Madeleine Albright: My Favorite Mistake

Madeleine Albright. Cindy Marler / Hollandse Hoogte-Redux

When I was America's biggest diplomat, I made a really bad mistake. This is how it happened.

In 1999, President Clinton, Defense Secretary William Cohen, and I were in a room together, celebrating the 50th anniversary of NATO. It was a completely accidental thing; we were just sitting and joking around, and we pretended to be the "See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil" monkeys. I then decided to go out and buy three monkey pins. A year later, President Clinton and I were going to Moscow for a summit. I was appalled at the brutality of Russian military actions in Chechnya. I thought they were evil. So I wore the three monkey pins to our meeting with President Vladimir Putin.

I began wearing pins to signal my mood when I was ambassador to the United Nations. We had sanctions on Iraq then, and I was instructed to keep saying terrible things about Saddam Hussein. In response, he published a poem in the newspaper comparing me to an unparalleled serpent. I had a snake pin, so I decided to wear it. When the press asked me why I was wearing the pin, I said, "Because Saddam Hussein compared me to an unparalleled serpent." And I thought, "Well, this is fun," and I went out and bought a bunch of costume jewelry that I thought would reflect what would happen on any given day. So, on good days I'd wear butterflies and flowers and balloons. On bad days I'd wear insects. There was a time, for instance, when I was in talks with the Russians that we discovered a listening device—a bug—in one of the conference rooms outside my office at the State Department. The next time I met with the Russians, I wore a huge bug pin.

But it was a big mistake to wear those monkey pins to see President Putin. As we walked in, he turned to President Clinton and said, "We always watch what pins Secretary Albright is wearing." President Putin then turned to me and asked, "Why are you wearing those monkeys?" I said, "Because of your Chechnya policy." President Putin became furious with me. It was then I realized I'd gone too far. Fortunately, it did not affect the important discussion he and President Clinton had. I didn't apologize, but I learned that sometimes you can overstep a little bit, that in a really serious situation, with somebody who may not have the same sense of humor, you can go too far.