HELL AND OTHER DESTINATIONS
A 21st Century Memoir
By Madeleine Albright
with Bill Woodward
A few years ago, on a summer day when the Middle East was flaring and it seemed as if the United States was ricocheting from one crisis to the next, I was sitting next to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at an annual foreign policy conference. “You must be relieved not to be in your old job at a moment like this,” I said, making small talk.
She looked at me, fixing a stare that made it clear this wasn’t the first time she had heard such an inane observation. “I miss it every day,” she said. We changed the topic.
Now Albright has written a memoir about how she has stayed relevant in the nearly 20 years since she took the elevator down from the seventh-floor suite of the Department of State. It is by turns poignant and hilarious, as she moves from the classroom to the boardroom of the New York Stock Exchange (where someone mistakenly thought they would get a big name who wouldn’t push back at $140 million executive compensation packages) to the indignities of being a “former somebody.”
There was, for example, the moment she arrived at a Washington hospital after falling, gashing her forehead. Bleeding, without her driver’s license or insurance card, she grew frustrated as a hospital receptionist was laboriously registering her.
“Perhaps you recognize me,” she said to speed the process. “I’m Madeleine Albright, and I used to be secretary of state.” She got a blank stare, until the receptionist said: “Colin Powell is secretary of state.” Yes, she explained, she was Powell’s predecessor.
“So,” the receptionist said flatly, “that means you are unemployed.”
In reality she was overemployed. She started her own consulting firm, one of those peculiar Washington businesses that capitalize on their ability to contact an Egyptian or Chinese minister to cut through a problem, or anticipate a geopolitical crisis. She teaches a popular course on statecraft at Georgetown University, and has organized a group of former foreign ministers, which she informally calls “Madeleine and Her Exes”; they represent an Establishment that hasn’t existed since the late 1990s, but still try to exercise some influence at the edges.
And she writes books — lots of books. There was a memoir of her time in the Clinton administration, “Madam Secretary,” and “Prague Winter,” the fascinating story of growing up a Czech refugee and ending up in Denver, where her father was a professor (whose star student was Condoleezza Rice, the second woman to serve as secretary of state). More recently, she has written books warning about the revival of fascism, and about her signature pins.
And with books, of course, come the vicissitudes of book tours, including the time that a booksellers’ convention scheduled her to speak about her memoir about managing the post-Soviet world “right after the author of ‘Time to Pee!,’ a manual on potty training.” Going with the theme, she spoke on the similarities of managing allies and adversaries to negotiating with 2-year-olds.
But there are more telling moments that resonate in the current political moment, including her self-doubts as she campaigned in the primaries for Hillary Clinton in 2008, and watched as former colleagues disparaged her candidate in favor of Barack Obama. “Shame on them, I sniffed,” she writes, “but then there I was on national television accusing Obama of being naïve for advocating direct talks with the leaders of Iran. I had negotiated with North Korea, for Pete’s sake.” So, of course, did Donald Trump. Neither of them got very far.
Her book is also a reminder that for all the complexities of her time in office, it was, in retrospect, the last moment we remember of unchallenged American supremacy. Russia was still talking about integrating into Europe and Vladimir Putin had not yet risen. China was a struggling, emerging economy. North Korea didn’t yet have the bomb and Iran’s nuclear program was in its infancy. And two decades of war in Afghanistan and Iraq were still ahead of us, accomplishing little that today seems lasting.
While the problems she faced were big, American allies were still close friends, and cyber conflicts and global pandemics were the stuff of scenarios concocted by the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff. And for most of her post-State life, her life experience and analysis seemed like something many Republicans thought they could benefit from, too. Until, that is, she got a call in 2017 from Mike Pompeo, the incoming director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who would soon be promoted to her old office at State.
Albright had long served on the C.I.A.’s external advisory board. “He thanked me for my service,” she writes. “Then he fired me.”