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Marianne Schnall

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Madeleine Albright: An Exclusive Interview

Posted: 06/15/10 09:00 AM ET

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"It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent," the former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright tells me, adding, "I have had fun being who I became, so to speak."

It took an incredibly intrepid spirit like hers to dare to be a bit playful with Saddam Hussein. In 1994, when as a United States ambassador to the U.N. Albright openly criticized the dictator for Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the government-controlled Iraqi press responded by publishing a poem calling her "an unparalleled serpent." So later that year, when preparing to meet with Iraqi officials, Albright decided to wear a vintage snake pin to the meeting. After a reporter asked her about the significance of her pin at a press conference, Albright says she thought to herself, "Well, this is fun." And thus began her trademark signature of wearing appropriate pins to express her mood or a diplomatic message, as political and artistic statements.

As a measure of the historic value of her now extensive pin collection, over 200 of her most famous pins will be featured in an upcoming exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. opening June 18th (these pins are also featured in her book Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat's Tool Box). This memorable exhibition not only documents several milestones in history and what she calls her "remarkable life," but also captures her effervescent personality, style and sense of humor, as well as her love for America and commitment to justice, freedom and peace in the world.

The first female Secretary of State (having served under President Clinton) is still very active, projecting her important voice into world affairs, chairing the international strategic consulting firm Albright Stonebridge Group, as well as serving on several distinguished Boards, not to mention teaching as a Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy at Georgetown University. She has also authored three New York Times best-sellers: Madam Secretary: A Memoir, The Mighty and the Almighty and Memo to the President. In the following interview, she spoke openly about a range of subjects: how she thinks Obama is faring, her thoughts on the BP oil spill, the "revolution" of the Internet, the role of religion in world affairs, her advice to women on breaking barriers, where she derives her energy and inspiration and her wish for the children of the future.

Marianne Schnall: I have been looking through the Read My Pins book, which is pretty amazing. This exhibition at the Smithsonian features over 200 of your pins. What story does it tell?

Madeleine Albright: The story is that anybody can do this. Most of the pins are costume jewelry that is inexpensive -- I found them in different places like flea markets and souvenir shops. They also show that one can truly express oneself through that form of art. They are icebreakers in many ways. They also tell a foreign policy story. If you have read my books, you know that my niche is trying to make foreign policy less foreign, and the pin stories are a good vehicle for doing that.

MS: I have read that it all started with Saddam Hussein and a snake pin?

MA: It did. I say that this book would have never happened if it hadn't been for Saddam Hussein. When I arrived in New York to be the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, it was February 1993-- after the Gulf War. The cease fire had been translated into a series of Security Council resolutions that kept coming due one after another, so we talked about Iraq a lot. My instructions, because I was an instructed ambassador, was to say perfectly terrible things about Saddam Hussein all the time-- which I thought he deserved because he invaded a sovereign country. Then, all of a sudden, a poem appeared in the papers in Baghdad comparing me to many things, but among them "an unparalleled serpent." Since I had a snake pin, I decided to wear it when we talked about Iraq. One day, when I was out there talking to the press, one of the cameras zeroed in and said, "Why are you wearing that snake pin?" To which I answered, "Because Saddam Hussein compared me to an unparalleled serpent." And then I thought, "Well, this is fun." So I went out bought a lot of costume jewelry and decided to wear pins to represent what we were going to do or what kind of mood I was in. When I wore a flower or balloon or butterflies, it was a good day. When I was wearing some kind of horrible bug or carnivorous animal, that was a bad day. So I said, "Read my pins." That's how it started.

MS: There are so many great stories in your book Read My Pins. What are some of your personal favorites, or most memorable anecdotes involving your pins that stand out to you?

MA: One that I really like is a heart that I wear every Valentine's Day -- except this one because it was in the exhibit at the Clinton Foundation in Little Rock. People ask me where I got the pin and I tell them that my daughter made it. And then they ask me how old my daughter is -- and she has been 20, 25, 35, 40. And eventually she said to me, "Mom, you've got to tell them I made it when I was five." I also like my Secretary of State eagle pin because that one was very significant. I did not believe I would be Secretary of State so I said to myself if by some miracle I became Secretary of State, I would go buy it. So that is one that I love. Another that I write about at the end of the book that is particularly meaningful is the "Katrina pin." The story with that pin took place in New Orleans about three years after Hurricane Katrina. I was attending a dinner at the D-Day museum and a young man came up to me and he said, "My father's sitting over there -- he is a veteran, earned two purple hearts and he gave my mother this pin for their 50th wedding anniversary. But she died as a result of Katrina, and we want you to have it. " I opened the box up and saw two amethysts. I said, "I can't possibly accept this." They said, "No, you have to. It would be really meaningful to us, and we know our mother would like you to have it." And so that one is really very meaningful-- the Katrina pin.

MS: It's amazing all the different human interactions that the pins can provoke. As a diplomat you have had so much experience traveling the world and interacting with people of all cultures and nationalities - what commonalities do you see between all people and what insights do you have on how to forge relationships between people of different perspectives?

MA: Well, the thing that I learned as a diplomat is that human relations ultimately make a huge difference. No matter what message you are about to deliver somewhere, whether it is holding out a hand of friendship, or making clear that you disapprove of something, is the fact that the person sitting across the table is a human being, so the goal is to always establish common ground. In many ways, ways the pins helped break the ice. I would be in some meeting, and either I would be given a pin by some other foreign minister, or the person with whom I was meeting would ask, "Why are you wearing that one?" I do believe that in order to be a successful negotiator that as a diplomat, you have to be able to put yourself into the other person's shoes. Unless you can understand what is motivating them, you are never going to be able to figure out how to solve a particular problem.

MS: Speaking of that, one of your books that I think is so important and interesting is The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs about the role religion should play in our foreign policy. And it's such a delicate issue, and yet it seems to be so infiltrated in so many of the conflicts and problems that are facing the world. And I found an interview you did with Time Magazine around the time the book came out and you made this comment, "What I'm looking at is whether there are elements within all religions that allow us to work to solve problems rather than using religion as a divisive issue. And I do believe there's enough commonality if we see religion as a practical way to solve problems." Can you elaborate on this?

MA: It is very interesting, people hold up the Holy Books and say The Old Testament has a lot of very bloody parts in it, or that the Koran advocates violence. And even The New Testament has some language in it that looks fairly grim. The bottom line though is that you can read the same books, and find passages that are very similar -- about justice, loving your neighbor, charity and having compassion for others. There are a lot of similar aspects in all the religions. The question is which side of it you hold up. There is a quote by Archbishop Desmond Tutu that I often reference: "Religion is like a knife. You can either pick it up and stick it into somebody's back, or use it to slice bread." I think in many ways that shows the duality of it. If you are looking for the blood-curdling parts, you can find them everywhere, but if you are trying to find the common ground - I know it is there.

MS: I know right now one of the big stories that is on everyone's mind and very upsetting is the BP oil spill, which is the biggest environmental disaster of this type in our lifetime. I know energy has always been a focus of your foreign policy. What is on your mind as this story unfolds? How do you feel about the political and environmental effects of our dependency on fossil fuels?

MA: This has been a longstanding issue. It is not something that just came up. There have been discussions now for the last 20 years -- and a consciousness that we have been overly dependent on fossil fuels and that we should be looking for renewable or alternative sources. It is something that we began to talk about during the Clinton Administration and clearly there have been a lot of attempts to try to explain the issues in terms of our national security policy and in terms of our health, and in terms of America's economic policy. What is really tragic is that for some people, this does not become real until there's a terrible disaster like the oil spill. I think everybody is completely mesmerized by the story, because of the enormous damage to the ocean and the fish in the ocean, and then also the marshlands. And then there are all of the people in Louisiana who were affected by Katrina, who have now had a second blow in terms of their livelihood. And then there is the larger issue of dependence on fossil fuels that has created the potential for this kind of a tragedy.

MS: Well, hopefully this will serve as some type of catalyst for change.

MA: Because really, it is an unbelievable tragedy.

MS: A few years ago prior to the last election, you wrote a book called Memo to the President Elect: How We Can Restore America's Reputation and Leadership. How do you think Obama and his administration is doing?

MA: I think they're doing very well. They have really helped to dig out what I felt was a very damaged reputation that the United States had during the previous eight years. It is not a secret to anybody that I did not approve of many of the issues that were taken up by the Bush administration that hurt us in terms of our reputation. President Obama and his administration have changed that. I have been very interested in reading the new national security strategy, which I have to say, I am very much in line with -- when I wrote the book [which at the time I had no idea for whom I was writing it]. The National Security Strategy points out the major problems: nuclear proliferation, fighting terrorism, dealing with the growing gap between the rich and the poor, restoring the good name of democracy, energy and environment and dealing with the two hot wars. It also recognizes that, as powerful as we are, as the major military power and with our powerful economy, that those issues cannot be dealt with by America alone. And so I think that the idea of America working with other countries to solve problems is good for us, and it is part of digging us out of the "my way or the highway" approach that was evident in the previous eight years.

MS: I remember at one point you commented that this was the worse you had ever seen the world and seemed to be feeling a little pessimistic. Do you feel more optimistic? What gives you hope?

MA: Looking over the major national security issues over the past few weeks -- North Korea, and now the issue with Israel and Iran and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and you add to that the oil spill -- I think what is so much better is this Administration's whole approach. There is a sense that America's innovative spirit is essential, but we have to work with other countries. I think there is much more of a willingness by other countries to work with the United States. This approach does make a huge difference.

MS: In 1997, you were named the first female Secretary of State and became, at that time, the highest ranking woman in the history of the U.S. government. As someone who broke the glass ceiling, what words of wisdom or advice do you have for women today?

MA: I have said this many times, that there seems to be enough room in the world for mediocre men, but not for mediocre women, and we really have to work very, very hard. I think that it is also very important for women to help each other. It is hard to be the only woman in the room. Having a support system is very important. When I was in office, I had a group of women foreign ministers that were my friends throughout the world, and my little saying is that there's a special place in hell for women who don't help each other. So I think there has to be the sense that once you have climbed the ladder of success, that you don't push it away from the building - you are only strengthened if there are more women. But you have to work hard - there is no other way around it. There is no way of talking your way into or out of things, you just have to deliver.

MS: I know during your term as Secretary of State you tried to bring women's issues to the forefront. There are still so many extreme examples of widespread oppression and violence happening to women and girls throughout the world. What changes need to be made to improve the global situation for women and girls today? And there does seem to be growing awareness of its interconnection with other issues -- that it is not just about helping women and girls - the status of women is connected to a host of other issues that are affecting humanity.

MA: The reason I made women's issues central to American foreign policy, was not because I was a feminist, but because we know that societies are more stable if women are politically and economically empowered. Women don't have trouble finding work, but they need to be valued and they need to be part of a legal system. So I did it for a number of reasons, but it makes a difference. I have found it hard to just talk about women's issues -- they are people issues, and they are very central to how people treat each other. In some ways women are like the canary in the coal mine. If women are treated badly it shows what else is happening out there, as was certainly the case in Afghanistan. Governments need to understand that the United States considers the way women are treated as important, and that their societies will be better off if women are treated well. I don't think people should think of women's issues as auxiliary issues -- they are central.

MS: This interview is going up on Huffington Post, an Internet blog where readers from all over the world can potentially read it and make comments. The Internet breaks down all borders, helps educate people and provides instant news 24 hours a day. How do you see the Internet in terms of effecting world change?

MA: I think it is amazing. I have been in a number of discussions recently in which people compare the Internet to the printing press. It is such a massive change in how people get their information and how they absorb it. Most of it is good. Some of it is a little scary because it means that people are inundated with information and have to figure out how to analyze and sort everything out. But I think it is a revolution -- there is just no question about it. It is revolutionary in terms of the technological -- in terms of what it does, and also in terms of how it unites people and provides a way for dialogue about cultural and political issues. I think if people understand what happened through the blogs and Twitter in Iran, it is a major political issue. So across the board, it is massive. It is a revolution.

MS: You have been out there for so many years and are so outspoken and always so passionate about the causes you work on. What is the source of all your energy and inspiration that keeps driving you?

MA: I have had, and continue to have a pretty remarkable life in that I wasn't born in the United States. I came here when I was 11 years old, and for me, becoming an American was a major life change. My driving force is that I want to make a difference. It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent. I feel that I have been so blessed that it is incumbent upon me to really get in there and help to make a difference for other people.

MS: You, along with other many distinguished world leaders, continue to remain very active and engaged rather than retiring. I think in our society there is a sense that we don't value the wisdom that our older generations have to offer. What type of unique wisdom do you think our elders have to offer and how do you feel about getting older?

MA: Well, I don't like getting older. I have to tell you that [laughs]. I had a birthday a couple weeks ago and I got very irritated when somebody said, "I hope I have your energy when I'm your age." And I felt like saying, "You look older than I do!"[laughs] -- which I didn't do. But I think that what I have loved in my life are the inter-generational activities. I teach at Georgetown. It gives me an opportunity to stay very connected with the younger generation in terms of conveying information, but also getting information from them. I have always enjoyed having people of different ages around me. I have thought that was fun. I do think that one needs to have respect for people who are older. And I really do love the idea that one can respect generations.

MS: Do you have a particular life philosophy or spiritual practice or anything that helps guide and sustain you?

MA: I get up every morning and I'm grateful for everything that has happened. I go through my list about being grateful for my children and grandchildren, and for the really remarkable life that I have been able to have. I also really do think about the fact that every day counts. I believe that every individual counts, and so I believe that every day counts and I try not to waste it. I have had fun being who I became, so to speak. I never expected to be who I am. And so I treasure the fact that I was Secretary of State. I am incredibly grateful to President Clinton for having made me Secretary, and that experience has allowed me to play the sort of public role that would never have occurred to me. So every day I try to figure out whether there's something I can do that will make a difference.

MS: What is your wish for the children of the future?

MA: That they are able to live in a clean, peaceful world. I do worry about my grandchildren. I have always believed that we are on an upward trajectory, and that everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. But there are moments when you wonder where things are going. I am not a fatalist. I have just been reading War and Peace and Tolstoy is such a fatalist. I think people can make a difference. I do hope that their world turns out to be -- I can't say better than mine, because I have had a wonderful time, but that it is not on a downward trajectory, because I am an optimist who worries a lot.

2010-06-08-snake.jpg
Photograph by John Bigelow Taylor

Serpent, Designer Unknown (USA), c. 1860


For more information on the Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection exhibit (June 18, 2010 - October 11, 2010), visit the Smithsonian web site.

Portrait by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
 
 
 

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