The Lady Is A Hawk

IT WAS SPRINGTIME IN CONNECTICUT. IN MAY 1993 Madeleine Albright had come up from New York City to suburban Stamford to visit her new grandson at the home of her daughter Alice. As Albright held the child in her arms, the phone rang. It was, of all people, Boutros Boutros-Ghali. So with one arm she cradled the newborn, with the other she cradled a phone connecting her to the secretary-general of the United Nations. "It was quite a balancing act," recalls her daughter Anne. It's hard to imagine Warren Christopher or Henry Kissinger mixing diapers and diplomacy. But with Albright's nomination to be secretary of state, Bill Clinton made a decision that reverberates not only in the elite world of capitals and communiques but in the larger culture as well. Another all-male bastion has fallen.

Ironically, it would be hard to find a less likely revolutionary than Madeleine Korbel Albright. Though Albright's gender is pathbreaking, her views are in the activist mainstream of American diplomacy. Indeed, Clinton has said he was less concerned with revolution and more with a "team" approach to his cabinet. Albright is a team player, yes, but she's hawkish and willing to use her elbows--with world powers and in the Beltway. Most of all, though, Albright is a survivor--of a childhood fleeing Hitler and communism, of a devastating divorce, of a rise through the male-dominated foreign-policy establishment. Now the question is whether this tough-minded woman can endure at the top of Foggy Bottom. One way she'll cope, and conduct policy, is through pithy sound bites. On the day of her appointment, she joked of Christopher: "I hope my heels can fill his shoes."

Since the election, some wondered when Clinton would get around to filling Christopher's shoes--or anyone else's. Like a college student who keeps getting extensions on his term paper, the president kept putting off his selection of a national-security team, hoping to think about it just a wee bit longer. Finally, last week, in the middle of the annual black-tie Congressional Ball, outgoing chief of staff Leon Panetta got the call from Clinton: "I think I've come to a conclusion here." The fiftysomething lineup was familiar. Albright had been U.N. ambassador for four years. Samuel (Sandy) Berger rises from No. 2 to the top job at the National Security Council. Anthony Lake got the dubious honor of trying to bring order to the CIA. Only one new face was added--retiring GOP Sen. William Cohen of Maine, the most prominent across-the-aisle appointment since JFK put two Republicans in his cabinet.

Albright survived a difficult sweepstakes. NEWSWEEK has learned that Al Gore favored veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke for the top job at State, although it was a point he pushed gingerly, and he liked Albright as well. (One insider said Albright and Holbrooke both told the president that if one of them couldn't have the job, the other should get it.) Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton favored Albright's ascension. The two Wellesley alumnae had traveled through Europe together earlier this year, and the First Lady, say insiders, found Holbrooke too headstrong. Still, he could emerge as U.N. ambassador--or as secretary of state if Albright were to falter.

For now, she's clearly having a honeymoon. Jesse Helms, the archconservative chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, lauded her. So did liberals, particularly the women's groups that had pushed for Albright's appointment. (Behind the scenes Albright allies had begged the feminists not to campaign for her, fearing it would backfire. "Don't turn her into a quota," said one aide.) In foreign capitals reactions varied. The Russians said they could do business with her. The Israelis cheered. In Asia, where Albright has little experience, leaders greeted the news with caution.

All of them wanted to know more about this Albright woman. Is she the Thatcheresque hawk who persuaded Clinton to abandon European-led diplomacy in the Balkans and called Castro's downing of two civilian planes "cowardice, not cojones"? Or is she the foreign-policy adviser to the dovish Michael Dukakis? Is she the grandmother with the farm in Virginia, decorated in a cow motif, with bovine potholders and figurines adorning the kitchen where she cooks? Or is she the slick Beltway operator with her own Georgetown salon? Like many working women, she is hard to pigeonhole, but perhaps the best way to understand her is as a survivor who has, for the most part, overcome adversities large and small.

Her trials began early. Albright's father, a diplomat, was twice evicted from his native Czechoslovakia--first in 1938, when the Nazis invaded, and then again 10 years later, in 1948, when the communists seized power. Madeleine was 11 at the time. "She is passionate about her patriotism," says journalist Emily MacFarquahar, who has known Albright for 41 years. Settling in the United States, the Korbels sent Madeleine to public schools. A scholarship student at Wellesley, Albright learned discount shopping at Boston's Filene's Basement.

She married her college sweetheart, a publishing heir named Joseph Medill Patterson Albright. She stayed home to raise her children, rising at 4:30 each morning to work on a Ph.D. in international affairs. Eventually she finished and dove into Democratic politics. She advised Edmund Muskie in 1972. And in 1976 her old professor from Columbia, Zbigniew Brzezinski, tapped her to join the National Security Council. When Carter was kicked out of office in 1980, Albright was out of a job.

That wasn't all she lost in the 1980s. In 1982 her husband abruptly announced that the marriage was over. Albright was stunned. "It was a shock," she told The Washington Post in 1991. She hasn't come close to remarrying since the breakup.

With money, an elegant town house and kids leaving the nest, Albright became a figure in Democratic policy circles. She advised Walter Mondale; she was among Dukakis's top advisers. During this period the Democratic Party, banished from the White House, underwent an agonizing debate over foreign policy. Should it be more hawkish in the tradition of Henry (Scoop) Jackson or follow a more dovish, George McGovern-like path? Albright stood in the middle. Some conservative Democrats think she was too soft. One still chides her for advocating "cutting the defense budget, [supporting] the nuclear freeze and all that." Albright herself now admits that she was wrong, for example, to oppose the gulf war, though many "hawks"--including Sam Nunn--took the same position. As ambassador and now as secretary, friends say, she's freer to develop her own opinions and, says one ally, to "trust her own instincts" as a patriotic EmigrE who understands the power--and potential for good--of the American military.

During the Reagan-Bush years, Albright's home became a gathering place for exiled Democrats. One aspiring pol Albright didn't know well was Bill Clinton. The two had never really talked until the spring of 1992, when Mark Gearan, now director of the Peace Corps, put them together at the Democratic Governors Association annual dinner. They hit it off. She became a natural pick for a cabinet Clinton vowed would "look like America."

The hot spots of the last four years--Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti and, above all, Bosnia--were at the center of the U.N. agenda. Albright, by all accounts, loved being Madame Ambassador. She decorated the envoy's suite at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel with family photos and works by contemporary American artists. Still, she never neglected her Washington profile. Albright could regularly be found on the N.Y.-D.C. shuttle as she winged her way to the White House to attend the "principals" meetings of Clinton's top foreign-policy advisers.

While her portfolio included everything from the Law of the Sea to child labor, Bosnia dominated. The little girl who had been driven from Europe would not, as a grown woman, countenance the persecution of the Bosnian peoples. Early on she sparred with the then Joint Chiefs chairman Colin Powell, who was reluctant to use force in the former Yugoslavia. "What's the point of having this great military you're always talking about," Albright asked Powell, "if we can't use it?" Albright prevailed, and the U.S. abandoned the European-led policy of U.N.-policed safe havens. Many consider it Albright's finest moment. She was just as tough on Haiti. At a meeting in the White House Situation Room in 1993, Albright forced a decision about what to do about invasion. "Give me the mandate" for a U.N. resolution authorizing an attack, she thundered, "and I will go and get it done." That's exactly what happened.

Still, her record was far from perfect. She was behind the infamous U.N. resolution that transformed the Somalian relief operation into a small colonial war. It was part of what she called "assertive multilateralism"--a phrase and a policy she now says she regrets. And her efforts to oust Boutros-Ghali have been considered clumsy. At first, the two got along well, even frequently dining together. But as the secretary-general became a domestic political liability--and Clinton decided he wanted Boutros-Ghali out--Albright turned on the Egyptian and led the campaign to deny him a second term.

Critics say she is not a strategic thinker. Indeed, Albright's writings are not nearly as influential as those of, say, Henry Kissinger. Without a grand vision she will be more like Cyrus Vance or Warren Christopher, secretaries of state who cultivated reputations as negotiators. If her ideology is similar to her predecessor's, her personal style will be quite different. Christopher was somewhat media shy. Albright, who worked on her college newspaper and married a journalist, loves the press. And she doesn't feel any need to hide her frilly side. One aide unabashedly announced that there will be more shopping excursions when she visits foreign capitals. Sally Quinn, the Washington author, recalls an evening at the Czech Embassy when Albright and other powerful women were gleefully talking about their dresses, confident enough about their abilities that they didn't have to feign constant seriousness. "Secure women don't have to march in the street," says Quinn.

Albright is also likely to fare well with Capitol Hill. Earlier this year, Senator Helms invited her to speak at a women's college back home in North Carolina. Albright eagerly agreed. The two talked it up on the flight down, and Helms was charmed. "I've never disagreed with someone so agreeably," he said. On another occasion, when Helms referred to one of Albright's daughters as a "girl lawyer," Albright laughed it off. Will her charm work overseas, especially in those Arab countries where attitudes toward women differ? Not a concern, says Jeane Kirkpatrick, who was Reagan's U.N. ambassador. "Everyone has a hard time negotiating with Hafez Assad."

At home Albright's ascension is likely to resonate. The image of a woman leading American diplomacy makes a statement that no slogan can. The night before Clinton phoned her with the offer, Albright had a heads-up from incoming chief of staff Erskine Bowles that good news might be on the way. According to an aide, Albright and her staff chatted nervously, and that night, in her Georgetown home, the ambassador "slept fitfully." With history awaiting her in the morning, who could blame her?