Secretary of State Madeleine Albright being interviewed by John F. Kennedy Jr. for George Magazine. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)
Talk about pieces you don’t want to write.
The first thought that flitted through my mind on Wednesday as the push notification came in that former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had died was, “Man, I don’t have anything nice to say.” I was glad I didn’t have to write about that. I am starting to believe in “The Secret” again.
Two hours later, my editor intervened.
I was informed I am becoming something of a rock solid obituarist of dead blob members. Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld died last year. And I had put words together on the more mercenary politicians (Bob Dole) and prolific scribblers, such as Mark Perry and Christopher Hitchens, who thrived in those last 30 years when America—surely not through the fault of all listed—first slowly, then assuredly, got a whole lot worse.
If the last year wasn’t dominated by death, then it was at least marked by it—more than any I can personally remember. We underwent an uneasy and half-formed changing of the guard, even as the country slogged through its oldest-ever president, and contemplates a sequel of another.
So, rest in peace, Marie Jana Korbelová, birth name of the 64th (and first female) head of the State Department, a position first held by Thomas Jefferson. She will be remembered in the history books for that, sparing her a worse headline.
To break my above-described writer’s block, and to adhere to the maxim of mothers everywhere: I will first say something nice about the late secretary. Albright appears, contra most of the American establishment and our current president, to have sort of opposed the Iraq War, which is conceded by everyone not on retainer at the Bush Library, running for Congress in Wyoming, directly related to Ahmed Chalabi, or named John Bolton to have been the cardinal sin of recent American statecraft.
“It makes little sense now to focus the world’s attention and our own military, intelligence, diplomatic and financial resources on a plan to invade Iraq instead of on Al Qaeda’s ongoing plans to murder innocent people. We cannot fight a second monumental struggle without detracting from the first one,” Albright wrote in the New York Times in late 2002.
This recent history was exhumed during a spat with then-insurgent Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who intimated that Albright, a staunch Hillary Clinton supporter, had likely supported the invasion. His camp referred to PolitiFact and a quote of hers from 2003, “I personally felt the war was justified on the basis of Saddam’s decade-long refusal to comply with UN Security Council resolutions on WMD.”
Indeed, an investigation of Albright’s view at the time can probably be said to conclude: In the way the Republican establishment is today quibbling about the method of a Democratic-led effort against a Democratic bogeyman, Vladimir Putin, some Democrats back then took issue with the exact details of a Republican war of revenge against Saddam Hussein. Putin, assuredly, stole the 2016 election, and as summarized in Dave Chappelle’s parody of our 43rd president, the late novelist and president of Iraq “tried to kill my father.”
Or as Albright wrote in that same Times piece, “At the United Nations yesterday, the president began the job of spelling out the what and why of our policy toward Baghdad. The wisdom of that policy, however, will ultimately hinge on when he chooses to act.” Stuff like this is fodder for the cynical if extreme view that America would still have embarked on the Iraq crusade under the aptly named President Gore.
The demonstrated continued capacity for neoconservatives to weave in and out of the two major political parties in recent years gives one further pause: How would a third-term Democratic White House, with perhaps a second term Secretary Albright, really have reacted to 9/11?
It’s certainly as interesting a counterfactual as the Covid-related ones: Would Americans have locked down without a Republican president to rally his own troops? Or without a putative national political emergency that required carte blanche to the alleged public health and racial justice establishments?
Both blocs had been saying insane things for years with little attention. And, of course, there is the flipside: Would Republican vaccine hesitancy be so sincere and widespread under a second-term President Trump? Would the nexus of holdouts be epitomized not by white druggies in Razorback country, but white druggies in Russian Hill? (If it’s still legal to call it that.)
But in foreign policy, counterfactuals aren’t required: The house always wins.
Few embodied that spirit more than Albright, daughter of legendary internationalist Josef Korbel, now namesake of the international relations school in Denver that, among others, educated Condoleezza Rice, a successor of his daughter. Like her mentor Zbigniew Brzezinski and predecessor Henry Kissinger (who is simply going to outlive everybody), Albright made the unlikely jump from being born well outside the United States to rising to represent it on the world stage. That is, the kind of accented advocacy that is the source of pride in Georgetown salons and comments on Unz.com.
Albright was born in Prague in May 1937, and so before her second birthday, the Allies had handed the place over to Hitler. In ways better elaborated by others, it was a formative experience. Her later tenure as U.N. ambassador, secretary of State, and then retired Washington warhorse would be marred not only by zealotry to defend the “liberal international order,” but also by the kind of bigotry she made a career of claiming she was against.
Worth it, that is, “We think the price is worth it,” Albright infamously told 60 Minutes on hearing the calculation that Bill Clinton-era sanctions on Iraq had starved more children than Truman had melted at Hiroshima.
Disgusting Serbs, that is, “Disgusting Serbs, get out!” the then-75 year old Albright said, loudly, at a Czech bookstore in 2012, asked to account for her hand in the bombing of Yugoslavia.
A special place in hell, that is, “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other” and vote for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, as Albright said in New Hampshire in 2016 (apparently most of the women I know, and most millennial women, are headed to Hades…but certainly not Albright.)
Vice President Kamala Harris revealed in a statement yesterday that she first met Albright when she was “a young lawyer in San Francisco.” Harris emphasized Albright’s “compassion,” and, as evidenced by the qualifier that the word is becoming a tired track of corporate Muzak, the vice president said Albright had not just “empathy” but “deep empathy.” Harris, positively flagging in the polls, no doubt envisions a future homage to herself in the Albright-style. She was “the first ‘most powerful woman’ in U.S. History,” as the New Yorker eulogized this week.
This is the kind of brute force summation that would be absurd if the shoe were on the other foot. Leventy Beria…was a powerful man. And yet it is all too in vogue, with a sad irony of history that 1600 Pennsylvania is introducing the first black woman nominated to the Supreme Court by emphasizing little else besides her gender and race, which is precisely all that the racists of old would have noticed about her. That doesn’t mean it won’t work. Ketanji Brown Jackson will be a Supreme Court justice, and count me as early on this: 10 cents on PredictIt for Harris 2024 will one day look like a steal.
Harris concluded that “Albright’s legacy will live on through the lives that she touched,” and I think everyone can agree with that.
If you came for a cheerier memorial, I’ll filch from Hitchens on the death of mega-televangelist Jerry Falwell. Speaking on Hannity & Colmes, Hitch expressed indifference to offending the family of the deceased, noting “they can take comfort from the extraordinary piety and stupidity, and generally speaking, uniformity of the coverage” elsewhere.