It is midday and Madeleine K. Albright is rushing to a brown bag lunch with the women students in the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. Her fluff of hair is swept back from her face. Her reading glasses are perched atop her head for easy retrieval. Her trademark jewelry is in place: rings on two fingers, bracelets on both arms, earrings, necklace and jacket pin.

But something is missing. She has no brown bag. No time to buy one, and certainly no time to make one. "It'll help with my diet," she tells some of the students gathering in the conference room. They're in their twenties and are eager to have Albright, 53, start the discussion. They want to hear her tell them, woman to woman, the inside story of what it's like to work in the White House, advance in a man's world, advise a presidential candidate, influence national policy and juggle children and career.

She has plenty of stories to share. Stories of running a high-powered Georgetown foreign policy salon, of briefing Congress on American foreign policy options in the Persian Gulf, of shopping for T-shirts in Times Square with Vaclav Havel.

"I have had this fantastic life," says Albright. "For someone like me, who came to this country when I was 11 years old, to end up working in the White House and having all these amazing opportunities -- I mean I am kind of this American story. This is an amazing country. The fact that I can do things with Czechoslovakia, and more important, have a role in the American political process, is totally stunning to me."

Madeleine Albright is a Czech-born intellectual who has emerged as one of the leading foreign policy spokesmen in the Democratic Party. Politically, she is a pragmatic, middle-of-the-road Democrat who specializes in U.S.-Soviet relations and Eastern Europe. Personally, she is a 1950s woman of upper-class privileged background and superior education.

At Georgetown University, Albright is a research professor of international affairs and the director of the Women in Foreign Service Program. Today's brown bag lunch -- a part of the women's program that she was hired to set up -- gets underway when Albright moves her chair to the middle of the conference room and begins to talk. "I had to learn to speak out for myself," she tells the students. "I would be in a White House meeting and I would think of something and not say anything because I wasn't sure that it would add to the discussion. Then some man would say what I had been thinking and it would be hailed as a great idea."

Knowing laughter sweeps the room. One student has a question. How does a woman learn to overcome her fear of speaking out?

"It's like playing tennis," Albright answers. "You just do it. There are lots of shy people in the world and they don't go anywhere." In her classes, she says, students don't raise their hands, they just jump in.

"Women have to learn to interrupt," Albright says.

Before she learned to interrupt, Madeleine Albright had a conversation that led her to rethink her professional future. This was in the early 1960s, when she was married to Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, the son of a wealthy newspaper family. She, too, aspired to a newspaper career. Then she had a talk with her husband's editor at the Chicago Sun-Times.

Here's how Albright recalls the conversation:

"He said, 'Honey, what are you planning to do?' And I said, 'I am planning to be a reporter.' ... And he said, 'Guild regulations will prohibit you from having a job at the Sun-Times and our general feeling about a spouse working at a competitive newspaper will prevent you from getting a job at another newspaper, so honey, why don't you think of another career?' "

Albright, on that occasion, complied.

"It made me mad, but not mad enough to fight, which I would do now, and I would expect my daughters to. It was 1960 and I was happily married to the man of my dreams. As it turns out, it was very lucky, because I would have been a lousy reporter and I think I am pretty good at what I do now."

Albright found a job in Chicago on the public relations staff of Encyclopaedia Britannica. She quit that to move with her husband to Long Island, where he worked for Newsday. Their twin daughters, Alice and Anne, were born there in 1961; a third daughter, Katharine, was born in 1967. The family moved again in 1968, this time to Washington, where Joe Albright became Newsday bureau chief.

As a young mother, Madeleine Albright did the usual cooking, sewing and car pooling. But with housekeepers to help with the children, she was able to attend graduate school at Columbia University. She completed her master's degree and a certificate in Russian Studies in 1968. It took her another eight years to finish her PhD. Albright also found time to do volunteer work. She became so good at raising money for Beauvoir School, her daughters' private school at the Washington Cathedral, that another parent asked her to help with a fund-raiser for Sen. Edmund S. Muskie's campaign for president in the early 1970s.

She landed her first paying political job in 1976 as chief legislative assistant to Muskie. She was 39 years old.

"I had just received my PhD," Albright says. "That made it possible for Senator Muskie to introduce me as Dr. Albright, instead of Madeleine Albright, little housewife."

She worked for Muskie for two years, then for national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of her former professors, until the Democrats were ousted in 1980. The timing couldn't have been worse. Soon after she lost her job, her marriage broke up.

"It was a shock," Albright said. "Most of Washington knows that Joe left. I was very upset. I had been married for 23 years and I did not want a divorce. But life goes on. I'm over it."

In 1982, Albright was appointed to the faculty at Georgetown. She loved working with students but wanted to get back into politics. Her chance came in 1984 when Walter Mondale drafted her to serve as foreign policy adviser for his running mate, Geraldine Ferraro.

In the 1988 presidential election, Albright worked for Michael Dukakis as his senior foreign policy adviser. She was with Dukakis constantly; virtually anyone who wanted to see him about a foreign policy issue had to go through her.

"He would call early in the morning and we would talk over what was in the news," Albright says. She wrote many of his speeches during the campaign, including the Chicago address in which he said the United States needed to develop a new relationship with the Soviet Union and to deal with Mikhail Gorbachev in a more realistic way.

Today, Albright is more influential than ever as president of the Center for National Policy, the Democrats' premier think tank. Top Democrats say that if the party regains the White House, she would be a natural candidate for national security adviser. Some think she could even become the first woman secretary of state.

"If we're going to make these things unisexual, then Madeleine ought to be at the head of the line," says Muskie. "She has the ability. She is as credible, as on top of emerging foreign policy, as anyone I know."

Even Republicans such as former Reagan national security adviser Richard V. Allen applaud Albright. She is a "a serious person who can give Democrats some of the straight facts, which they seem to so sadly lack, especially in the field of foreign policy," says Allen.

Congress also calls on Albright to discuss important policy issues.

"She is one of the people we turn to for advice and perspective," says Frank Sieverts, a spokesman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And, Sieverts says, Albright conducts meetings "right here on the Hill at which senators, congressmen and senior staff aides are brought together with significant visitors, such as the leadership of the Eastern European countries."

In early October, Albright was one of three experts invited to brief a roomful of congressmen on American options in the Persian Gulf. The Bush administration, she said, has three options in the gulf: "Shoot, sit or negotiate." She said that it is important for the United States to "think through the fight scenario" because there is little to keep Saddam Hussein from "setting off chemicals before we finish him."

Albright believes that sanctions can work if they are given a chance to work. She opposes going to war. She believes that the gulf crisis has become "much too personalized between George Bush and Saddam Hussein." She favors negotiations and multilateral action. And she is gratified that Bush, who repeatedly attacked Dukakis in the campaign as an internationalist, recently did an about-face and in effect took an internationalist approach to the gulf crisis by turning to the United Nations and to the Europeans for help in confronting Hussein.

Albright was one of the earliest to call for congressional hearings on the crisis. During the hearings, leading Democrats broke with the administration, asserting that the country should avoid military action for now and let the sanctions have more time to work.

The Little Girl In the National Costume

The daughter of a Czechoslovak diplomat, Marie Jana Korbel (nicknamed Madeleine by a grandmother) had a childhood of cultural adjustments. In the first nine years of her life, she lived in London, Prague and Belgrade.

That kind of bouncing around made her a better person, Albright says. "I make friends very easily. I think it has to do with that fact that I lived in a lot of different countries, went to a lot of different schools and was always being put into situations where I had to relate to the people around me."

Those people included a parade of high government officials.

"You know the little girl in the national costume who gives flowers at the airport? I used to do that for a living," Albright says.

She had attended English schools during the war. In Belgrade, she had a governess because her father didn't want her attending school with communists. When she was 10, she went to a boarding school in Switzerland. She already knew Czech and English. At the boarding school, she says, "in order to eat, I learned to speak French."

All of that helped prepare Albright for the family's flight from the communists who took over Czechoslovakia in 1948. After leaving Eastern Europe, her anti-communist father learned that he had been sentenced to death in absentia for political crimes against the communist-controlled state.

The Korbels settled in Colorado, where Josef Korbel joined the faculty of the University of Denver and eventually became dean of the graduate school of international studies. He died in 1977.

Albright's mother, who died in 1989, had a good educational background but didn't go to college. Albright remembers her parents as a "fabulous team" in Denver. "Students loved to come to their house where my mother provided the ambiance and did palm reading and my father was a great intellectual humanist."

When Albright is asked about her mentors, she lists her father first. She followed him in choice of career, and she only remembers having one showdown with him. He won.

"He insisted I take a scholarship to go to this very small private {high} school," Albright says. "I was one of 16 students in the graduating class. It did give me a tremendous education, and then I went to Wellesley on a scholarship."

Home from college in the summer of 1957, Madeleine found a job working in the morgue at the Denver Post. That is where she met Joe Albright, who was working there as a reporter. The couple married in 1959, three days after she graduated from Wellesley with honors.

She sees herself as a beneficiary of the women's movement. "I went to a women's college," she says. "And at a time when people were interested in advancing women, I had the right credentials." She also feels that women should help other women. "In my galaxy of people I have no use for, it is women who don't help other women," she says in an interview. She says it again at the brown bag session.

When asked about the decisions that women must make when combining careers and families, Albright offers this counsel: "My advice to my own daughters is to make choices that don't close doors. You have to think about the choices. The hard part is when you become a victim of a decision you didn't think about."

Meetings of the Minds When the Albrights' marriage collapsed in 1982, she got the Georgetown house.

It is here in this red brick town house that Albright today presides over her foreign policy salon, drawing a carefully balanced mix of politicians and academics to debate and analyze the great issues of the day.

Albright's scholarly dinners are in sharp contrast to the Georgetown salons once attended by such social notables as the late Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who kept a needlepoint pillow that said, "If you haven't got anything nice to say about anyone, come and sit here by me." The Albright dinners instead are intended to provide an environment for people to talk about the politics of policy-making. "These are working dinners where people can surface their ideas to see what their validity is," Albright said. "People don't feel it is a confrontational setting; they feel it is a comfortable setting."

The evenings typically begin with drinks in the living room and then move to the dining room for a sit-down meal around a table that can comfortably seat 14. The Portuguese housekeeper prepares the meal, usually something simple like chicken curry with a flan dessert.

"People don't come for the food," Albright says.

In early September, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Albright telephoned a group of people to come to her house for dinner and a discussion on appropriate Democratic reaction.

Among the guests were Capitol Hill foreign policy staffers, including two people from Rep. Dick Gephardt's office, representatives from the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, some academics who teach about the Middle East, policy specialist Jessica Tuchman Mathews, and a few political types such as longtime activist Richard Moe. Wendy Sherman and Anne Wexler, who both serve on the board of the Center for National Policy, were also present.

The discussion began with Albright providing introductory remarks, said Moe, who has been to many of these dinners in the Albright home. "She thinks about it {the issue for the evening} ahead of time and usually starts with a five-minute scene setter. She asks questions and tries to get people to respond. It's not hard because these are people who have ideas and who want to talk about them. She will try to lead the discussion in a direction. If it lends itself to a conclusion, fine. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't."

On this evening, Moe says, there was no conclusion.

Havel's Right Hand The ability to make and maintain friendships has been an important factor in Albright's move up the political ladder.

While she was researching her PhD dissertation, friends put her in touch with Jiri Dienstbier, who had been chief correspondent for Prague radio during the 1968 revolt that was suppressed by Russian troops.

"He spent a lot of time in my living room, helping me understand the role of the press," Albright says.

Dienstbier returned to Czechoslovakia in 1969. Twenty years later, as democracy blew through Eastern Europe, Albright heard a news bulletin announcing that her old friend had been named foreign minister in the new government. She telephoned him at once. It was he who arranged for her to meet the new president, Vaclav Havel. During her visit with Havel, Albright learned that he was coming to Washington the next month. She told his staff she would be glad to help. Then she packed her bags and headed home.

"All of a sudden I get this call saying yes indeed they would love to have some help," Albright says. "So I pulled some people together."

Her Georgetown home became a working office. Bedrooms were turned over to advance men. Volunteers, many of them students, hustled about. It was a repeat of the 1988 Dukakis campaign, only this time the computer, copier and fax were humming for Havel. And when the phone rang, a student answered: "Havel advance."

Hours after Havel arrived in Washington for his first state visit, she met him at the Czechoslovak Embassy. She went over his schedule with him, point by point, answering questions and giving him tips about the American political leaders he would meet in the White House and in Congress.

Havel was impressed. When he went on to New York, he asked her to come along. She found herself serving simultaneously as adviser, interpreter and, very quickly, friend.

One evening the New York Review of Books hosted a party for Havel, a playwright, in the Beaumont Theater. "Havel kept saying to me, 'Stay here, you've got to do translating for me.' And all of a sudden I look up and I am translating for the following group: Arthur Miller, William Styron, Edward Albee, Norman Mailer and Havel. And they are talking about who has read what of whose book and what they thought about it.

"And I thought, 'I do not believe this.' "

Later, Henry Kissinger came up, and Albright had the delicious pleasure of being introduced as Havel's adviser. "Kissinger looked completely shocked," she reports.

The transcontinental meetings with Havel continued. When Albright went to Prague in May, she stayed as a guest in the residential wing at the Castle. In August, Albright got a telephone call from Havel inviting her to join him, his wife and his foreign policy adviser in Bermuda. She sums the visit up as "the most stunning two days of my entire life."

She points to a photograph on her office wall, showing her and Havel seated together on a stone wall set against a vibrant blue ocean. He is wearing a Rolling Stones T-shirt.

"We spent the time talking about the stars, and we talked about his writings, and we talked about American politics, and we talked about Eastern European politics, and we talked about Gorbachev. It was two days of solid talking."

Albright's most recent meeting with Havel was in October in New York City. After they finished going over his speech to the United Nations, Havel suggested a walk to Times Square, which he hadn't seen since 1968.

Their group of about eight people, including the ambassador, hit the pavement around 11 o'clock on a Saturday night. A T-shirt vendor recognized Havel, who scribbled his autograph and then selected two T-shirts -- one that said "I Love New York" and one embossed "Hard Rock Cafe." Albright suggested that they end the evening with drinks at the Algonquin. There, the president of Czechoslovakia downed his first glass of Southern Comfort.

Back in her Washington office, Albright reflects on how the pieces of her life are finally coming together. Her heritage. Her academic research and her practical political savvy. Her work at the Center for National Policy, Georgetown University, the National Democratic Institute.

Yet there is plenty left to do, she says.

Such as?

"I would like to help elect a Democrat president, of course," Albright says.

Anything else?

"Lose weight."