Madeleine

by Stanley Meisler

June 14, 1999

I have just finished reading Madeleine Albright: A Twentieth Century Odyssey by Michael Dobbs, the second Albright biography that I have read in a year. The other was Seasons of Her Life by Ann Blackman. That's a lot of biography for a secretary of state in office. I don't believe anyone ever wrote one about Warren Christopher, and I haven't heard of any publishing house hawking a Christopher bio now that he's out of office. But Madeline Albright is a secretary of state with pizzazz, sort of like a rock star.

It would be hard for me to pose as an objective reader and reviewer of Albright biographies. I worked with her several years ago when we were both consultants for an extensive survey of European public opinion by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press (now the Pew Center). As the U.N. correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, I covered her during her years as U.N. ambassador and covered her less extensively during her first two years as secretary of state. Both Michael and Ann interviewed me for their books. Both cited me, and Michael quoted me. As a rule Madeleine does not like reporters and makes no exception for me. Her intense press aide, Jamie Rubin, once concocted a theory that, because I knew and liked her, I leaned backward to be ornery. I doubt that, but, in any case, the reader better beware.

The two biographies are similar. But Ann's book sees Madeleine more as a woman fighting her way to the top. Michael's book, while not ignoring the feminine angle, sees Madeleine more as a survivor with the genes and drive to claw to the top, even while never showing her claws. Michael does not believe Madeleine's ignorance of her Jewish birth; Ann does. But, while Michael thinks Madeleine is a liar, he seems to like her. Ann, though she thinks Madeleine is telling the truth, does not seem to like her. She likes Josef Korbel, Madeleine's father, even less. Michael is no fan of the father, either, but, I think, the antipathy is less marked. Both make the error of looking on Josef Korbel as a survivor of the Holocaust and Madeleine therefore as a child of a survivor. Korbel, however, spent the war years in London, not Auschwitz. He does not count as a survivor in Holocaust terms. Michael's longer book is far more detailed than Ann's book, and, perhaps because I wanted detail, kept me somewhat more involved. But both journalists know how to tell a story well. These are fast-paced books.

Both authors devote a good deal of attention to Madeleine's Jewish background, but, as might be expected, Dobbs, the reporter who uncovered it for the Washington Post, is the most authoritative on this issue. Three grandparents, two aunts, one uncle, one first cousin and 19 other relatives of Madeleine died in the Holocaust during World War II because they were Jewish. Her father converted to Catholicism while serving the Czech government in exile during the war years and, according to Madeleine, never told her about the extent and reasons for the family carnage. Dobbs does not dispute this but believes that Albright must have learned some of the truth about the fate and religion of her relatives when she visited a cousin of her mother in Prague in 1967. Dobbs draws no conclusion about why Madeleine tried to hide her identity. He repeats a story of U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali that, while talking with Madeleine, he warned that it would be difficult for the Clinton Administration to run foreign policy with three people of Jewish descent in the key positions of National Security Advisor, Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State. "I am not a Jew," Madeleine told him.

The massing of detail by Dobbs over the fate of each of her relatives in the Holocaust is a remarkable reportorial achievement. But a reader may wonder why there is so much of it. Even Dobbs does not claim that Madeleine knew all these details - so their role in shaping her life is somewhat limited. There is a hint now and then that Dobbs believes her Jewishness gave her the grit and drive to forge ahead. But this kind of racial theory has a bad odor, and Dobbs does not wave it too hard. All the Holocaust detail, however, does serve as an embarrassment to Madeleine. It is as if Dobbs were saying to the secretary of state, "I was able to find out all this in a few short months yet you, even when you knew you were born Jewish, never bothered to find out what really happened to some of your closest relatives."

As a former U.N. correspondent, I was disappointed in the perfunctory way that both authors deal with her four years at the U.N. Blackman devoted 28 out of 300 pages to Madeleine's performance at the U.N.; even more astonishing, Dobbs devoted only 20 out of a little more than 400 pages to the U.N. period in his more detailed book. I suspect that both writers found it difficult to dwell on the U.N. in a book that was supposed to show her climbing ever onward to her appointment as secretary of state. I think she was no more than a fair to middling ambassador, poorly skilled at diplomacy, needlessly alienating our allies, and that she unwittingly helped tear down the U.N., tossing aside a useful instrument of American foreign policy. [I hope to discuss this in greater detail in a later column.] It would have been awkward, I think, for Dobbs and Blackman to emphasize her failure just before they celebrated her rise to the top. In any case, if Albright had been a first-rate ambassador, if she had performed the way I liked, she would not have been selected by Clinton as secretary of state. She fashioned an image at the U.N. of toughness toward others and fierce loyalty to the Clinton Administration, and that made her attractive to the White House.

All in all, Madeleine comes through both books as a congenial, articulate, tough woman who is smart enough to take advantage of opportunities. But hers is not exactly an Horatio Alger story. Some opportunities came her way because she married into one of the wealthiest families in America and received a generous divorce settlement after her husband left her more than 20 years later. Nevertheless, not everyone in her place after the divorce would have had the strength and intelligence to forge an astounding new career for herself. She did.

June 14, 1999
Washington D.C.

see also:

Madeleine's War?
April 11, 1999

The Pizzazz of Madeleine Albright
April 27, 1997

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