The Madeleine Effect
Madeleine Albright became secretary of state in 1997. Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton followed.
Has foreign policy become women’s work?
There’s a story Madeleine Albright likes to tell. She tells it to reporters, colleagues, students and friends—and halfway through our conversation, she tells it to me. “My youngest granddaughter,” she says, “when she turned seven a couple of years ago, said, ‘So what’s the big deal about Grandma Maddie being secretary of state? Only girls are secretary of state.’” The anecdote, which has become so much a part of Albright’s mythology that nearly everyone recounts it to me, signifies the enormous progress women have made in the past 15 years since Albright became the first female secretary of state and the highest-ranking woman in government in U.S. history. Women’s leadership is now so accepted that it obscures the memory of Albright’s obstacle-ridden path to power.
Her story begins in Prague, Czechoslovakia, where she was born Marie Jana Korbelova to secular Jewish parents in 1937, a year before the Allied powers signed the Munich Agreement, an act of appeasement that allowed Nazi Germany to annex parts of Czechoslovakia. Soon after, her parents fled with her and one of her cousins to England, where they shed their Jewish identity and converted to Catholicism. After the Nazis were defeated, the Korbels returned to Czechoslovakia, but their homecoming was short-lived. In 1948, the Communist Party seized power, endangering Albright’s father, Josef Korbel, a diplomat in the Czechoslovakian government. This time, the family—an 11-year-old Madeleine plus two younger siblings—fled to the United States, where they applied for asylum. They settled in Colorado, where Korbel took a teaching position at the University of Denver.
Growing up in Denver, Albright dreamt of being “an average American.” After she left home to attend Wellesley College on scholarship—much of the Ivy League was still off-limits to women—she became a U.S. citizen. This was “the most important thing that happened in my life,” she says. Inspired by her adopted country, Albright studied political science and worked at the college newspaper in preparation for a career in journalism. While a summer intern at The Denver Post, she met Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, the scion of a media dynasty that included the founder of New York Daily News, owner of The Chicago Tribune and founder of Newsday. As was common for Wellesley women at the time, Albright married Joe just three days after her graduation in 1959.
She was ambitious and intelligent, but women of her generation were not encouraged to pursue high-powered careers. “There were women of achievement emerging in the 1950s,” says Martha May, author of Women’s Roles in Twentieth-Century America. “But Albright was entering a career world in which there was ‘Help wanted: Men,’ ‘Help wanted: Women’—those ads were still legal.” Shortly after the wedding, Albright and her husband moved to Chicago, where Joe wrote for the Sun-Times. Albright, however, was discouraged from becoming a newspaper woman. “‘I don’t think so,’” she recalls Joe’s managing editor telling her after she announced her ambitions. “‘You can’t because of Guild regulations [which say spouses can’t work together] and you wouldn’t want to work on a competing paper with your husband.’” Albright “didn’t say anything” and instead found a job as picture editor of Encyclopedia Britannica.
She did not stay at Britannica for long; the couple left Chicago and spent the next several years bouncing between New York City and Washington, DC, as Joe built his résumé. Meanwhile, Albright, who had converted from Catholicism to her husband’s religion—Episcopalianism—gave birth to twin girls, Anne and Alice, and later to a third daughter, Katherine. With journalism closed to her, she entered a doctoral program in political science at Columbia—which was known to be more welcoming to female graduate students than other Ivy League universities—to study under the renowned Polish-born political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski. In 1968, the family made their last move—back to Washington—where Albright would find her way into national politics.
“She started off in this traditional women’s role, but that wasn’t sufficient for her. She always had larger ambitions.”
In Washington, Albright worked on her dissertation from afar with the hope of following in her father’s footsteps in academia, but her days were largely devoted to being a Washington mother. She stayed at home to raise her young daughters and volunteered at their school, Beauvoir School at the National Cathedral, where she discovered she had a knack for fundraising. After bringing in enough money to pay for a scholarship for low-income African-American students, she landed a coveted spot on the school’s board of trustees, where she rubbed shoulders with the fathers of Beauvoir students—Washington’s political elite. “She says herself that she did her initial networking in the parking lot of the Cathedral School,” says Michael Dobbs, former Washington Post reporter and author of Madeleine Albright: A Twentieth-Century Odyssey. “She started off in this traditional women’s role, but that wasn’t sufficient for her. She always had larger ambitions.”
In 1972, Albright’s reputation as a successful fundraiser earned her an invitation to organize a dinner on behalf of Maine Senator Edmund Muskie, who was then running for the Democratic presidential nomination. Although the Muskie dinner was something of a disaster—thanks to a Republican “dirty tricks” prankster who later confessed that he had tried to undermine Muskie by sending uninvited African ambassadors and pizza deliverymen to the event hall—Albright brought in a record amount of money. Muskie dropped out of the race, but when he jumped in again four years later, Albright came on board as a volunteer. Jimmy Carter prevailed in the primaries, but in defeat, Muskie opened a crucial door for Albright. When much of his staff abandoned him for Carter’s campaign, the senator hired the 39-year-old Albright—who had recently finished her Ph.D.—as his chief legislative aide. It was her first full-time, paid job in 15 years. Two years in, she got a call from Zbigniew Brzezinski, her old advisor from Columbia, who had been tapped to serve as President Carter’s National Security Advisor. Brzezinski asked if Albright would join his staff—not as “some sort of pro-feminist statement,” but because she was “not intimidated to the point of refraining from criticizing me,” he says—and she agreed.
Albright’s circuitous path to politics was typical of her time and remains common for women today, says Susan Carroll, senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “Women’s involvement in politics is usually not driven by ambition to be president or secretary of state,” she says. “They’re concerned about a particular issue, which will lead them to be engaged, and then they make the transition to being in government.”
As Albright’s career took off, her marriage of 22 years crumbled. Her husband fell in love with another woman, and in 1983, the couple divorced. Dobbs calls the divorce “extremely important in toughening her up and launching her on an independent career,” although Albright bridles at the suggestion that marriage would have prevented her political climb. “It’s insulting,” she tells me. By that time, Ronald Reagan was in power and Albright had taken a teaching position at Georgetown University—which had become coed just 12 years earlier. “They didn’t have a lot of women professors at that stage,” she says. During her time at Georgetown, she won the School of Foreign Service’s “best teacher” award four years in a row, but she never received tenure.
While at Georgetown, Albright kept one foot in politics. Ahead of the 1984 election, Walter Mondale’s running mate Geraldine Ferraro—the first female vice-presidential candidate of a major party—brought Albright onto the campaign as her foreign policy advisor. “Ferraro liked having Madeleine around,” Dobbs says. “She felt she was someone she could relax with. Madeleine also has a talent for making foreign policy understandable.” Albright travelled with the campaign several days a week, but while in Washington, worked alongside Barry Carter, a Georgetown law professor whom she dated for a few years. “We shared an office the size of a dinner table for six,” he says. “In those kinds of circumstances you can grate on each other or become good friends, and we became good friends.” Despite her busy schedule, Carter observed that Albright always made time for her children, who by then had become adults: “Even in the middle of the campaign, she knew where her daughters were every day.”
During that time, Albright hosted dinner parties in her Georgetown home, where foreign policy analysts—many of whom went on to advise Democratic presidential candidates—hashed out the issues of the day. “The food was not extraordinary,” says Carter, who was usually in attendance. “But the emphasis was not on the best wine or the best food—the emphasis was on the best conversation.” These soirées helped Albright cement her status as the go-to foreign policy expert for Democratic politicians.
One of these was Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, who was facing George H.W. Bush in the 1988 presidential election. Impressed by Albright, Dukakis asked her to be his foreign policy advisor. “In the back of my head, I always thought of Madeleine as UN ambassador,” he says. Like Muskie before him, Dukakis didn’t win, but the campaign introduced Albright to then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, who had helped Dukakis prepare for the debates. When Clinton was elected president four years later, in 1992, he called on Albright to lead the National Security Council transition team. Shortly after, he selected her as U.S. ambassador to the UN, which he elevated to a Cabinet-level position.
“When asked what was the greatest challenge she faced as a woman in her career, Albright says simply: “Proving it could be done.”
Albright was the second woman toserve as U.S. ambassador to the UN, after Jeane Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick’s 1981 appointment by Ronald Reagan had been groundbreaking: The State Department had an abysmal record on women. In the 1960s, women held only 2.5 percent of the department’s top positions and faced rampant discrimination on the job. Until 1971, the Foreign Service required all female officers to be single, yet was reluctant to send unmarried women behind the Iron Curtain for fear that they would be more easily compromised than men. Women routinely confronted the stereotype that they were less knowledgeable about foreign policy than men, points out Susan Carroll. As Albright puts it: “I used to kid about the fact that the only way for a woman to affect policy was when she was the wife of the ambassador and she poured tea into somebody’s lap.” Only as the result of two sex discrimination lawsuits settled in the 1990s would a U.S. District Court order the department to end discrimination against women.
During the Clinton administration, this gender gap also began to narrow elsewhere in government. The early 1990s witnessed a “big explosion of women’s political participation,” says May. Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony during the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings—in which she described being sexually harassed by Thomas in a room full of men, many reluctant to believe her—triggered a “huge gender backlash” of women voting for women. This resulted in an unprecedented number of women running for and winning elected office—including California Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein—more appointments of women and a greater acknowledgment of women as a distinct voter group, says May. During his campaign, Clinton had publicly taken up the cause of gender equality, famously promising after his election that he would select a Cabinet that “looks like America.” In addition to Albright, Clinton named Janet Reno the first female attorney general; Donna Shalala, secretary of health and human services; and Hazel O’Leary, secretary of energy.
It quickly became obvious that Albright had been a smart choice. At the United Nations, she proved an aggressive advocate of U.S. interests. At home, she showed a talent for explaining complex foreign policy to ordinary Americans. Armed with charisma, a quick wit and a comfortable demeanor in front of cameras—“master of the sound bite,” as one newspaper described her—Albright frequently appeared on television and soon became the face of Clinton’s foreign policy.
Four years later, Clinton won reelection, and in November of 1996, an administration official leaked to the media that Albright was being considered for secretary of state as a “second-tier candidate” behind former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and then-Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs Richard Holbrooke. The news mobilized many prominent women—the “old girls network”—who thought Albright’s credentials were being snubbed, and they flooded the White House with calls on her behalf. Other women privately vouched for Albright. Then-U.S. Ambassador to Austria Swanee Hunt remembers the president asking her opinion on who should be the next secretary of state: “He named terrific people, and I said, ‘Mr. President, it’s no question—hands down, Madeleine Albright.’” First Lady Hillary Clinton—a fellow Wellesley alumna—also went to bat for Albright. As she recalls in her memoirs: “When Bill asked me about Madeleine, I told him there was nobody who had been more supportive of his policies and was as articulate and persuasive on the issues. I also added that her appointment would make many girls and women proud.”
Ann Lewis, White House director of communications under President Clinton, recalls that there were “murmurs” among men in the nation’s capital who thought a woman could not be secretary of state because male diplomats from other countries would be unwilling to work with a woman. “Wrapping it in, ‘Oh, those poor unenlightened people, they don’t understand’ is a really flimsy excuse,” Lewis says. “A friend of mine talked to Bill Clinton directly about it and he said to her, ‘Don’t worry, that’s a bunch of nervous guys.’ He knew quite well what was going on.” When Clinton did nominate Albright, he faced immediate criticism. He was accused of giving Albright the job to fulfill a diversity requirement and to appease women voters, who had supported the president’s re-election by a 16-point margin over Republican contender Bob Dole. As Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland wrote after Clinton announced the nomination: “Albright’s appointment [was] a litmus test of the president’s commitment to feminism, not to foreign policy accomplishments that would win him a larger place in history.”
Questions about Albright’s ability to perform lingered even after a unanimous Senate confirmation vote. “Of course it was a challenge for Madeleine,” says Nicholas Burns, a former spokesperson for the State Department. “Even in the 1990s—even today—you find people who doubt the ability of women to lead.” However, the resistance did not come from foreign male diplomats, as critics predicted. “The first thing Madeleine accomplished was to demonstrate that when you represent the United States of America, you are treated as the representative of the United States of America,” says Lewis. “There are no gender distinctions in this role.” Instead, reluctance to accept her came from American men. Says Albright: “I had been a carpool mother, or a friend of their wife’s, had done an awful lot on boards and being a staffer on the Hill, so they wondered how come I got to be secretary of state.” Although no one challenged her “in an official way,” she recalls encountering subtle gender bias. “Once, I was talking about some particular issue, and I said, ‘I feel like we need to do something.’ A couple of men looked at me and said, ‘Feel, what do you mean, you feel?’ They were making fun of that. Then I was having a meeting with a woman who was the foreign minister of Finland, and she’s sitting across the table from me and said, ‘I really feel like we need to deal with it that way,’ and the men on my side, you could see, they gave each other a look like, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on here?’”
When asked what was the greatest challenge she faced as a woman in her career, Albright says simply: “Proving it could be done.”
Albright stepped onto the international stage in the wake of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Dealing with the violent breakup of the multi-ethnic Yugoslav federation, which was threatening the stability of Europe, became one of the pressing foreign policy issues for the Clinton administration. In 1995, Serbian troops had massacred thousands of Muslims in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, and Albright—at the time, UN ambassador—implored the Clinton administration to take military action. Even though the UN “discounted” her opinions—“I was told by some, ‘Don’t be so emotional about this,’” she recalls—NATO approved the bombing of Serbian targets and deployed peacekeepers to the region, ending the war in Bosnia. Still, another conflict was intensifying in the then-Serbian province of Kosovo, as Albanian insurgents fought for an independent state. In 1998, Serbian leader Slobodan Miloševic retaliated, slaughtering thousands of ethnic Albanians and forcing another 300,000 from their homes.
The new secretary of state brought the Serbs and Kosovar Albanian leaders together in 1999 in the Chateau of Rambouillet near Paris to negotiate a plan for Kosovo’s autonomy, threatening military action if either side refused. The Serbs rejected what they considered a sham offer, so NATO, led by the United States and backed by other member nations—but without UN approval—commenced a bombing campaign to halt the ethnic cleansing. “I knew six million people suffered from the Holocaust, and then I watched what was going on in the Balkans,” Albright says. “People were being put into trucks and trains and being taken to some camp simply because of who they were, not anything they had done, and I thought something had to be done about it.” She was among the war’s most ardent supporters, so much so that it became known as “Madeleine’s War”—defying critics who assumed a female secretary of state would be too “soft.”
Albright’s approach to foreign policy was in part driven by her biography. As Europe again descended into war, memories of the consequences of appeasement—and the failure of the United States to act—informed her decision-making. “She has embodied, more than anybody else, this belief that the United States has to be engaged in the world,” says Burns.
While pushing intervention in the Balkans is viewed as the hallmark of Albright’s career, failing to act in Rwanda has been seen as one of her greatest failures. As UN ambassador, Albright played a key role in blocking international efforts to intervene in the Rwandan genocide. In April 1994, when the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis was already underway, the Clinton administration not only refused to act but also demanded that all UN peacekeeping troops be pulled from Rwanda. Albright opposed this full withdrawal—one of the rare occasions she openly disagreed with her bosses—so the administration compromised with her, voting along with the rest of the UN Security Council to remove nearly 90 percent of peacekeeping troops. During this time, Albright and the entire Clinton administration also refused to publicly call the mass killings “genocide.” When the commander of the UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda requested more soldiers and equipment, the Clinton administration argued with the United Nations over the costs of this plan. Albright dutifully stalled the vote at the Security Council and testified on Capitol Hill: “Ultimately, the future of Rwanda is in Rwandan hands.” By the time U.S. equipment arrived in Rwanda in June, the genocide was over. More than 800,000 people had been killed in 100 days.
U.S. officials, including Albright, have since said that they were unaware of the scale of violence at the time. Critics, however, have argued that the Rwandan genocide was no secret: Humanitarian agencies were publicizing death tolls in the hundreds of thousands, and major newspapers were reporting gruesome details of corpses piled six-feet high. Instead, they say, the Clinton administration—which had just come out of a disastrous mission in Somalia—was unwilling to intervene in a country deemed peripheral to U.S. interests. Albright as well as Clinton has since apologized and shown remorse over Rwanda. “My deepest regret from my years in public service is the failure of the United States and the international community to act sooner to halt those crimes,” she reflects in her memoir.
While the Balkans and Rwanda were seen as her greatest accomplishment and failure, some question how much influence Albright really had on foreign policy. Stephen Glain, author of State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America’s Empire, says Albright’s reliance on force was a reflection of the broader trend toward the militarization of foreign policy. “I don’t think any secretary of state, Democratic or Republican, man or woman, can change that,” he says. Militarization has coincided with the migration of power from the State Department to the Department of Defense and the National Security Advisors, says Kevin Lasher, professor of political science at Francis Marion University in South Carolina. “She was powerful, but she was certainly not one of the top foreign policy decision makers” by the time she held office, he says. This shift has occurred at the same time as more women and minorities have been appointed to leadership positions, he points out, leading to the “troubling question” of whether it is the new balance of power that has made it acceptable for a woman to be secretary of state. “It certainly is interesting that we’ve had three women and an African-American man,” says Lasher. “And we’ve never had a woman secretary of defense.”
Albright is tough, but decidedly
feminine. On her first day in office, she did a pirouette in front of an audience of hundreds of American diplomats and joked, “You may have noticed that I do not look like Warren Christopher [Clinton’s first secretary of state].” She is also quoted as telling her predecessor, “I can only hope that my heels can fill your shoes.” While on the job, she was not afraid to talk about make-up and made a point of wearing bright outfits that contrasted with the dark gray and blue suits of the men around her.
Albright’s signature fashion statement was her pins, which she began collecting in 1994. After the Iraqi press called her an “unparalleled serpent,” she responded by wearing a gold snake brooch during her next meeting with Iraqi officials—and discovered that jewelry could be a useful diplomatic tool. “She wears them with great style,” says Dorothy Twining Globus, curator of exhibitions at the Museum of Art and Design in New York City who put together a traveling exhibit of more than 200 of Albright’s pins that is booked in museums across the country until 2014. “She has a mushroom pin that she wore when she was conducting secret discussions. People would say, ‘What’s going on?’ and she would say, ‘I can’t talk about it. It’s like mushrooms—some things grow better in the dark.’” Susan Carroll says that while women in high political positions have to show their toughness—a trait typically associated with masculinity—they can’t appear too aggressive. Just like former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s signature pearls, Albright’s pins “counterbalance her toughness.”
But her femininity goes beyond high heels and pins. As secretary of state, Albright made it a personal mission to draw attention to women’s issues around the globe. “[It’s] not because I’m a feminist, but because it does make societies more stable if women are politically and economically empowered,” she says. She chaired the White House’s Interagency Council on Women and Girls, which was charged with coordinating the activities of several government agencies on issues related to women. In this role, she modestly increased the amount of aid money given to support girls’ education in poor countries, to refugee women and to women starting businesses in developing nations. In an effort to combat violence against women, she led the State Department to set standards for how far women’s toilets can be from sleeping areas in refugee camps, and organized an annual meeting for the world’s female foreign ministers to discuss these and other women’s issues.
She also worked to make the foreign policy community more friendly to women. Susan Turnbull, former chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Women’s Caucus, recalls Albright telling her that it wasn’t easy for women diplomats at the UN. “Men have the golf course to get business accomplished,” she says. “Albright and the other female ambassadors to the UN would regularly get together in the ladies’ room to get a lot of work accomplished.” She also brought women into other leadership positions at the State Department. Michael Dukakis recalls the day he went to the State Department to visit Albright and found her sitting with Elaine Shocas, her chief of staff, and Wendy Sherman, her counselor. “Here we are in the State Department, which traditionally was a place for white guys and shirts and ties,” he says, chuckling. “And I looked at them all and said, ‘Nobody would believe this! All these guys in suits running around, and who’s running the department—you guys!’” As Albright famously said years later: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”
In the 15 years since Albright broke through the glass ceiling, two women have followed Albright’s footsteps as secretary of state: Condoleezza Rice—who was mentored by Albright’s father, Josef Korbel, at the University of Denver—and Hillary Clinton. In addition, women are increasingly filling other policy-making positions at the State Department, such as under secretaries, assistant secretaries and assistant administrators. Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says Albright’s performance on the job is what kept the door open to women after her: “Demonstrated competence is the ultimate solution to breaking down barriers.” Kevin Lasher agrees: “When Madeleine Albright took over, it was a really big deal. Now it’s not such a big deal. Secretary of state is almost becoming a woman’s position.” The trend may or may not continue, since Hillary Clinton has announced that she will not serve another term if President Obama is reelected. Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the UN, is one rumored possibility if Obama wins a second term, as is Senator John Kerry. Republicans, meanwhile, are said to be considering former UN Ambassador John Bolton in the event of a Romney presidency. If either Kerry or Bolton is appointed, he would be the first white male to serve as secretary of state since 1996.
But there’s still a long way to go to achieve equal representation. Putting a woman in charge “hasn’t statistically” altered the gender disparity in the State Department, says Zenko. “The number of women ambassadors under Obama has actually decreased.” Overall, he says, women make up “less than a fifth—and at most, a quarter” of policy-related positions in Washington, DC.
Family obligations are one reason often given for this trend. Jolynn Shoemaker, director of the Women in International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, says women are well represented in early career stages, but further up the ladder, are outnumbered by men. “You have to be available 24 hours a day, so how can you say, ‘my child has a fever’ when there’s an international crisis?” says May. It may be no coincidence that Albright, Rice and Clinton had no young children to care for while in office. Shoemaker says personal life is only one culprit: Women also continue to suffer from a lack of mentoring and networking and “not getting the benefit of more powerful people in the institution making phone calls on their behalf.”
Do women bring something unique to foreign policy? Definitely, says Zenko—who you are shapes outcomes. Albright agrees that women bring a different perspective to the table: “Women have more peripheral vision and are interested in the relationships involved. They have a sense of how issues fit together in a different way.”
Albright has kept busy in the political sphere since she stepped down at the end of the Clinton administration in 2001. She founded the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategy firm, and the Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute for Global Affairs at Wellesley; serves on the board of the Council on Foreign Relations, as chair of the NATO Strategic Concept Expert Group and as chair of the National Democratic Institute, and has written five books. Now 75, she continues to teach, still without tenure, at Georgetown—where she is known for taking students out to lunch every week. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Albright continues to make it a point to encourage women to pursue careers in government and foreign policy—and takes pride when they do. “Nothing—nothing—makes me happier than when a young woman or a girl comes up to me and says, ‘Thank you so much for what you’ve done. I’m going to major in international relations or I’m going to run for office,’” says Albright, who is now a grandmother of six. When asked what advice she gives women, she answers right away: “Work hard and understand that it is harder for women,” she says cheerfully. “Keep the support of other women and decide that there’s nothing better or more interesting than public service.”
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT’S JEWISH PAST————————————————————————————————————————–
When President Bill Clinton nominated Madeleine Albright to be secretary of state in 1996, Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs was assigned to profile her. While interviewing family and friends in her native Prague and in Belgrade, where Albright’s father had served as a Czechoslovakian ambassador, Dobbs stumbled upon a secret from Albright’s past: Her parents and grandparents were all Jewish, and many members of her extended family had died in the Holocaust.
On January 30, 1997—shortly after he returned and a week after Albright was sworn in as secretary of state—Dobbs met with Albright at the State Department to reveal his findings and to document her reaction for his story. “It was a very emotional moment for her and a slightly difficult interview,” says Dobbs. “She sort of thanked me for the information, but she was shocked by the revelations.”
Albright recalls that moment: “It’s one thing to find out that one is of Jewish background, which I think is fascinating and adds to the complexity of my whole life,” she says. “The other is to find out that more than 25 members of my family died in the Holocaust. I think it’s very hard to say how either has affected me. One I find most interesting; the other I find terribly sad and tragic.”
While in Prague, Dobbs had met with Dagmar “Dasha” Šimova, Albright’s long-lost first cousin, who filled him in on the details of Albright’s early life. Albright was one when Adolf Hitler annexed parts of Czechoslovakia in 1938, and her parents fled to England, taking their daughter and Šimova with them. There the family converted to Catholicism, and Albright’s father became part of the Czechoslovakian government-in-exile. When Albright was eight, they returned home at the end of World War II to find that many of the relatives they left behind had perished. Albright’s parents, however, never revealed this painful information to their children. Only Šimova, who was 17 at the time, knew. When Albright and her family immigrated to the United States in 1948—this time, without Šimova—it seemed the Korbels’ Jewish past would be forgotten forever.
Clues began to emerge when Albright was appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations more than four decades later. Family friends and acquaintances from Czechoslovakia, seeing Albright on television, wrote her letters explaining her family’s complicated history. But she brushed them aside because “mostly they were in indecipherable writing and had wrong facts,” she says. “Finally in November 1996, there was a letter that had all the names, dates and various things correct, and it said that my family came from fine Jewish families.” Meanwhile, Šimova tried to make contact with her cousin, hoping that Albright would call during one of her UN trips to Prague. But Albright never reached out. “It’s not so difficult to get hold of me,” Šimova told Dobbs before her death. “I’m certain that she is busy, but also certain that she has a hotel room with a telephone in it. She could find the time to give me a ring.” Šimova then realized that Albright might not know how to get in touch with her, so she attended one of Albright’s press conferences and tried to pass a note to her with her contact information. The note was intercepted by a bodyguard and never given to Albright.
The last letter was convincing enough that when the final question came in the vetting process for secretary of state—was there anything else that President Clinton needed to know about her—she responded that her family might be Jewish. The revelation didn’t mean much to her vetters. “So what? The president isn’t anti-Semitic,” she recalls them saying.
Still, when Dobbs’s article was published on February 4, Albright worried the revelation could sidetrack her career. The State Department had a long history of being unfriendly to Jews. Not that Albright was the first Jewish secretary of state; Henry Kissinger, a Republican in President Nixon’s administration, preceded her, and Clinton’s cabinet also included a Jewish secretary of the treasury, Lawrence Summers. The real cause for concern was those who thought she had been hiding her family’s Jewish roots. “I find it strange as a teacher that we didn’t teach her enough to recognize her own background,” says István Deák, professor emeritus of history at Columbia University, who sat on Albright’s dissertation committee. “Being called Spieglová—the name of her mother—in Europe was automatically assumed to be Jewish. How come she didn’t think of that? She was told that her grandparents were killed in an air raid. There were not that many air raids in Czech lands during World War II. I guess she just didn’t want to know.”
Those close to Albright insist that she didn’t know. “There was not a hint of any recognition that she was Jewish—I think that came as much of a surprise to her as anyone,” says Alice Moskowitz, one of Albright’s friends from Wellesley College. Georgetown law professor Barry Carter, whom Albright dated for several years, agrees. “There was no sign to me whatsoever that she had a sense that she had Jewish roots,” he says. “She really thought of herself as Catholic or Episcopalian.”
The summer after her meeting with Dobbs, Albright traveled to Prague, where she visited the famous Pinkas Synagogue, which has the names of all the Czechoslovakian Jews killed in the Holocaust are inscribed on the walls. From among the 77,297 names, Albright found three of her grandparents: Arnošt and Olga Korbel and Ruzena Spieglová. “Obviously it was a stunning shock,” she says. “But I did think that but for what my parents did, my name and theirs would be on the wall, and my brother and sister would not exist.” In addition, she visited Terezín, a town on the Czechoslovak-German border where her grandparents died in a concentration camp. “I picked up a stone and put it on Prime Minister Rabin’s grave when I next went to Jerusalem,” Albright says.
Since her parents had been dead for decades, Albright could not ask her parents why they hid the truth from her and her siblings. “What we see is that our parents had lost everything, and they came to this country and had a reason to put things behind them and begin a new life,” she says. “They wanted us to have a new American life. Still, I feel pretty stupid about not having asked the right questions.”
Although a Jew according to Jewish law, Albright does not consider herself Jewish. “I have explained that at 59—and now, I’m 75—it’s a little hard to change every way that one thinks.” Still, Judaism has reentered her family in another way: Her youngest daughter, Katherine, married a Jewish man and the couple is raising their children Jewish. Their son, Benjamin, just celebrated his bar mitzvah. Says Albright: “Just to explain what an amalgam we are, we were all together over the holidays and we celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas.”