Waiters were serving champagne cocktails to the likes of Averell and Pamela Harriman, Tip O'Neill and Clark Clifford. The guest of honor, presidential contender Edmund S. Muskie, was expected momentarily. The black-tie dinner at the Washington Hilton on an April evening in 1972 -- 3,000 prominent Democrats at $125 a head -- was all going according to plan, much to the relief of the newcomer to Democratic politics who was its principal organizer, a Georgetown housewife named Madeleine Albright.

And then the African ambassadors showed up. Six of them, in ceremonial tribal attire. They displayed official-looking invitations.

These people don't normally go to fund-raising events, thought James Goodbody, who had coordinated the dinner with Albright. Who the hell brought them here?

The same thought occurred to Berl Bernhard, the Washington lawyer who was serving as Muskie's campaign manager. He turned to Albright, the person most responsible for drawing up the guest list, and asked, "Did you invite these people?"

"No," she answered. "It wasn't me."

No sooner had Bernhard and Albright apologized for the mix-up and told the ambassadors they were welcome to stay for dinner than huge bouquets of flowers and crates of liquor began to arrive, along with demands for payment. Then delivery men showed up with 200 extra-large pizzas.

Once again, an incredulous Bernhard turned to Albright: "We're not having pizzas, are we?"

"No. We've already served the hors d'oeuvres."

Naturally, the pizza men wanted to be paid. When Albright and Bernhard told them, politely, to get lost, the pizza deliverers summoned hotel security. By this time, Muskie had arrived, and reporters and big contributors were beginning to ask what on earth was going on.

"It's all under control, there's no problem, just a little confusion," Bernhard reassured everybody, with a smile on his face and a sinking feeling in his stomach.

As the dinner got underway, two magicians from the Virgin Islands showed up in the lobby of the hotel, saying they had been recruited to entertain "the children." Also clamoring for payment were half a dozen limousine drivers who said the campaign had hired them to drive the African ambassadors to the dinner.

At first, Muskie aides suspected the rival McGovern campaign of attempting to embarrass their candidate. It took many months, and a scandal called Watergate, for the truth to come out. In October 1973, a low-level Republican operative named Donald H. Segretti told Congress that, acting on behalf of the Committee to Re-Elect the President, he had sought to disrupt the dinner in a bid to sow distrust between rival Democratic candidates.

For an aspiring Democratic Party activist like Albright, Segretti's confession was like manna from heaven. In her social circle, being the victim of dirty tricks by CREEP was almost as good a credential as being on Richard Nixon's personal enemies list. Many years later, she would think back on her fund-raising days for Muskie and say, "That's how the whole thing started."

How it turned out is much more well-known: joining Bill Clinton's administration, first as U.N. ambassador, then as secretary of state, helping to wage war in the Balkans.

Albright's transformation in the space of just 25 years from Georgetown housewife, hostess and volunteer fund-raiser to a member of the inner sanctum of America's foreign policy makers has been one of the great feats of American politics, a career arc so untraditional and so compressed that it could well prove unique.

It is possible to imagine a future secretary of state coming from outside the petri dish of the Foreign Service -- many have. But it is hard to conceive of another from as unusual a background as Madeleine Albright's: escapes from Nazism and communism; a buried Jewish past; a marriage that brought her into the charmed circle of America's elite; a divorce that spurred a new, career-driven focus to her life; and finally, the triumphant moment in January 1997 when she emerged as America's first female secretary of state.

At heart, though, Madeleine Albright's story is a singularly Washington one. To reach her present position, she first had to rise through the ranks of Washington society and win the confidence of its power brokers. She did this with tools this town finds reassuringly familiar: using political and social connections, networking relentlessly, volunteering for everything from school boards to Democratic Party causes, creating a foreign policy salon at her house and finding a spot in the academic-think tank world.

Albright's ascent was made possible by the women's movement, which by the mid-1980s had created a demand for qualified women to fill prestigious jobs previously occupied only by men. But it was impelled by Albright's own drive and ambition. Ultimately, her success was one of those defining moments when both the Washington establishment and the foreign policy world recognized that women in power were here to stay.

Albright is known today for her "tell it like it is" image. She was at the forefront pushing to get tough with Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. But Albright got where she is not by rebelling, but by conforming. Consciously or not, she followed a path trod by her Jewish ancestors in Gentile-dominated Central Europe. Her great-great-grandfather escaped from a Jewish ghetto in what is now Poland by getting a job with the railroad network of the Hapsburg empire. Her grandfather transformed himself from a minor railroad employee into a prosperous Prague businessman. Her father, Josef Korbel, shed his Jewishness for Catholicism, represented Czechoslovakia as an ambassador until he fled communism, and went on to found a graduate school for international relations at the University of Denver. Each generation has drawn on its restless energy and passion for self-

fulfillment to improve on the performance of the previous generation; Madeleine Albright was to outshine them all.

At the time of that 1972 Hilton dinner, success was still in front of her. Thirty-four years old and happily married to Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, scion of one of America's best-known newspaper families (she liked to joke that her husband was a man with three surnames), she had done very little in conventional career terms. She had held a few part-time jobs, but none for more than a few months. She spent most of her time raising three girls, attending to various charitable activities and studying for a PhD in political science. If she had an ambition, it was limited; at most, she dreamed of becoming a professor like her father.

Which was not so unusual. At the time Albright came to adulthood in the 1950s, the lives of American women were bound by tradition and convention. Entire professions were virtually closed to them. Huge hurdles had to be overcome to realize one's full potential. But, much as Albright's European ancestors had escaped the Jewish ghetto by making themselves indispensable to the majority Christian society, she escaped from the female ghetto by making herself indispensable to a series of male patrons, beginning with Muskie.

In later life, she would look back to before Muskie -- before the White House, before Georgetown, before the United Nations. The true beginning of her political odyssey could be traced to another hallowed institution, one on a leafy hill in Northwest Washington.

Located just below the Washington National Cathedral, the Beauvoir School has been educating the young children of Washington's elite since the early part of this century. Given Joe Albright's family background, affluence and Episcopalian traditions, it was natural that the Albright children would go there. Not long after the family arrived in Washington, Madeleine was tapped to join the school's volunteer board of trustees.

Albright owed her appointment to the Beauvoir board to both her social contacts and her appetite for hard work. Joe's family had impeccable Washington connections: His great-aunt Cissy Patterson was the owner of the Washington Times-Herald and founder of a charitable trust that supported many local causes, including the Black Student Fund, which offered scholarships to underprivileged children. Albright's membership on the board of the fund made her desirable to Beauvoir.

As a member of the Beauvoir board, and then as its chairman from 1972 to 1976, Albright was able to rub shoulders with men like Ted Kennedy, former LBJ aide Jack Valenti, millionaire publisher Joseph Albritton, and superlawyer Harry McPherson, as well as rising stars like Charles Ruff, who would serve as President Clinton's principal legal adviser during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Albright's service on the Beauvoir board came at a difficult time for the school. The National Cathedral, modeled on the great Gothic edifices of Europe, was still unfinished. To pay for construction costs, church leaders routinely dipped into tuition money of Beauvoir and the two other schools the cathedral operates. The accounts were a mess. The principal of the school was Frances Borders, who looked a little like Miss Frizzle of "The Magic Schoolbus," with gray hair sticking out uncontrollably in all directions. She had the reputation of being an excellent teacher but a hopeless administrator. "We were in crisis mode all the time," recalls Julie Finley, another Beauvoir parent and board member. "There were a lot of dike holes, and Madeleine was running around putting her fingers in the dikes."

Harry McPherson, who was close to Albright during this time, remembers a fierce turf battle between Beauvoir and the other schools on the Cathedral campus. Borders had introduced Albright to the teachings of progressive Swiss educator Jean Piaget, who felt that young children should be kept in a nurturing environment -- like Beauvoir's -- for as long as possible. One way to implement Piaget's ideas, Albright and Borders believed, was to expand Beauvoir by at least one grade, to fourth. This, however, meant that the two senior schools, St. Albans and the National Cathedral School, would lose a classful of children -- together with the financial donations of their well-heeled parents and grandparents. And that did not sit well with the barons of those schools.

"Their reaction was, `This is unbelievable, what are you talking about?' " recalls McPherson, who supported the attempt to expand Beauvoir. When Albright's proposal went down to inevitable defeat, "it was a great political lesson for Madeleine. She gave it her best try, but she came up against a lot of lawyers and bankers who were sitting on the boards of the other schools."

She may have lost that battle, but the Beauvoir experience overall was a productive one, teaching her lessons in how to find and wield power in Washington that would remain with her for the rest of her life.

"Beauvoir helped Madeleine learn how to work the phones," says Danielle Gardner, who lived next to the Albrights when they resided briefly on R Street in Georgetown. "She is like a sponge. She has a particular knack for networking with people. She says to herself, `Here is Ed Muskie. If I am going to get to him, I have to meet so-and-so, who knows Ed Muskie.' She knows how to reach whatever person she wants to reach.

"It is a whole jigsaw puzzle: Someone is here, I need him for something, I have to make such and such a contact, I am going to get to him because I have made the contact."

Beginning with the 1972 Muskie campaign, Albright's con-tacts were more political as she began focusing much of her considerable energy on that realm. She established a basic pattern for her involvement in Democratic politics that maximized her influence: Choose a candidate, contribute financially to the campaign, work for the candidate either part time or full time, and help organize the candidate's social life.

Campaign records show that she and Joe contributed a total of $3,250 to the Muskie dinner at the Washington Hilton -- a substantial sum for the time. But the value of these contributions was increased many times by Albright's willingness to put in long hours on behalf of the candidate and solicit more money from her extensive network of friends and acquaintances.

As a contributor, Albright enjoyed a degree of access to Muskie that was denied to most other staffers and volunteers. She was more than just his campaign worker; she and Joe were part of his social circle. They invited the Muskies to dinners at their home on 34th Street in Georgetown and down to the Georgia quail-hunting estate that had been bequeathed to Joe by his aunt, Alicia Patterson, publisher of Long Island Newsday. One of her greatest qualities in the eyes of other Democrats was her loyalty. She stuck with Muskie through good times and bad. After the Hilton event, her fellow dinner organizer, James Goodbody, raised a toast to "Madeleine's steadfastness" at a time when "some of the rest of us had feet of clay." He recalled later that "she was incredibly patient and a bit stubborn."

In 1975, when the Maine senator faced the prospect of a tough reelection campaign, she signed on as his Washington fund-raiser, flying up to Maine to help out with odd jobs. Her willingness to pitch in and do the grunt work impressed the local activists, who could easily have been put off by a wealthy Georgetown socialite. Recalls Charlie Jacobs, a worker in Muskie's Bangor office: "We were a little surprised when Madeleine walked in the door, picked up a bunch of leaflets and said, `Where do you want me to go leafleting?'"

Her campaign fund-raising efforts led to a full-time job as Muskie's chief legislative assistant on Capitol Hill in August 1976. There were very few women in such senior staff positions in the Senate then, and Muskie introduced her to his other aides with the infelicitous line, "At last we'll have some sex in this office."

Muskie was a notoriously difficult and demanding boss, but Albright seemed to have a knack for dealing with him. "She handled the senator as well as anyone I knew," says his longtime aide, Leon Billings. "She clearly made a decision that she was not going to be intimidated by him." Albright was tough enough to put up with Muskie's fits of anger, while being feminine enough to appeal to his old-fashioned, gentlemanly side. "He yelled a lot, but he never yelled at me," she recalls.

According to Albright's former assistant Anita Jensen, the atmosphere in the office was fairly cutthroat, with most of the men determined to make brilliant careers for themselves. Albright survived by being pleasant and nonconfrontational. After Jimmy Carter's victory in November 1976, Muskie aides lined up to join the new administration. As it turned out, the only Muskie staffer to get a job in the Carter White House was Albright, and she owed it, at least in part, to her extensive social connections. Carter's new national security adviser was Zbigniew Brzezinski, Albright's former professor and mentor at Columbia University.

By his second year in the job, Brzezinski had decided he needed to improve his rather strained ties with key members of the Senate and House. Since Albright already had some experience on Capitol Hill, he asked her to run congressional relations at the National Security Council, a job that had never existed before.

The appointment caused controversy within the White House. The intensely cerebral Brzezinski was detested by the network of good ol' boy Georgians who had come to Washington with Carter and were responsible for the administration's dealings with Congress. Their initial reaction was to freeze out Albright, as an intruder on their turf. But she gradually won them over. "Madeleine is good at people-handling," says Brzezinski. "She knows how to make people feel good about themselves."

Under ground rules worked out with the White House congressional office, she was not permitted to do her own lobbying on the Hill without prior approval. Instead, she quickly carved out a niche as an intermediary between the two warring camps inside the White House. Her principal contact among the Carterites was Bob Beckel, a former football player who was perpetually at odds with Brzezinski. He quickly discovered that Albright could be helpful. And soon, Beckel recalls, he was telling the Georgians, "She is fine, man. We have to put up with [Brzezinski]. She knows Congress, unlike the rest of that staff of his. Let's take advantage of it." Having made this breakthrough, Albright quickly became "quite a favorite" of the political people, according to Beckel.

Albright occupied a windowless cubbyhole in the bowels of the White House, next to the Situation Room, where the president and his aides managed major crises. There was barely enough space for a chair and a desk, but in a system where location is everything, Albright enjoyed the most important perquisite of all. Only a handful of NSC staffers had offices in the West Wing with Brzezinski. It was an early lesson in what Albright later would call "the importance of proximity."

Improving Brzezinski's relations with the Hill was a formidable challenge. Albright wrote memos urging him to spend more time with important members of Congress and not to expect immediate results. She arranged dinner parties for him at her house. But, at the end of the day, she would get together with the White House political people and complain about how difficult it was to get Brzezinski to stroke congressional egos.

One of Albright's recurring complaints was that she was deprived of the information she needed to do her job. "I am not a secret-information junkie," she told Brzezinski in one memo, now available at the Carter Library in Atlanta. "But I think it would be helpful if I could see additional cable traffic. Most of what I get is about room reservations for Codels [congressional delegations]."

Albright also complained to Beckel and others that she was being left out of key meetings. Other NSC staffers at the time tended to regard her as a "process person," not as a "substance person." While Brzezinski welcomed her advice on how to deal with Congress, her foreign policy views were of little interest to him or anyone else. According to former Brzezinski assistant Les Denend, anyone trying to pick a future secretary of state from among the NSC staff would have put Albright "at the bottom of the list, or at least in the bottom 10 percent."

Like many of her colleagues, Albright frequently felt overwhelmed by the pressures of the job and its long hours. "Her work habits were not the most orderly," recalls Brzezinski's press secretary, Al Friendly Jr., who worked out of a neighboring cubbyhole. "Sometimes you felt she was making life harder for herself by not being the most organized person." There were "random moments of heightened tension" with the office secretary when Albright could not find the piece of paper she was looking for, Friendly recalls.

Albright coped with these pressures by keeping her head down and being as nice as possible to the people who mattered. "The way she behaved was that of a person who has to be given the right to speak or be invited into meetings," Brzezinski's longtime aide Christine Dodson recalls. Her present reputation for "telling it like it is" bemuses many of her Carter administration colleagues. "She told it the way Brzezinski said it was, and was happy to do it," says a person who worked with her closely.

Beckel interpreted her reticence primarily as a defense mechanism. "If she stepped out into that male domain, she would have been crushed," he says. "Her tongue must have bled a thousand times at night from having to bite it while these guys were stealing her ideas."

Despite the frustrations of life at the White House, Albright would write in her college alumnae book at the time that she couldn't have been happier. Her job was exciting, her girls were thriving and she had received her PhD. "I don't think everything I do every day is perfect -- but I really am having a wonderful time . . . knock on wood!"

Then, in 1980, Ronald Reagan trounced Carter. Albright was out of her White House job, once again on the political periphery. Worse was to come.

On January 13, 1982, Madeleine Albright's husband of 22 years announced he was in love with another woman. Years later she would vividly recall the tense scene in their Georgetown living room when Joe said he was leaving. Outside, it was an apocalyptic day in Washington. A snowstorm was raging. Later that day, an ice-coated Air Florida jet would take off from National Airport and crash into the Potomac after striking the 14th Street Bridge, leaving more than 70 people dead. Minutes later, a Metro train would go off the rails, killing three people.

Joe's announcement stunned and bewildered Madeleine. "She was always a winner," says her friend Danielle Gardner. "Everything else had gone right for her . . . She graduated from [Wellesley College]. She caught an intelligent man from a very good family with money. They had wonderful children and a fabulous house. Whatever happened, some way, she won. Everything. This was the first defeat of her life, a man leaving her and she didn't know why."

After she got over her initial shock, Albright was deeply angry. Having made the break, Joe bent over backward to soften the blow by giving her a generous financial settlement out of his inheritance. Under the terms of the divorce, she got the Georgetown house, a 370-acre farm near Dulles International Airport, and a stock portfolio that would be worth $3.5 million by the time she joined the Clinton administration in 1993.

Albright was in her mid-forties when she got divorced. For the first time in her life, she found herself almost totally independent. "It was a shock," she says now. "I had never lived by myself. [After college,] I stayed in the dormitory with my roommate for the [four days] between graduation and getting married."

At the same time, however, she acknowledges that the divorce unleashed her in a way that would prove to be crucial. The only adult she now had to please was herself, and she was determined to do something with her life. Had it not been for the divorce, she said in an interview last fall, as she warmed herself by a roaring fire in the office of the secretary of state, "I would not be sitting here now. It was a huge turning point."

In the fall of 1982, in the throes of divorce negotiations, Albright received the offer of a temporary job at Georgetown University. Discovering that she could stand in front of a large roomful of students and hold their attention did wonders for her self-confidence. She began dating a fellow professor at Georgetown, Barry Carter, and did fund-raising and foreign policy work for Walter Mondale.

Things began to look up. And then, in July 1984, Mondale announced that he was picking a three-term congresswoman from Queens, Geraldine Ferraro, as his vice presidential running mate. Women's groups across the country were delighted by the nomination, but there was one glaring problem. Ferraro knew little about foreign policy. Albright was given the job of educating her.

Albright and Ferraro had a lot in common -- beyond a love of politics. Both were wealthy women, from immigrant families, of roughly the same age who had embarked on careers in middle age. Each had three children who were either in college or soon to go to college. They even had a Roman Catholic background in common. As the Ferraro campaign plane barnstormed across the country, the two women quickly became soul mates and confidantes. Their friendship intensified as a result of the battering Ferraro took over her husband's tangled finances. "She was probably the person I confided in most on that plane," says Ferraro now. "She was emotionally very supportive."

Albright's principal job was to save the candidate from making a fool of herself on sensitive national security issues. "The reporters decided that foreign policy was the issue on which [Ferraro] would rise or fall," recalls Francis O'Brien, Ferraro's press secretary. Along with other campaign aides, Albright began to think of the reporters at the back of the plane as jackals, waiting to pounce on the smallest mistake. It was her job to protect Ferraro from the pack.

With Albright's help, Ferraro avoided the obvious traps. Her biggest gaffe came early in the campaign when she confused a promise of "no first use" of nuclear weapons (meaning not using them first even in response to a conventional attack) with the doctrine of "no first strike" (meaning no preemptive nuclear strike).

The way the press kept hammering away at Ferraro over the nuclear button question irritated Albright. In her view, reporters were beating up on Ferraro because she was a woman. Albright was particularly furious with Ted Koppel of ABC who spent an entire "Nightline" program grilling Ferraro about her views on nuclear disarmament. The incident continued to rankle Albright even after the election. When Koppel addressed a Georgetown University seminar on the role of the media in foreign policy, Albright accused him of "doing a number" on Ferraro during the "Nightline" interview.

Because Albright had teaching commitments at Georgetown, she could not be on the plane the whole time. She would join Ferraro on the road for most of the week but return to Washington to teach her Thursday undergraduate seminar on the "U.S. foreign policy process." One of Ferraro's abiding images from this period is of looking out the campaign plane window in "some very flat place" and seeing Albright standing all alone on the tarmac, with her suitcase and her raincoat, and wondering, "How in God's name is she ever going to get back home from here?"

For a long time, Albright clung to the hope that hordes of angry female voters would rise up and cast their votes for the Mondale-Ferraro ticket. She called it "the X Factor." She imagined a woman whose husband came down to breakfast every day, complaining that his collar was dirty, his shoes needed fixing and that he needed dinner at 6 o'clock because he wanted to go out bowling with the boys. He then would go off to work while she would sit at home thinking, "Goddam that X!" The campaign had already been getting letters from such people, and Albright hoped that the effect would be magnified a millionfold on Election Day -- a kind of "soccer mom" theory of American politics 10 years before it became fashionable.

The "X Factor" turned out to be wishful thinking. Women voted for Reagan by 55 to 45 percent. Even though her candidate lost, the 1984 election was a huge boost for Albright, both professionally and psychologically. She had had a ringside seat as Ferraro transformed herself from a virtual unknown into a national figure. Ferraro believes that the intense campaign atmosphere helped Albright overcome the pain of her divorce. "Madeleine was no longer this woman whose husband had taken off on her," says Ferraro. "Nobody looked at her as the wife or divorced wife of somebody, but as Madeleine Albright the expert, a person who was fun to be with. In a way, it liberated her."

The 1984 campaign gave Albright something else equally important to her later career: a network of influential women friends on whom she could rely for advice and support. At its core were three female members of Congress with immigrant backgrounds -- Ferraro, Barbara Kennelly (D-Conn.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.). Kennelly and Mikulski had been with Ferraro through the campaign. Together with Albright, they considered themselves the true loyalists. "There were a lot of people around Gerry who were sunshine soldiers, glitterati pals," says Mikulski. "As long as there was glitz, they wanted to be in on the glory. But when she had problems over taxes, and the campaign had its problems, they were not so vigorous in their support. This gang never left her."

After the campaign was over, the "gang" decided to meet at least once a month for dinner, often at La Colline or the Monocle on Capitol Hill. Sometimes they were joined by Mikulski's chief of staff, Wendy Sherman, who represented the next generation of female political activists and who would become a senior adviser at the State Department under Albright. "We would talk about everything from kids to diets to movies we had seen lately to the struggles that people were having in doing what they were trying to do," Sherman recalls. "It was a place where you could let your hair down."

Although Albright was an integral member of the gang, Sherman believes that she was never as "competitively ambitious" as her politician friends. "She loves politics, but in a different way from these other women. Mikulski, Ferraro, Kennelly love the rough-and-toughness of politics, the competitiveness of politics. It may make them crazy from time to time, but it is clearly in their blood."

Albright may not have been as competitive, but she certainly had grand ambitions. At lunch one day around this time with a Georgetown University colleague, Putnam Ebinger, an associate dean of the School of Foreign Service, Albright said flat out that her goal was to become America's first female secretary of state. "It was then that I realized how big the ambition was, and I started watching her," says Ebinger. The single-mindedness with which Albright pursued her long-term goal reminded Ebinger of "the way men operate."

Brzezinski thinks Albright may have been "gunning for secretary of state" as early as 1982, after her marriage broke up, but that certainly by the time of the Ferraro campaign she had set her goal. However, Christine Dodson, Albright's closest confidante in the Carter White House, believes that the idea of one day becoming secretary of state was no more than an idle daydream at this point: "She may have wanted to be whatever, but she didn't think there was much chance of achieving anything . . . She didn't think in grandiose terms at all."

For the time being, though, any such ambitions would have to take a back seat. The Republicans controlled the White House. Albright's drive would have to focus elsewhere.

In November 1984, following the failed Mondale-Ferraro campaign, Albright managed to convert her temporary appointment at Georgetown into a permanent position. Georgetown needed an Eastern Europe specialist to succeed Jan Karski, the legendary former member of the Polish resistance in World War II who had alerted Western governments to the mass annihilation of Polish Jews by the Nazis. He was retiring. There were two leading candidates for the post: Albright and Charles Gati, a Hungarian emigre at Union College in Sche-nectady, N.Y.

Gati was very much the brilliant academic, with many scholarly writings to his name. Albright had less teaching experience and a less impressive corpus of scholarly works, but she was much more familiar with the inner workings of government. The School of Foreign Service, which put an emphasis on practical experience, preferred Albright. The government department, which stressed academic excellence, favored Gati.

In the end, the appointments committee voted, 4 to 3, for Albright, but the government department refused to give its consent to a joint appointment. "She did not fill the position in a way we wanted it filled," recalls department dean Karl Cerny. "We were not getting a person to replace Jan Karski." The dispute ended with the School of Foreign Service hiring Albright as an assistant professor and the government department hiring a part-time adjunct professor to run its Eastern Europe program. Although Albright was delighted to be at Georgetown full time, the controversy over her academic qualifications came as a shock. According to Ebinger, Albright felt she had somehow been placed "in a subordinate category."

Despite the sour start, Georgetown was a convenient base. Living just a few blocks from the campus, Albright was able to walk to work. She earned a reputation as a superb teacher, and was voted "best professor" in 1988, 1990 and 1991 by School of Foreign Service students.

The professorial life did wonders for Albright's self-esteem. She no longer worried about being excluded from important meetings, as she had at the White House, or being a victim of male condescension. "I got over that when I started teaching," she says now. "I was out on my own, and I realized that I had to please myself, which is the hardest thing."

At Georgetown Albright learned one of the most valuable Washington skills -- how to be comfortable in front of a television camera. She was a regular participant on a weekly current affairs show on PBS called "Great Decisions," playing the role of in-house liberal sparring with Ronald Reagan's first national security adviser, Richard Allen. Although the viewing audience was small, the show offered her the chance to polish her one-liners and make effective debating points.

With her eyeglasses thrust up into her hair, she projected a brisk, no-nonsense image as she denounced Reagan for his excessive reliance on military force. "Of course Grenada worked," she bristled on one program, referring to the Reagan administration's invasion of the tiny Caribbean island in 1983 to topple a Marxist regime on America's doorstep. "It was the Redskins versus the Little Sisters of the Poor, and the score was 101 to nothing."

Although her Georgetown position was a tenure-track job that could have led to the academic equivalent of an appointment for life, Albright never did get tenure at Georgetown. She had neither the time nor the inclination to write a serious academic treatise. The controversy over her academic credentials rankled a little.

Around this time, she organized a series of gripe sessions for female professors at Georgetown, potluck dinners at her house. There would usually be eight to 10 women academics in attendance. "She would talk about her own experience, which shocked me to some extent," says Nancy Tucker, a leading China expert at Georgetown. "This was a senior person with a good bit of gravitas. She would talk about the fact that she would be called `honey' by some of [her] male colleagues and asked to get coffee at meetings."

The women never formally presented their concerns to Georgetown. Peter F. Krogh, then dean of the School of Foreign Service, seemed surprised when told that Albright was involved in the gripe sessions; he was not aware that she had any complaints. "She never brought anything closely resembling that to my attention." Such open confrontation was not part of Albright's style. She had learned long ago that Washington responded best when social graces were observed.

Such social agility had helped make her a successful Washington hostess. Albright always had done a good deal of entertaining, but in the mid-'80s she began to combine politics, foreign policy and socializing to marked effect. As an adviser to Mondale and Ferraro in 1984, she regularly invited influential Democrats and academics to her house to discuss the state of the world. But her foreign policy salon really got going in earnest during the run-up to the 1988 presidential election, when she became senior foreign policy adviser to Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis. It was then that her Georgetown house became a gathering place for influential Democrats dreaming of a return to power.

In the world of Georgetown hostesses, Albright ranked relatively low. The most obvious comparison was with Pamela Harriman, a leading Democratic Party fund-raiser who also liked to organize "foreign policy dinners" attended by people like Richard Holbrooke and Sandy Berger, who went on to become President Clinton's national security adviser. Harriman's dinners were mainly "glitz," says arms control expert Janne Nolan, while Albright's were "roll up your sleeve affairs." Harriman's guests might feign interest in the ABM treaty, but their attention was likely to wander to the Degas hanging on the wall. Around Albright's dinner table, the guests really were interested in the ABM treaty.

"Pamela was much more of the grande dame than Madeleine," says Katherine Kelleher, a former Pentagon official and academic. "Her parties were great theater, but usually the magic didn't last beyond the evening. Madeleine's parties were much more of a working affair. You were expected to pitch in. Time was spent organizing everybody, who would do this, who would do that."

At first, according to friends, Albright was treated with some condescension by the heavy hitters on the Democratic foreign policy circuit, all of whom were men -- a process person rather than a substance person, the same problem that she had faced at the NSC. According to Nolan, the condescension continued right up until it became obvious that Dukakis was going to win the Democratic Party nomination. Then the men started hanging on her every word. "I called it her Brooke Shields period," recalls Nolan. "As she grew closer to the candidate, they would become ever more obsequious."

Albright jealously guarded her prerogatives. Some of her male rivals tried to make end runs by sending their position papers directly to Dukakis. One such approach came from Richard Gardner, a Columbia University law professor who had been working for Dukakis rival Al Gore in the primaries. Albright loved to tell the story of how Dukakis's staff had intercepted a letter from Gardner to Dukakis offering to give him foreign policy advice and shipped it off to her. She then called Gardner -- once her Georgetown neighbor -- and read him the riot act. Foreign policy advice to the candidate goes "through me and me only," she told him. Her friends were struck by the "killer relish" with which she told this story and the evident enjoyment she derived from putting a potential male rival in his place.

Albright's strength was that she considered herself "one of the grunts." While men like Gardner, Holbrooke and Berger liked to dazzle everybody with grand strategy, she did the dreary organizational work. This was one of the reasons why Dukakis liked her. "She was my kind of person," he said later. "She was good folks, down to earth, roll up your sleeves. She wasn't from the Upper West Side."

Albright's work for Dukakis led to a falling-out with Brzezinski. When her former boss announced he was supporting Republican George Bush because Dukakis was not tough enough with the Soviets, Albright felt personally betrayed. "She was hurt and angry," Brzezinski recalls. Adding injury to the insult was the fact that Brzezinski failed to inform Albright of his decision in advance. For a time, they stopped speaking to each other. Eventually, they patched up their differences, and Albright now occasionally consults Brzezinski.

Contrary to the hawkish reputation she has earned as a secretary of state, Albright was regarded as being on the dovish side of the Democratic Party during this period. Her foreign policy views were closer to those of Dukakis than Brzezinski. "There are misperceptions about her being a hard-liner," says Charles Gati, who worked with her closely at the State Department during the first Clinton administration. "She is not a Brzezinski. It would never have occurred to Madeleine to support Bush. She is a loyal Democrat, and demonstrated that by working with people whom Brzezinski would never have worked for."

Even though Dukakis lost to Bush by a wide margin, Albright's experience in the campaign solidified her reputation as a top foreign policy strategist for the Democrats. It also provided her with a valuable introduction to an up-and-coming Southern governor, Bill Clinton, who helped prepare Dukakis for his TV debates with Bush. Albright says that Clinton impressed her then as someone "who was extremely smart, very astute in the advice he gave, with a broad knowledge base and an ability to integrate material to pass on to somebody else."

She was happy to oblige in 1989 when Clinton asked her for a recommendation to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, the talk shop for the foreign policy elite.

A few years later, it was Clinton's turn to reciprocate. He had promised during the 1992 campaign to pick a Cabinet that "looked like America," with women and minorities in it. When aides presented him with a list of people who were being considered for top positions, Clinton underlined Albright's name with a pen and jotted down "good" beside it. Soon, she was named head of the transition team at the NSC, with an office in the West Wing basement, where she had worked during the Carter administration. After 12 years in exile, it felt great to be back at the center of things, even if she did not know precisely what job she would get.

As has often been the case, Albright was almost the last to find out. One day, while working on the transition, she received a telephone call from a friend who had just heard on television that Clinton had picked her to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Albright says she knew nothing about it. At that moment, her other phone rang. Warren Christopher, Clinton's nominee for secretary of state, was on the line. He had an invitation for her to come to Arkansas, to meet with the president-elect. It was only when she got to Little Rock that Albright learned officially what Clinton had in store for her. She had made it to the top.

Michael Dobbs is a reporter on The Post's Investigative staff and author of Madeleine Albright: A Twentieth-Century Odyssey, from which this article is adapted.

CAPTION: Madeleine Korbel and Joseph Medill Patterson Albright on their wedding day, June 11, 1959.

CAPTION: From Beauvoir to the United Nations. Albright, clock-wise from above, as Beauvoir School board chairman with principal Frances Borders; with Edmund Muskie and Jimmy Carter; at a 1978 National Security Council meeting; as an adviser to Michael Dukakis in 1988; with Geraldine Ferraro at a U.N. human rights conference.