Madeleine Albright, First Woman to Be US Secretary of State, Dies

March 24, 2022 by Dan McCue
Madeleine Albright, First Woman to Be US Secretary of State, Dies
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright speaks during the second day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pa., July 26, 2016. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

WASHINGTON — Madeleine Albright, the first female secretary of state of the U.S. and a feisty inspiration to generations of women, died on Wednesday, just weeks short of her 85th birthday.

The cause was cancer, her daughter Anne said.

When he heard of her passing as he flew to Europe to discuss the world’s latest international crisis with world leaders, President Joe Biden paid tribute to Albright by saying “Hers were the hands that turned the tide of history.

“To make this country that she loved even better — she defied convention and broke barriers again and again,” he said. “A scholar, teacher, bestselling author, and later accomplished businesswoman, Albright continued to advise presidents and members of Congress with matchless skill and diplomatic acumen.


“In every role, she used her fierce intellect and sharp wit — and often her unmatched collection of pins — to advance America’s national security and promote peace around the world. America had no more committed champion of democracy and human rights than Albright, who knew personally and wrote powerfully of the perils of autocracy,” the president continued.

“When I think of Madeleine, I will always remember her fervent faith that ‘America is the indispensable nation,’” he said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Albright’s “historic tenure as our nation’s first woman to serve as our top diplomat paved the way for generations of women to serve at the highest levels of our government and represent America abroad.”

“Albright’s family arrived in Ellis Island as refugees in 1948, and she rose to become a barrier-breaking leader on the world stage,” Pelosi continued. “As ambassador to the United Nations and secretary of State, she was a force in advancing America’s security. After her distinguished career in public office, our nation benefited from her continued service as a professor at Georgetown University — sharing her hard-earned wisdom and experience to help shape the next generation of diplomats and leaders.

“Her prescient warnings about the rise of autocracy remain an important guide and resource as we work to defend democracy at home and abroad,” the speaker said.

Vice President Kamala Harris said she first met Albright as a young lawyer in San Francisco.

“From the beginning, she was generous with her time, support, and advice,” Harris said. “She was able to balance strength and compassion, and her deep empathy has been a constant source of inspiration throughout my own career.

“Albright was a mentor and a friend. I will always cherish the conversations we had over the years, which ranged from global affairs to our families,” the vice president added.

Indeed, reading about her life in its aftermath Wednesday afternoon, one couldn’t help but be touched by how she always seemed fated for extraordinary things.

She was born Marie Jana Korbelová in Prague in 1937, the daughter of a Czechoslovakian diplomat.

But the world they inhabited was marked by the successive shadows that would form over Europe in the first half of the 20th Century.

In fact, by the time she was born, the world her parents had grown up in, the Austro-Hungarian empire, was a dusty relic of memory, swept into non-existence by the First World War.

When she was still a toddler, her world too was threatened, and her father moved the family to London, where the future secretary of state and Democratic mainstay would live until she was eight.

However, more than her location would change. Without knowing a thing about it, her parents converted from Judaism to Roman Catholicism and raised their children as Catholics without ever telling them of their Jewish heritage.

It was a secret Albright wouldn’t unravel for decades. When she did, she learned that three of her grandparents and scores of other relatives had been killed in the Holocaust.

But it was shortly after her eighth birthday that the course of her life was truly set. It was then that the Albrights moved to the United States, and eventually settled in Colorado, where her father had gotten a job as a professor at the University of Denver.

Albright herself excelled academically and eventually won a scholarship to Wellesley College, the private women’s liberal arts college in Wellesley, Massachusetts, whose other notable alumni include Hilary Clinton and the newswoman Diane Sawyer.

Whenever she got home from school for an extended period, she worked as an intern for The Denver Post newspaper, it was there that she met her future husband, Joseph Medill Patterson Albright.

As it happened, Albright was the nephew of Alicia Patterson, owner of the Long Island, New York, newspaper Newsday and wife of philanthropist Harry Frank Guggenheim, and it appeared for years that Madeleine Albright might be headed for a career in journalism.

Shortly after she and Joseph Albright married in 1950, the young couple moved to Missouri, where he was completing his military service. While he did so, she worked at The Rolla Daily News.

Upon his discharge, they relocated to Chicago, where he worked as a reporter while she worked as a picture editor at Encyclopedia Britannica.

The following year, Joseph Albright began work at Newsday, and the couple moved to Garden City on Long Island.

That year, Albright gave birth to twin daughters, Alice Patterson Albright and Anne Korbel Albright.

The twins were born six weeks premature and required a long hospitalization. In part to deal with her anxiety Albright enrolled in Russian language classes at nearby Hofstra University.

Her Russian studies continued at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, a division of Johns Hopkins University, after the family moved to Washington, D.C., in 1962. She also began taking courses in international relations.

But it wasn’t long after they set up a home in Georgetown that Joseph Albright’s aunt Alicia Patterson died and the Albrights returned to Long Island.

The idea was that Joseph Albright was going to take over the family newspaper business. In the meantime, Albright gave birth to another daughter, Katherine Medill Albright, and enrolled as a student at Columbia University’s Department of Public Law and Government.

She earned a certificate in Russian, a master’s degree and a doctoral degree, writing her master’s thesis on the Soviet diplomatic corps and her doctoral dissertation on the role of journalists in the Prague Spring of 1968.

She also took a graduate course given by Zbigniew Brzezinski, who later became her boss at the U.S. National Security Council.


Eventually, Albright returned to Washington on her own and commuted to Columbia to earn her Ph.D. in 1975.

During this period, she also began getting involved in fundraising for her daughters’ school, involvement which led to several positions on boards of education.

That led to her being asked to organize a fund-raising dinner for the 1972 presidential campaign of Sen. Ed Muskie of Maine.

Albright referred to this invitation ever after as one of her big breaks. After Muskie later pulled out of the race, she joined his Senate staff.

Then in 1977, Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to the new President Jimmy Carter, recruited her as his liaison to Capitol Hill.

In 1982, Albright divorced her husband, and thereafter, she rose up the ranks of Democrats who were also steeped in an intense interest in foreign policy.

In 1988, she signed on as an advisor to former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis’ ultimately failed presidential campaign.

That brought her to the attention of then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who was contemplating a run for the presidency four years later.

In 1993, the newly elected President Clinton made Albright the second woman to serve as U.S. ambassador to the UN, where she established a reputation as a tough negotiator and an advocate for the use of U.S. military power.

In January 1997 Clinton named her secretary of State.

On Wednesday evening, Antony Blinken, the nation’s current secretary of State, reflected on Albright’s legacy, calling her “a brilliant diplomat, a visionary leader, a courageous trailblazer, a dedicated mentor, and a great and good person who loved the United States deeply and devoted her life to serving it.”

“When she was nominated to be secretary of State, some openly questioned whether a woman could go toe-to-toe with world leaders,” Blinken said. “Madeleine quickly quashed those misguided doubts. There was simply no doubt that, in any room, she was as tough as anyone and often tougher.

“That said, it wasn’t always easy,” he continued. “She described walking into her first meeting of the UN Security Council as the U.S. ambassador: ‘15 seats and 14 men, all looking at me.’ But when she saw the plaque at her seat that read THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, her nerves vanished: ‘I thought, if I do not speak today, the voice of the United States will not be heard.’ When I finally did speak, it was the first time that I represented the country of my naturalization, the place where I belonged.’”

“Madeleine mentored a generation of diplomats and national security experts. I’m one of many who benefited from her wisdom and encouragement. And in her post-State career, she dedicated herself to teaching, continuing to invest in our future diplomats and leaders,” Blinken said.

Biden also spoke glowingly of Albright’s tenure as secretary of State, saying, “working with Albright during the 1990s was among the highlights of my career in the United States Senate during my tenure on the Foreign Relations Committee.

“As the world redefined itself in the wake of the Cold War, we were partners and friends working to welcome newly liberated democracies into NATO and confront the horrors of genocide in the Balkans,” he said.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said in a statement on Wednesday that “America and the world have lost a great advocate for peace, and I have lost a dear friend.

“Albright and I began our friendship and partnership when I was chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and she was a professor in the Practice of Diplomacy at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service,” he said.

“Her expertise and understanding, not only of Europe and the Soviet Union, was extraordinarily helpful to me and to the commission as we worked on issues of security, of economic development, and of human rights. She was a close colleague and confidante, I often relied on her prudent judgment as we sought to forge peace throughout Europe and reconnect the former Soviet Union with the West.

“Famous as much for her sharp wit and her quips as she was for her symbolism-filled brooches, Albright knew well how to convey a message, whether it was to America’s allies, to our adversaries, to Congress, or to the public,” Hoyer continued.

“She had an unparalleled ability to distill the complexities of international affairs into understandable arguments about how America can best promote its values and its interests abroad. President Clinton did our nation a great service when he selected her as America’s chief diplomat, and I feel honored to have known and worked with her during that time and in the years since.

“The world, surely, is a safer and more just place because of her efforts,” he said.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., also commented on Albright’s passing, saying that “as a Senate staffer, National Security Council staff, ambassador, and most notably as the first female secretary of State under Clinton — she embodied what public service should be. Albright broke glass ceilings and paved the way for generations of women.

“Her legacy continues on in the American women, girls and children who look to her and are inspired by her leadership,” he said.

In her later years, Albright held regular dinner parties in her Georgetown home, modeling them on similar gatherings hosted over the years by Katharine Graham, the Washington Post publisher.

She also pursued her interests with passion, zest, and a bit of fun.

Between guest appearances on television’s “Gilmore Girls” and “Parks and Recreation,” Albright opened an exhibition of her personal jewelry collection at the Museum of Art and Design in New York City.

Albright served as chair of Albright Stonebridge Group, a consulting firm, and chair of the advisory council for The Hague Institute for Global Justice, which was founded in 2011 in The Hague.

She also served as an honorary chair for the World Justice Project, which seeks to strengthen the rule of law for the development of communities of opportunity and equity.

Albright was a co-investor, with Jacob Rothschild and George Soros, in a $350 million investment called Helios Towers Africa, which intends to buy or build thousands of mobile phone towers in Africa.

Blinken recalled asking Albright after her State Department retirement whether she was relieved not to be dealing with crises around the world.


“She said simply, ‘I miss it every day,’” he recalled. “She loved this country. She loved this department. And we loved her back.”

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue.

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