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When this country's first female Secretary of State practiced diplomacy, she did it with tack, toughness, and costume jewelry. In the Clinton administration, Madeleine Albright became known for the pins she wore. Now she's written about them. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg speaks with Secretary Albright about her new book, "Read My Pins."

SUSAN STAMBERG: Madeleine Albright, here we are in the middle of North Korea, problems in Iran, problems in Iraq, problems in Afghanistan, and you and I are going to sit down and talk about pins.

Ms. MADELEINE ALBRIGHT (Former U.S. Secretary of State): Well, I'll tell you why we are, because I use them as a tool of diplomacy. But I tell you…

STAMBERG: You stick people with them. You put the unclasped pin…

Ms. ALBRIGHT: No, but I'll tell you, this all started when I was ambassador at the United Nations and Saddam Hussein called me a serpent. I had this wonderful antique snake pin. And so when we were dealing with Iraq, I wore the snake pin. I thought, well, this is fun. So then I went out and I bought a bunch of costume jewelry to signal what my mood of the day was.

STAMBERG: And the signals were caught by people like Vladimir Putin, who told President Clinton, right, that he would know what the mood of a meeting was going to be by taking a look at your - which shoulder is it? Your left shoulder?

Ms. ALBRIGHT: My left shoulder. And you know what I did? When we went for the summit, it was right after all the things that I thought were so terrible in Chechnya that the Russians wouldn't admit to, so I wore the three monkeys, the hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil monkeys, which was that they were not seeing what was going on in Chechnya.

STAMBERG: There are also wasps.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: There are wasps. There are wasps on days that I wanted to do a little stinging and deliver a tough message.

STAMBERG: And you spoke through jewelry.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, one of the tools, you know, I used that as a way of signaling certain things, but then obviously we had to do a lot of very tough talking or nice talking.

STAMBERG: So today you have a - they're not real, I bet you, either. Pardon me, but you do say you don't buy expensive stuff. You've got rubies, you've got emeralds, it's an elephant.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: It's an elephant. Now, I am not changing parties. That is not what this is about. I taught today, and we were doing a segment on bilateral diplomacy, and it was U.S./India relations, so I thought it would be fun to wear an elephant.

STAMBERG: You had protest pins that you would wear from time to time.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: The best, I think, was the Russians had actually bugged the State Department at a certain period. We discovered that there was a bug in one of our conference rooms, so the next time I met with the Russians I had this huge bug pin. So they got it.

STAMBERG: But you would wear a turtle for certain reasons.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, I wore turtles and crabs when I was signaling how terribly slowly everything was going in the Middle East peace talks.

STAMBERG: And if you were hopeful that a meeting would go the way you wanted it to or if you felt things were going smoothly…

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, I had balloons or butterflies. You have on a butterfly today. Or flowers, you know, really happy pins - a sun, I had great sun pins. And I wore a sun, actually, to South Korea because President Kim Dae-jung had a policy called the Sunshine Policy, which was his way of saying that there ought to be better contacts with North Korea.

STAMBERG: Ahh…

Ms. ALBRIGHT: So as it turned out, there were just a lot of occasions to either commemorate a particular event or to signal how I felt.

STAMBERG: You brought some pins with you…

Ms. ALBRIGHT: This dove was given to me by Leah Rabin and it was after her husband had been assassinated and we were doing peace talks and she said you need a dove. And so I wore that whenever I did a Middle East speech and then she gave me a necklace of doves and - with a note that said in the Middle East a dove needs a lot of reinforcement.

And this one is a fox. And I have a chapter in the book called "Foxy Lady," when I'm having a lot of fun and doing a little flirting along the way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: Well, it makes me really wonder about the gender issue involved in your showing up with pins. You know, men, diplomats or not, are not going to look at one another and say, great tie, Harry.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Actually, they do.

STAMBERG: Really?

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Yes. That's the stunning part. I have to tell you, Susan, there is - there are so many times that there is the beginning of some diplomatic conversation, and you think that the heads of state only have serious conversations. They actually often begin either with the weather or really like your tie.

STAMBERG: Some kind of ice breaker.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Yeah, you need it.

STAMBERG: So then it wouldn't diminish you in some way as a woman coming in with the pin, asking for notice that way?

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, I'll tell you what I decided. I love being a woman. And I - in the way I dressed and the way that I carried myself. And so I think that, no, I don't mind.

STAMBERG: Your pins came close to sabotaging you, or at least one did at your swearing in ceremony when you became Secretary of State.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: I went to buy some things and the owner of the jewelry store said to me, I have this fabulous pin for you. It is an eagle. So I bought it. And there I am. I decided to wear it to my swearing in, but it was an antique pin with a very complicated clasp. So I put it on and there I was all of a sudden with one hand on the Bible and one hand in the air and I looked and the pin was just swinging in the breeze. I had not fastened it properly. The pin is just kind of hanging there. I was afraid it would fall on the Bible. It was, you know, complicated.

STAMBERG: But also, how symbolic is that? I mean, about the precariousness of the job that you were about to accept.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: I hadn't thought about that, but you're absolutely right. That's very good.

STAMBERG: And the precariousness of foreign policy and getting along in this world and getting countries to agree when they really don't want to, all of it.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Right. But I think that it's a sign that one has to really try to understand the people that you're working with and develop some - there's a balance between developing personal relations and never forgetting what the national interest of your country is, and really trying to develop an eye-to-eye contact with the people that you're working with, trying to find out who they are, and trying to find out what they want and what you have to have. So that's what diplomacy is.

STAMBERG: Thank you very much. Madeleine Albright was this country's ambassador to the United Nations and then secretary of state. Her new book, full of color photos, is called "Read My Pins."

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Some of Secretary Albright's pins are on exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. If you'd like to see some of Madeleine Albright's favorite pins right now, including the gold serpent pin that started the tradition, go to our Web site, npr.org.

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