When President Biden learned of the death of former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, who died last month at 84, he was in the air, on his way to Europe to try to help persuade allies to remain unified in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The president recalled speaking to a group of mostly Polish and Ukrainian people on that trip. When he mentioned Albright’s name, they let out a “deafening cheer,” he said.
“It was spontaneous. It was real,” Biden said. “Her name is still synonymous with America as a force for good in the world. Madeleine never minced words or wasted time when she saw something that needed fixing or someone who needed helping. She just got to work.”
More than 1,400 people, including several foreign leaders, attended the service, which began shortly after 11 a.m. Wednesday at Washington National Cathedral, to which Albright had close ties for several decades. In addition to Biden, former president Bill Clinton and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton delivered eulogies in memory of Albright’s life, including her distinction as the nation’s first female secretary of state.
“She made sure that young women knew they belonged [at] every single table having to do with national security, without exception,” Biden said. “Today, across our government and around the world, Madeleine’s proteges are legion. Many are here today, each carrying with them a spark lit by her passion and her brilliance.”
Albright once condemned Cuban pilots for shooting down civilian planes with the memorable line “This is not cojones, it is cowardice” — protests of unladylike language be darned, Bill Clinton remembered. Hillary Clinton recalled Albright as a friend, mentor and stateswoman who was always “in a hurry to do the most good.”
The cathedral was filled with longtime members of official Washington and a foreign policy establishment going back decades. They marked a tenuous moment for many of the core beliefs that Albright held throughout her life, with several evoking not only global conflicts but also turmoil in the United States.
“If Madeleine were here with us today, she would also remind us this must be a season of action,” Hillary Clinton said. “We must heed the wisdom of her life and the cause of her public service — stand up to dictators and demagogues, from the battlefields of Ukraine to the halls of our own Capitol. Defend democracy at home just as vigorously as we do abroad.”
She recounted several anecdotes about Albright, telling about touring foreign capitals with her in the rain and, later in the life, swapping stories about their grandchildren. She confirmed that the longtime diplomat could do a 400-pound leg press — and that it was Clinton herself, when she was first lady, who urged her husband to nominate Albright as the first female secretary of state.
Bill Clinton said that he last spoke with Albright about two weeks before she died and that she told him the question that really mattered was, “What kind of world are we going to leave to our grandchildren?” He said it was a conversation that was “so perfectly Madeleine.”
He then paused to hint at current anxieties. “What kind of world are we going to leave to our grandchildren? That question is kind of up in the air,” he mused. “But not because of Madeleine Albright.”
The former president said: “Freedom and democracy and the rule of law are not permanently enshrined just because we’ve survived 200-plus years now. We love you, Madeleine. We miss you. But I pray to God that we never stop hearing you.”
Others who paid tribute to Albright included Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman, who was friends with Albright for more than 35 years; former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who was a student of Albright’s father, Josef Korbel, at the University of Denver; and Albright’s three daughters, Anne, Alice and Katherine, who said their mother always picked up their calls “no matter how much of the world was on her plate.”
“Mom’s example meant much to me and my sisters,” Anne Korbel Albright said. “She said that if we or any other young women wanted to compete successfully with men, we had to make sure our ideas were heard — and that meant being willing to interrupt. … But when you do, make sure you have your thoughts in order and your facts straight.”
Albright died March 23. The cause was cancer, her family said.
The music at Wednesday’s service included pieces by Czech composers in a nod to Albright’s roots: Albright was born in 1937 in what was then Czechoslovakia. Her Jewish family fled Prague to escape the Nazis, and Albright later came to the United States as a political refugee at age 11. Other musical pieces included a hymn written by a professor from Albright’s alma mater, Wellesley College. Trumpeter Chris Botti and pianist Herbie Hancock also performed.
Foreign leaders in attendance included Salome Zurabishvili, president of Georgia; Vjosa Osmani-Sadriu, president of Kosovo; Bisera Turkovic, foreign minister of Bosnia; Milos Vystrcil, president of the Czech Senate; and Jan Lipavsky, foreign minister of the Czech Republic.
Albright’s pallbearers were former members of her protective detail and of her diplomatic security service when she served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Other high-profile figures in attendance included Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, former president Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama, former vice president Al Gore, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), along with a large, bipartisan group of members of Congress.
Before the services started, the scene at the cathedral was a testament to Albright’s wide influence: McConnell was spotted approaching House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). Rice and fellow former secretary of state John F. Kerry were seated next to each other, engaged in an animated discussion, before Blinken arrived to greet them. Both Obamas gave out handshakes and hugs as they arrived — all while “Morning Has Broken” played softly on the organ.
In a floor speech Tuesday, Pelosi remembered Albright as a champion of national security and a spirited friend.
“She was the embodiment of the American Dream, her family coming when she was 11 years old, refugees to our shores,” Pelosi said. “Her personal story is the makings of novels and movies and the rest. But she was fresh and frisky and — she really, she had a sense of humor that was wonderful.”
The personal anecdotes shared Wednesday gave a glimpse into that spirit: Biden said Albright was the type of ambassador who could go “toe-to-toe with the toughest dictators, then turn around and literally teach a fellow ambassador how to do the Macarena on the floor of the U.N. Security Council.”
Hillary Clinton confirmed that Albright had indeed taught the foreign minister of Botswana the Macarena and once left an official event to dance the tango in Buenos Aires. Albright had even been invited to compete on “Dancing With the Stars,” Clinton added, after she “tore up the dance floor” at Chelsea Clinton’s wedding.
Vice President Harris had been slated to attend, as well, but she tested positive for the coronavirus Tuesday and is isolating at home.
Matt Viser contributed to this report.