A Tribute To A Great Woman — Madeleine Albright

Madeleine Albright was one heck of a woman, my friends.  Her death last week took me aback, though it shouldn’t have, given that she was 84 years old!  I wanted to write a tribute to her, but didn’t know quite where to begin, for she was truly larger than life.  Ms. Albright served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations from 1993 to 1997, and as U.S. Secretary of State in the Clinton administrations from 1997 to 2001, but those are facts … they are single-dimensional and they don’t tell who Madeleine Albright was, the person she was.

While I struggled to write a memorable tribute, one that would be worthy of the woman she was and what she gave to the world, I stumbled across a tribute written by none other than Hillary Clinton.  I think Ms. Clinton captured the essence of who Madeleine Albright was, for she had a personal connection, and her words are far more moving than mine would have been.  Thus, I share with you, a tribute to a great woman, Madeleine Albright!

Madeleine Albright Warned Us, and She Was Right

By Hillary Clinton

March 25, 2022

Late one night in 1995, in a cramped airplane cabin high over the Pacific, Madeleine Albright put down a draft of a speech I was set to deliver in Beijing at the upcoming United Nations conference on women, fixed me with the firm stare that had made fearsome dictators shudder, and asked what I was really trying to accomplish with this address.

“I want to push the envelope as far as I can,” I replied. “Then do it,” she said. She proceeded to tell me how I could sharpen the speech’s argument that women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.

That was Madeleine, always cutting right to the heart of the matter with clarity and courage. She pushed the envelope her entire life. She did it on behalf of women and girls, shattering the glass ceiling of diplomacy as the first woman to serve as secretary of state and calling out atrocities against women all over the world. She did it for the country that took her in as a child fleeing tyranny in Europe, championing the United States as an indispensable nation and the leader of the free world. She never stopped pushing the envelope for freedom and democracy, including cajoling sometimes skeptical generals and diplomats to see human rights as a national security imperative.

For Bill and me and her many friends all over the world, Madeleine’s passing is a painful personal loss. She was irrepressible: wickedly funny, stylish and always game for adventure and fun. I’ll never forget how excited she was to walk me through the streets of her native Prague and show me the yellow house where she lived as a girl. We couldn’t stop laughing when an unexpected rainstorm blew our umbrellas inside out, and couldn’t stop smiling when the captivating playwright and dissident turned president Václav Havel charmed us over dinner. Madeleine was 10 years ahead of me at Wellesley, and for decades we used to address and sign our notes to each other “Dear ’59” and “Love, ’69.”

Madeleine’s death is also a great loss for our country and for the cause of democracy at a time when it is under serious and sustained threat around the world and here at home. Now more than ever, we could use Madeleine’s vital voice, her cleareyed view of a dangerous world and her unstinting faith in both the unique power of the American idea and the universal appeal of freedom and democracy. We can honor her memory by heeding her wisdom.

Stand up to bullies and dictators

In the 1990s, when my husband named Madeleine U.N. ambassador and then secretary of state, she went toe-to-toe with the blood-soaked Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. She helped marshal American power and the NATO alliance to end the brutal war in Bosnia and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. She saw the chronically underestimated Russian president Vladimir Putin for what he is: a vicious autocrat intent on reclaiming Russia’s lost empire and a committed foe of democracy everywhere. In a prescient column in The Times published Feb. 23, she warned that an invasion of Ukraine would be “a historic error” that would leave Russia “diplomatically isolated, economically crippled and strategically vulnerable in the face of a stronger, more united Western alliance.” As happened so often, the man with the guns was wrong and Madeleine was right.

Madeleine Albright talking to Kim Jong-Il, center, in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 2000.Credit…Andrew Wong/AFP/Getty Images

She was a woman of action, especially when facing injustice. Madeleine understood that American power is the only thing standing between the rules-based global order and the rule of the sword. That did not mean she was ever quick or casual about the use of force, even for the right cause. Madeleine was a diplomat’s diplomat, ready to talk to even the most odious adversary to advance the prospects of peace. In 2000, she was the first secretary of state to travel to North Korea, where she spent 12 hours negotiating with the dictator Kim Jong-il. But, as she often said, her crucial historical frame of reference was Munich, not Vietnam, so she had a deep appreciation for the risks of inaction. Today, with a rising tide of authoritarianism threatening democracy not just in Ukraine but all over the world, that is a lesson worth remembering.

NATO and U.S. alliances are the cornerstone of world peace

As secretary of state, Madeleine helped my husband welcome Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into NATO after the end of the Cold War. Years later, I asked her to head up an international commission for the Obama administration to redefine NATO’s mission for the 21st century. Having experienced Europe’s historic traumas firsthand, she understood that the security provided by NATO was the key to keeping the continent free, peaceful and undivided. She saw it as a political alliance, not just a military pact, cementing democracy in countries that had only recently freed themselves from authoritarianism.

Madeleine rejected the criticism, renewed recently, that NATO’s expansion needlessly provoked Russia and is to blame for its invasion of Ukraine. As the Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin has noted, that argument ignores Russia’s centuries-long efforts to dominate its neighbors. Madeleine would be quick to add that it also erases the aspirations and autonomy of the former Soviet bloc countries that threw off their chains, built fragile democracies and rightly worried about Russian revanchism. She would encourage us to listen to the insights of leaders like our friend Mr. Havel, who said the message of NATO expansion is that “Europe is no longer, and must never again be, divided over the heads of its people and against their will into any spheres of interest or influence.”

Make no mistake, if NATO had not expanded, Mr. Putin would be menacing not just Ukraine but the Baltic States and likely all of Eastern Europe. As the historian and journalist Anne Applebaum recently argued, “The expansion of NATO was the most successful, if not the only truly successful, piece of American foreign policy of the last 30 years.”

Madeleine Albright, right, with Hillary and Bill Clinton at the funeral for Václav Havel, the former Czech president, in 2011.Credit…Michal Cizek/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Madeleine also strongly disagreed with Donald Trump’s approach of treating America’s alliances as a protection racket where our partners must pay tribute or fend for themselves. She knew that U.S. alliances — especially with other democracies — are a military, diplomatic and economic asset that neither Russia nor China can match, despite their best efforts, and are crucial for our own national security.

Attacks on democracy at home play into the hands of dictators abroad

They make it harder for the United States and our allies to champion human rights and the rule of law. In her searing 2018 book, “Fascism: A Warning,” Madeleine described Mr. Trump as the first U.S. president in the modern era “whose statements and actions are so at odds with democratic ideals.” She observed that his assault on democratic norms and institutions was “catnip” for autocrats like Mr. Putin. After the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, and Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn a free and fair election, Madeleine imagined Abraham Lincoln weeping. “My family came to America after fleeing a coup, so I know that freedom is fragile,” she wrote. “But I never thought I would see such an assault on democracy be cheered on from the Oval Office.” With the Republican Party recently declaring the insurrection and events that led to it to be “legitimate political discourse,” and some of the party’s most powerful media allies pushing Kremlin talking points on Fox News and elsewhere, it’s clear that the threat to our democracy that so alarmed Madeleine remains an urgent crisis.

The fundamental truth that Madeleine understood and that informed her views on all these challenges is that America’s strength flows not just from our military or economic might but from our core values. Back in 1995, Madeleine told me a story that still inspires me. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, she visited parts of the Czech Republic that had been liberated by American troops in 1945. Many people waved American flags as she passed, and to her surprise, some had just 48 stars. They had to be decades old. It turned out that American G.I.s had handed out the flags a half-century earlier. Czech families said they had kept them hidden all through the years of Soviet domination, passing them down from generation to generation as the embodiment of their hope for a better, freer future.

Madeleine knew exactly what that meant. Even at the end of her life, she treasured her first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, sailing into New York Harbor in 1948 as an 11-year-old refugee on a ship called the S.S. America. She would have been thrilled by President Biden’s announcement on Thursday that the United States will welcome up to 100,000 refugees fleeing Ukraine, and she would encourage us to do more to respond to this unfolding humanitarian nightmare. She would warn, as she did in her book, about the “self-centered moral numbness that allows Fascism to thrive,” and urge us to keep pushing the envelope for freedom, human rights and democracy. We should listen.

38 thoughts on “A Tribute To A Great Woman — Madeleine Albright

  1. A great lady and a wonderful tribute. And as much as I hate to agree with RG, I’m afraid he is right this time. We’ve sold our democracy to the highest bidder and there doesn’t seem to be any way back barring more and more war and unrest. I’m glad I won’t live long enough to see the end, at least I hope I won’t. As it is I’ll be homeless in August barring a miracle and life on the streets isn’t much to look forward to.

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            • No … I still haven’t replied! My bad!!! I have several emails that are waiting replies and every night I think, “Tomorrow for sure!” I’ve not been feeling as well the last week or so, so everything is behind! How exciting about your granddaughter! Have you met her fiancé? Are you going to the wedding? Love you, my friend! ❤

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              • Matthew has been coming to all family gatherings for about five years now so I knew it was just a matter of time. He is a sweetheart and just right for her. the wedding is going to be very small, only the parents and siblings invited because Matt and Anika are both very private people and don’t want a crowd. She will wear a Romanian blouse with so much elaborate embroidery on it and her usual jeans and sandals. Shades of the ’60’s, but on her they look elaborate. She also has a wreath of flowers for her hair. I imagine Matt will wear his usual jeans and polo shirt. In fact, I imagine they will all wear jeans. As much as I would love to go there is no way I could get there easily or maneuver all of the steps into the house. Her quilt is almost finished though so I’ll be able to mail it to her before the wedding.

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                • I love it! I think all the money wasted on fancy clothes and huge weddings is such a waste. Heck, my late-ex-husband and I got married at the courthouse during our respective lunch breaks from our jobs! He in his mechanic’s clothes, and me in my banking suit! During the vows, I was so nervous that I lapsed into Spanish and had to be reminded to speak English! I love that you’re making them a quilt! I hope you will post a picture of it … I can’t wait to see it! Hugs, my dear friend!

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                  • My wedding was in church because being Catholic that’s the only way we did it back then. But I love that they are saving their money as well. As for my own wedding, it wasn’t going to cost me much until our dear priest stood up the Sunday before after reading the final bans and announced that our reception would be in the new church hall and everyone was invited! Our combined list of people to invite consisted of our families making it about 90 – 100 people and the cake and punch were being made for that many. After Mass half the congregation crowded around Mother and me and asked if they could really come. It would have been a bit embarrassing to tell them no at that point, so I had to call and order the cake to be doubled and get the ingredients to double the punch as well, not to mention all the Jordan almonds and butter candy that was the norm back then. Thank goodness we hadn’t decided on a meal the way they do these days.

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  2. A great woman, agreed. But blinded by her own experiences, in my opinion. Democracy needs a huge overhaul to get back to where it can be even close to being the ideal Ms Albright wanted it to be. I do not mean to be crass, or downplay Ms Albright’s vision, but to listen to her words is to deny present reality. I told Roger today in my opinion DEMOCRACY IS DEAD! It cannot be revived ftom its present state of sickness. I am not against trying it again, but it needs to be started from scratch, with democratic responsibilities put firmly in place. If we are going to honour her memory, we need to correct all our mistakes of the past 200 plus years. The founders od Democracy, way back in Greece, never saw this future coming, this future that is our present reality!

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    • Much has changed in the past few decades. In her time, she broke through numerous ‘norms’ and glass ceilings.

      I don’t know if democracy is dead … I rather doubt it, I suspect it’s going to have to undergo some revision at some point, but I’m not ready to fire up the cremation ovens just yet. No, the founders of democracy didn’t … couldn’t predict what would happen thousands of years later. Democracy, like anything else, must adapt and adjust as life changes.

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    • I don’t think that the USA is a good model for a modern democracy. Those in the top 5 or 10 of the EIU democracy index would be better models IMHO, as would the top 5 or 10 of the democracy matrix. In the former, the US is ranked 26th and is defined as a flawed democracy, while in the latter, the US is ranked 36th and defined as a deficient democracy. Canada is ranked 12th and 24th respectively, while Aotearoa ranks 2nd and 8th respectively.

      I’m not persuaded that democracy is dead. It might be on life support in some places, but not everywhere. And while there’s life, there’s hope. Having said that, The V-Dem Institute democracy report 2022 does show a gloomy trend towards autocratization worldwide, with one of the significant movers in this respect being the USA.

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      • Maybe I did not say it here, but I have said it elsewhere, I don’t know enough about other democracies, especially those in socialist countries to comment on them. Actually, we in Canada NEVER here about other forms or styles of democracy. There are the big 3 (a prejudiced list) of the USA, Great Britain, and Canada. And i two of those nations for sure, with Canada following in their footsteps, where Democracy is do corrupt it is disgiised dictatorship. So thank you for the extra info. But while some good democracies are surviving, I think democracy is failing the people it is supposed to help! Therefore it is better dead. Then we can either start to recreate demcracy or find something totally new. My own hope is that we can create something new, something that is more malleable to diffrent situations. Right now, with the many failings of democracy exposed for all to see, we can design a much better and more inclusive system.


      • I agree … like you, I am not convinced that democracy is dead, but perhaps it’s suffering a very debilitating illness in places like the U.S. Can we find the cure? Not unless we put aside our differences and pull together.

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    • I was addressing whether democracy is dead in my mind last night. Not dead in the U.S., I decided, but certainly infected with a deadly virus whose symptoms include greed and power. Ad hoc double standards empower the rich and set them aside as a separate class. Another class are the celebrities, who can get away with more than us mere mortals. Then there is the federal leadership class, existing in their own bubble. When they write laws against themselves to keep themselves in check, they ensure that the laws are toothless, which really makes them meaningless except as a handle for us peons to grab and shout, “They broke the law.” As was pointed out in a recent article about Joe Manchin and how he acquired his wealth, all he did was legal, but most of it was unethical and corrupt. That we reward and empower people that do these things, even putting them on pedestals and applauding them for ‘being so smart’ — isn’t that how Trump’s supporters often endorse him? — our democracy has a limited life remaining. As Albright, smart as she was, was part of that ruling class, I don’t think she fully realized any longer how deep the cronyism and corruption run, nor how dispirited we average citizens have become. Cheers

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      • I am not happy that this is the way things are, but this is the way things are. If we do nothing, it will only get worse. Thank you for your words. Not that I could doubt my vision, but I was starting to doubt if anyone else cared. Thanks. Michael. You do not know how much your words mean to me.

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      • Greed and arrogance will be the downfall of this nation’s democratic foundations … those foundations are already cracked, perhaps beyond repair. Perhaps it’s time to tear down the house and rebuild, but my greatest fear is the builders of the new house would build a prison to throw those of us with a conscience into. Yes, we the citizens have become dispirited … except, of course, those who are drunk on that toxic martini of Kool Aid they’ve been drinking. Cheers ‘n hugs, Michael!

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