of the United States are at stake."
And to each interviewer she offered some variant of this thought: "President Clinton and I would have failed in our duty if we did not work as hard as we can for this treaty and the horror of the poison gas attack in the Tokyo subway happened in New York."
Albright has taken much the same approach in her frequent formal speeches to students, business groups and congressional committees, repeating many of the same phrases on every occasion to drive her point across. Almost every audience has heard this pitch for an increase in the State Department's budget: "Spending for foreign affairs is roughly 1 percent of our budget, but that 1 percent may well determine 50 percent of the history that is written about our era, and it affects 100 percent of the American people."
And in the Middle East, her audiences all know that "we stand with the peacemakers against the bomb-throwers."
Albright, a former Georgetown University professor, is perfectly capable of discussing weighty global issues in code-like Washington-speak, but she deliberately simplified her language for the morning TV audiences. When one interviewer asked for details of five conditions on ratification sought by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and branded "treaty killers" by the administration, she finessed the question, saying later it would only have confused the viewers.
Senior State Department officials said Albright's courtship of the news media and her relatively restrained international travel schedule reflect the priorities that she set for herself when she took office.
Her three biggest concerns, they said, were ratification of the chemical treaty, persuading Congress to approve full funding of Clinton's proposed budget for international affairs spending and completing a plan to reorganize the government's foreign policy machinery.
All three required strong public support and a bipartisan approach, officials said. That, they said, is the reason why she has mostly stayed at home and why all of her domestic speechmaking trips have included friendly joint appearances with prominent Republicans: former president George Bush and former secretary of state James A. Baker III in Houston, Helms in North Carolina, Ford in Michigan.
Albright likes to say that when she became a diplomat, "I had all my partisan instincts surgically removed."
Whether these efforts will produce the desired results is still "the million-dollar question," one of Albright's senior aides said last week. The chemical weapons vote is still in doubt, State Department officials said, despite Albright's public displays of friendship with Helms and her regular consultations with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
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