Guest columnist Nina Scott: Homage to Madeleine Albright

  • Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright speaks during the second day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 26, 2016. Albright died of cancer last week. AP

  • Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at a 2019 reunion at Wellesley College. Nina M. Scott

Published: 3/28/2022 2:09:07 PM
Modified: 3/28/2022 2:08:11 PM

Madeleine Albright was my classmate at Wellesley College, graduating in 1959. She was a loyal alum, trying to attend our reunions whenever she could.

We have very similar backgrounds, in that we both spent World War II in Europe, came to the U.S. as immigrants, and English is our second language. Another classmate with a similar background is Suzanne Klejman Bennet, who escaped the Holocaust in Poland; she is the mother of Michael Bennet, the senior senator from Colorado.

Madeleine Korbel and I met in political science classes in our first year. I had planned to major in political science, but floundered and switched to Spanish, much more in tune with my talents. Madeleine married Joseph Albright right after graduation and had three daughters (starting with twins — ever the overachiever!); the marriage ended in 1982.

A pivotal figure in her life was Zbigniew Brzezinski, her professor in graduate school and an important mentor. A native of Poland, he early on saw Madeleine’s potential and brought her to the White House. (Brzezinski served as a counselor to President Lyndon B. Johnson from 1966 to 1968 and was President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor from 1977 to 1981.)

As Mika Brzezinski once said: “My dad brought her in for her knowledge, her skills, and her ability to bluntly tell him what he needed (not necessarily wanted) to hear.”

I remember my excitement and pride when Madeleine became the first female secretary of state during Bill Clinton’s administration. Part of that was due to Hillary Clinton — another Wellesley grad (1969) — as Madeleine said, “I would not have been Secretary of State without Hillary — Bill told me so!”

Madeleine and Hillary graduated 10 years apart and were loyal alums, so we got to see plenty of Hillary at our reunions, as well as Madeleine.

She and I both attended our 60th anniversary in 2019 and were in adjoining rooms in the dorm where the ‘59ers were housed; we most often met in the bathroom, as we were both early risers. I recall that she generously shared her toothpaste with me, as I had forgotten mine.

Paula Johnson, the president of Wellesley, invited Madeleine and Hillary to a public discussion during that weekend, and one could appreciate the affection they had for each other. Both have a well-developed sense of humor and reminisced about their connection during this event. Thank God I had taken along a pad of paper to record some of their remarks.

Madeleine often shared a remark her granddaughter had made:

“Why is Grandma Maddie’s being secretary of state such a big deal? Only girls are secretary of state!” (From 1997-2013, three out of four secretaries of state were women: Madeleine, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary.)

Madeleine also shared an exchange between herself and businesswoman Arianna Huffington. Arrianna said to Madeleine, “I’m so glad you never had a face lift!” To which Madeleine replied, “And I’m so sorry yours didn’t take!”

Madeleine often said: “There is plenty of room in the world for mediocre men, but not for mediocre women.” And, famously, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women!”

She was very glad to have attended a women’s college (on full scholarship), saying, “Although at times I missed the boys, I also think that going to a woman’s college helped several generations of women to develop leadership potential.”

She helped that along by establishing the Albright Institute in 2009, which accepts about 40 Wellesley sophomores and juniors each year. Distinguished scholars are brought in to focus on the interdisciplinary study of global issues. It has now had over 500 alums.

Madeleine has written many books, including “Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box (2009)”, which describes how the many pins she wore often were more than decoration. An Iraqi diplomat once referred to her as “an unparalleled serpent!” after which she dug out a snake pin to wear for her next encounter with him.

Negotiations with Yasser Arafat were problematical, so she put on a bee pin to remind him that they sting. When she became aware that the Russians had bugged a room in the State Department, she wore a prominent bug pin. Putin was not amused.

For her entry in our 60th reunion book, she mused, “All of us started out comparing husbands, then children, then grandchildren. Now, we compare prescriptions.”

She remarked that we older alums were what she called “perennials.” “As the gardeners in our class know, a perennial is a plant that comes back every year. You do not have to replant it; it just blooms again and again … We ‘59ers are perennials.”

I wish this particular perennial could have gone on blooming.

Nina Scott lives in Amherst.
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