Inside Story

Carrying on till she’s carried out

Books | Silence may be golden, says Madeleine Albright, but it won’t win many arguments

Graeme Dobell 27 October 2020 1880 words

Hell, yes: former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright with Justin Trudeau, prime minister of Canada, at the Munich Security Conference in February this year. Tobias Hase/dpa/Alamy

Hell and Other Destinations: A 21st Century Memoir
By Madeleine Albright | HarperCollins | $64.99 | 384 pages

There was a time when Madeleine Albright flew the world on her own jumbo jet, communing with presidents and prime ministers. But now, after a long overnight flight to Heathrow airport, the former US secretary of state and ambassador to the United Nations is queuing as a tired, private citizen, and she’s having mounting problems with British customs:

Pulled out of line, I was made to wait, then instructed by a guard using a clipped imperial accent to open my suitcases and each of the smaller bags within. I care as much as anyone about security, but I was also nearly eighty years old, blessed with a benign, albeit wrinkled countenance, and late for a meeting. Under my breath, I muttered, “Why me?” More minutes elapsed with the guards just standing around and onlookers whispering among themselves, pointing, and imagining what I must have done to deserve such treatment. Made shameless by frustration, I finally confronted my officious tormenters by pulling rank: “Do you know who I am?” There, I thought, that should do it. “No,” came the sympathetic reply, “but we have doctors here who can help you to figure that out.”

Albright offers a wryly sharp account of how an ex–power player stays in the game, seeking to beat the affliction former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans dubbed “relevance deprivation syndrome.” Her first chapter on being a “former somebody” is titled “Afterlife.”

Another version of the afterlife effect comes when she is rushed to a Washington hospital after falling over and gashing her head. With no identification documents, the emergency room paperwork stalls:

To get things moving again, I said to the woman who had stopped filling out forms, “Perhaps you recognise me. I’m Madeleine Albright, and I used to be secretary of state.” The woman gazed at me with a blank expression, taking in my ragged, bloodstained blouse with leaves sticking to it, ripped stockings, and mud-spattered shoes. “No,” she announced. “Colin Powell is secretary of state.”

I replied, “Yes, you’re right, Colin Powell. But I had the job before him.” A spark of comprehension flickered in the woman’s eyes, “So,” she said, “that means you’re unemployed.”

Not so much unemployed as no longer holding power, the foreign affairs wonk must find other ways to prod at policy — to pronounce, protest and preach. In office, she writes, the player can make waves and create headlines with a few words that merely recycle an old idea. Out of the office, the same player can perform cartwheels in the Champs-Élysées without causing a stir.

Albright brings an outsider’s sensibility to the inner workings of the power game. The child of refugees from Czechoslovakia who fled war and then communism, she arrived in the United States when she was eleven. America’s first female secretary of state writes from her lived experience of how a woman pushes her way to the top table in Washington.

The coffee chain, Starbucks, put one of her declarations on its cups: “There’s a special place in Hell for women who don’t help other women.” That motto, and her afterlife decision to say “Hell, yes” to everything, deliver the title of her twenty-first-century memoir.

Because this is America, the former secretary of state gets to play herself on television. Appearing on the drama Madam Secretary, she is allowed to add a line of her own to the script: “There is plenty of room in the world for mediocre men, but there is no room for mediocre women.” This is a woman superbly qualified to pronounce that the administration of George W. Bush was a “bonfire of male vanities.”

As America’s top diplomat (“my job is to go everywhere and eat for my country”) and as a professor, Albright has honed her message to women: argue and interrupt:

I would spend many hours urging the women in my classes to unlearn everything they had been taught about the virtues of humility and waiting one’s turn. “Silence may be golden,” I said, “but it won’t win many arguments. If you have something to say, don’t keep your ideas locked up; unclench your jaws and set those thoughts free. And don’t be afraid to interrupt, because that may be the only way you are going to be heard.”

Having attended a girls high school and a women’s college, Albright has often made the point that a world run by women would be very different. But anyone who thinks it’d be better, she says, has forgotten high school.

Making lots of money on the afterlife speaking circuit, she has honed her lines. “Barely five feet” tall, she carries around a wooden block to get her head above the lectern and reach the microphone. The movie characters she identifies with, she jests, are the seven dwarfs.

The laugh lines serve a serious purpose in her discussion of how policy and politics get done in this roiling century. But they also deserve savouring because they’re good. Here’s Albright describing the fun of her favourite think tank: “Only at Aspen could a former secretary of state be observed singing ‘Hello Dalai!’ to commemorate a visit by the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism.”

The sharp eye keeps circling back to Washington, quoting a favourite saying from a friend, the Republican senator John McCain, on the difference between a caucus and a cactus: “With the cactus, the pricks are on the outside.” The kinder version from Albright is that most elected politicians are “earnest, hardworking, well-intentioned and exhausted.”

Surveying the wonk milieu, she describes how professional subspecies approach the same subject. Lawyers start with a thesis and then list the main points for and against a proposition. Professors emphasise history and culture, and “want to put as much data as possible into the pot.” The military seek what’s practical: “for them, doable is an adjective of merit and ‘if only’ a phrase that wastes time.” Media specialists focus on how to present ideas: choose a catchy name and pick the right moment to announce the initiative. Experts on Congress know “how politics influences everything.”

On how politics is operating these days, Albright laments what she calls an undeniable crisis of confidence in democracy as “a way of life that both trusts human nature and makes demands on it.” Most people haven’t given up on democracy, she concludes, they just want better results.

Finding connections across differences is how democracies must work, but “the talking points developed during almost any political campaign can sully one’s soul.” And too often in the United States, she thinks, noise is defeating reason: “There used to be boundaries beyond which partisanship was inherently self-defeating. A politician who was overly strident would be shunned. That is no longer the case, and the blame falls on both parties.”

Albright confronts the crisis of confidence from a player’s perspective: “Ancient Greek dramatists employed a chorus to comment on folly. In our age, we have social media.” The player facing a tough interview must be able “to dodge the question and tell jokes.” Debating foreign policy on a weekly TV show from 1989 to 1991, she quickly grasped the basic rules:

Speak crisply, stick to the point, eschew hand or arm gestures, strive to have the last word, and be sure of your makeup. When someone else is talking, don’t react, just sit like a mannequin and listen. Though the television lights may be hot, you should not be: harsh words are magnified by the medium, and in that era, civility was still deemed a virtue.

It’s still good advice; even Donald Trump stopped shouting by the time of the final debate with Joe Biden.

Trump arrives at the end of Albright’s memoir, because she’s already delivered a comprehensive denunciation in her 2018 book Fascism: A Warning (“I dipped my pen in sulphur and began to write.”) On the tour to promote that book, Albright found Americans bewildered and cranky. The major political parties are at war and Republicans, under Trump, had “undergone a metamorphosis worthy of Kafka.” In this memoir, Albright sums it up:

Is Donald Trump a fascist? During my book tour, this was the question I was asked most often. To me it was a trap. I could not in good conscience defend the president, but it would have been ridiculous to put him in the same category as such mass murderers as Hitler or Stalin. I replied, “I do not call him a fascist. I do say that he has the most antidemocratic instincts of any president in modern American history.” Why? Not merely because Trump berates the media, is often at loggerheads with Congress, complains about court decisions, and fired the director of the FBI. Other presidents have done all of those things. Some, too, have been excessively self-absorbed and throwers of ear-splitting tantrums. What separates this president from his predecessors is a matter of degree. No other president has so thoroughly combined a boorish personality with an incapacity to accept criticism, an utter disregard for the responsibilities of his office, and a tendency to make stuff up worthy of both Guinness’s book and Ripley’s. There are those who point to Trump’s atrocious spelling and reliance on short words as evidence that he lacks brainpower. I am not so sure. The man has a multitude of blind spots, but he also has an instinct that he has relied on throughout his career: to go on the offensive and claim at the same time to be under attack. Politically, this approach energises supporters and channels their outrage in whatever direction Trump is pointing his finger. The tactic is deliberate, reflects cunning, and often leaves opponents floundering about in the mud that seems to be the president’s favoured terrain. The effect on society is correspondingly bog-like.

Albright dismisses Trump by quoting the observation that “rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.” She can’t decide whether the harm Trump has caused America’s international reputation and interests will be temporary or lasting.

The harm that is clear is the polarisation of US politics, which is “causing grave damage to the foundations of our democracy.” When she was ambassador to the United Nations, Albright declared that the United States was “the indispensable nation.” Now she worries that a society that still claims to lead the free world is prey to a torrent of angry passions that could “carry us towards fascism.”

As an “optimist who worries a lot,” this spirited eighty-three-year-old agrees on the need to “stop and smell the roses — before stooping to pull weeds.” Grab time, she advises, and shake it hard:

I once experimented with meditation, cleared my mind, and immediately remembered a phone call I had to make; that was that. Sadly, I see no evidence that enlightenment comes with age. A four-year-old slurping ice cream knows as much about contentment as any elder.

Madeleine Albright’s memoir isn’t a summation or conclusion. It’s a stimulating situation report. “I am greedy for more,” she writes. “Sum up my life? Not yet: I am still counting. Until I am carried out, I will carry on.” •