She felt as comfortable in the halls of power as in a room filled with 200 people or a jazz club with Lou Reed. A former colleague remembers the trailblazer, who died last week.
Madeleine Albright, who died Wednesday at age 84, was the greatest gift the Czechs gave to the Americans. And because of her, Americans gave gifts to Czechs in return.
She was a woman of courage and conviction. But also a warm personality, exquisitely aware of the world around her, and never without either her composure or her sense of humor. In other words, someone who embodies both the American self-image as a “can-do” problem solver but also a quintessential world-weary Czech realist with an understanding of the ironic way things work.
As a young U.S. diplomat, I was assigned the position of country director for Czechoslovakia; the year was 1989 and my first move was to visit the professor at Georgetown University who knew about things Czech. And a lot more besides. She graciously gave me time and advice, and I thought I was special. Quite the contrary: Madeleine was generous with her time, a mentor to all young people who sought her counsel.
For some time thereafter, we plotted and planned. After the Velvet Revolution, the Czechoslovak embassy in Washington was unable to make sense of the new situation. So I typed out a rough itinerary for Václav Havel’s visit to Washington and New York, and Madeleine marked it with red pencil like a good professor, and we were launched in a lifetime of collaboration on Czech-American relations.
She knew Havel, of course, and the whole new team of inexperienced, but in their own way learned, practitioners of diplomacy. She helped them learn the rules and they helped her learn how to break them in creative and constructive ways. She sent hundreds of students to Czechoslovakia to teach English, building bridges between the two countries that last to this day. When the legendary Czechoslovak ambassador Rita Klímová ran out of funds, Madeleine threw diplomatic dinners for her that were magnificent in their focus, breadth, and effectiveness.
Because above all, Madeleine was comfortable with herself. She was sometimes criticized behind her back by members of the American foreign policy establishment, decried as a short, older woman—not an established academic heavyweight—full of ideas that sometimes seemed downright naive. Those of us who knew the situation on the ground in Central Europe in those years loved her for this. (After all, what was Václav Havel but a short, older guy, not an established academic heavyweight, who was himself full of ideas that seemed downright naive?)
Working at the American embassy in Prague back then, I spun out a theory that regional politics rest on understanding what people drink—Poles drink vodka, Hungarians drink wine, Czechs drink beer—with all kinds of associated insights. She took one look at this and said, “Everyone knows that already.” But of course. And she was witness to worlds colliding. Imagine, if you will, a cramped table at a bar in Greenwich Village, with Madeleine Albright, seated between Havel and Lou Reed, trying to translate their conversation: As she put it later, that’s when she understood the limits of her Czech language ability, but gained an appreciation for absurdity.
When she became Secretary of State in early 1997 I left my assignment in Germany and returned to Washington to join her team. She gave me the job of my life: chief of staff of the office of NATO Enlargement Ratification, letting me join a team headed by Jeremy Rosner, Ron Asmus, and other visionaries who understood that that was the time for the alliance to extend peace and security to the countries from the east who had always belonged with us in the west.
And so we spent the next year pressing for the pathbreaking entry of Czechs, Poles, and Hungarians into NATO. In America, some right-wingers dismissed the idea: How could we let these ragtag little countries into the world’s greatest alliance? Some left-wingers believed that we should do nothing to provoke Russia. Madeleine countered these arguments by emphasizing the solidarity of freedom-loving people (“for your freedom and ours”), the principle of fairness (”nothing about us without us”), and the basic decency that she felt was a foundation of the United States: generosity to those who need your help, and who will help you in return. One of the proudest moments of my life was sitting in the U.S. Congress in early 1998, watching the Senate vote overwhelmingly to amend the Washington treaty to welcome these three countries into NATO. And when I was chosen as liaison officer with the Czech delegation to Independence, Missouri, to sign the articles of accession in early 1999, I could not have been more pleased.
Madeleine was perhaps the most extroverted person I’ve ever met. Entering a room of 200 people, she would rub her hands and smile, saying in essence, “Look, 200 potential friends!” Many people in public office are actually introverts, driven perhaps by personal ambition or ideological conviction; and while Madeleine was no stranger to either, she was always carrying out her work with other people, in concert with other people, cajoling other people, standing up to other people.
After this, as a member of her inner staff, I recall meetings in which Madeleine went toe-to-toe with foreign leaders, challenging them often, being challenged in return. These were difficult and emotionally draining sessions, and we would return to her office at the State Department exhausted. Or at least I was drained. Madeleine, after a particularly trying session, would simply kick off her shoes and say, “Wasn’t that fun?”
Madeleine stepped down as secretary of state in 2001, and I continued a diplomatic career. In later years, as I served as ambassador in Belgrade (visiting the place where Madeleine had lived as a child), my embassy was attacked and burned when America recognized Kosovo’s independence. When I volunteered to become the first head of a civil-military unit in Mosul in the height of the Iraq war, working on economic reconstruction, my team was regularly hit by mortar and rocket fire. When I was ambassador in Islamabad, I watched in real time as our military killed Bin Laden. And through all these experiences, I never forgot Madeleine’s example of determination, cool reasoning, and devotion to principles; her concern for her coworkers and subordinates; and most of all, her common sense and integrity. That was her gift: to serve as proof that the qualities that one should admire most about America—and America’s friends—are the qualities she embodied in life: courage, generosity, reason. So in all these crises, I was always able to ask myself: What would Madeleine do?
What a gift to the Americans was this remarkable Czech woman. What a gift to the Czechs was this American woman. And what a gift to us all was her commitment to all the values we have in common and to the future of our relationship.