Words from Madeleine Albright, 'an optimist who worries a lot'
By Lou Fancher Correspondent Contra Costa Times
Dissecting America's geopolitical position and describing herself as "an optimist who worries a lot," former United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told a Walnut Creek audience last month to be proud.
Praising Contra Costa County for investing in the arts, education and child care -- before moving to subjects dominating the 2014 political platform -- Albright's intelligence, charm and good humor were abundant at this Lesher Center Newsmakers series event.
A spirited storyteller, Albright called moving through airport security lines, "getting undressed for the TSA" and recalled that her 12-year-old desire to blend in with her peers was dismantled by a mother who had "a hobby of reading palms" and a father who went fishing while wearing a suit and tie.
After becoming the first female Secretary of State in 1997 (with a 99-0 nomination approval vote), she said she and two of her successors, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, proved a point: "(Secretary of State) John Kerry is a source of inspiration for little boys everywhere."
Beyond the laughs -- and there were many -- Albright shared how her personal history and two "billiard ball bouncing" global change agents have shaped her current insights into countries and governments worldwide.
The vetting process for Albright to become the highest-ranking appointed executive branch official in the Clinton cabinet revealed a startling footnote: Albright is Jewish. Born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, surviving World War II in exile in London, her parents had converted to Catholicism. Raised an Episcopalian in Denver after her family fled their homeland and Nazi domination a second time, Albright learned for the first time, in the days just before her approval as Secretary of State, of her Jewish heritage. Twenty-four of her relatives had died in the Holocaust.
"It was like being named to run a marathon and when you start, you're handed a package to carry and unwrap while you run," she said.
The themes in her "Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948" -- one of five New York Times best-sellers she has authored -- and a well-known accessory she wears (pins), mirror her belief that making "foreign policy stories less foreign" is key to understanding the world.
Albright's words sometimes pierced like bullets. Politicians are "under the impression that saying something means they think they've done something," she said. And Russia's action in Ukraine is a situation she said had "metastasized into a significant geopolitical crisis." Warning against defining ourselves as "anti-others" and losing sight of common humanity, she said patriotic "pride curdles and becomes hate."
Globalization and the rise of information technology are the unpredictable forces enhancing and endangering relationships between countries, according to Albright. The former, offers opportunities for countries to work together to solve problems, but also can escalate them, which she said had happened in the Ukraine.
To begin solving problems, Albright recommended "putting the (domestic) economy in order." Asked about dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin, she said the mistake is to say "We won the Cold War." Instead, she suggested the Communists had lost the war and economic sanctions were the appropriate course of action in response to Russia's "taking Crimea illegally." The use of military force, she estimated, is not practical, given countries' interdependence.