Madeleine Albright on Policy, Sexism and Politics In this week's Wisdom Watch, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright discusses foreign relations, sexism and the dynamics of presidential politics, as chronicled in her new book Memo to the President Elect: How We Can Restore America's Reputation and Leadership.
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Madeleine Albright on Policy, Sexism and Politics

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Madeleine Albright on Policy, Sexism and Politics

Madeleine Albright on Policy, Sexism and Politics

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I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, what's your Iraq story. We'd like the hear it. We'll tell you how in just a few minutes. But first, it's time for Wisdom Watch. These are conversations with some of our most respected elders. We ask them to guide us through some of today's most challenging and important issues. For that reason, we're talking with Madeleine Albright. She made history as the first female secretary of state, serving in the Clinton administration. Prior to becoming the highest ranking woman in the U.S. government, she served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. Today, she's a consultant, adviser, board member, and author. Her latest book, "Memo to the President Elect: How We Can Restore America's Reputation and Leadership," offers her wisdom to the next administration. Secretary Albright is here with us in our Washington studio, and looking fabulous, I have to say. Welcome.

Ms. MADELEINE ALBRIGHT (Former Secretary of State): Great to be with you, Michel, to see you again.

MARTIN: Thank you. You write that the seeds of this book were sewn during President Ford's funeral. Talk about that for a minute.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, it was an incredible event at the Washington Nation Cathedral and all the former presidents were there and the current president. It's a majestic place. And I thought a lot about the power of the presidency and both the positive and negative parts. And the challenges and opportunities, or what happens when a president oversteps. And so I thought it would be worth writing about that. And then, I teach a course and I say, foreign policy is just trying to get other countries to do what you want. And I thought I'd kind of combine ideas about what the power of a president is in foreign policy, and what tools are available to that person.

MARTIN: I think the title of the book begs the question about how bad you think things are. So give it to us straight with no chaser. Why does America's reputation need restoration?

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, I do think that this has been one of the worst presidencies that we've had in terms of what it has done to America's reputation. I loved representing the United States. There was nothing that made me prouder than to sit behind a sign that said United States, and I'm proud of America. But I think that what has happened and primarily around Iraq, has given us a bad reputation. Most people my age when around the world, if you say America to them, might think about Omaha Beach or the Marshall Plan. If you were to say America to the majority of the world's population that are younger, they would think Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. And that really encapsulates what the problem is. We've lost our moral authority.

MARTIN: You also talk about, well you talk about two things. One is, you talk about the performance of this administration in your view, but you also talk about sort of historical trends that represent challenges for the U.S. anyway. So I'd like to isolate those in turn. First you say that the pre-eminence of American power remains among the major facts of 21st century life, but our ability to control events through the use of that power has eroded. Why is that?

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Take Iraq, for example. I do think our military has performed brilliantly in Iraq, and there's every reason to believe that militarily, the surge has worked. But we are not in control of the political situation inside Iraq. We can only tell Prime Minister Maliki to do so many things. We certainly are not in control of the various factions within Iraq, and we're not in control of the neighbors of Iraq. And it's just one example of, no matter how powerful are or how good our intentions are or are military is, you can't control all the outside events. And that's true whether you're dealing with China or Russia or Ecuador.

MARTIN: You talk about the fact that the U.S. needs to have a global diplomacy, that the U.S. needs to pay attention to Europe and, sort of, some of the former Soviet powers. But it also needs to pay attention to Africa and Latin America, and all these sort of places where there are emerging issues and conflicts. Don't you think this administration has done that, though? I mean, it's done as much in Africa as anyone.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, I actually think they haven't. They have done a pretty good job giving money to HIV/AIDS and some additional assistance. But in terms of really paying attention to what's going on, I think that the U.S. has had, not just a unilateral foreign policy, but a uni-dimensional foreign policy, where it's basically paid attention to one part of the world, the Middle East, with one tool, the military tool, and has not paid sequenced and careful attention to events in Africa, various conflicts. I mean, more people have died in Congo. Most people don't even talk about that. There's been some episodic attention to Darfur, but there's so many issues there and in Latin America there's been very little attention and not a lot of attention to Asia. So it isn't as if they never pay attention to it, and President Bush and Secretary Rice have just been to Africa, but it is the eighth year of the administration.

MARTIN: You make it very clear that you believe this administration has squandered whatever moral authority that this country had accumulated, you would say certainly over the course of the Clinton administration and in sort of prior years. You say that the Statue of Liberty has been replaced in the mind's eye by a hooded figure with electrodes. In marketing terms, the American brand needs a makeover. Strong words.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Very strong, and I think shocking on purpose, but partially it has to do with what I said earlier is that most people don't remember the glories of World War Two or what we have done in other parts of the world. They are focused on what is happened in Iraq and the lack of appropriate attention in Afghanistan. After 9/11 most of the world was with us. I mean in fact there were all these jokes about the fact that even the French said that they were Americans, and that has been squandered because what President Bush did was enlarge that support to cover things that most people disagreed with.

MARTIN: Well you would be the first though to acknowledge that terrorism didn't start during the Bush administration. I mean the first attack on the World Trade Center came in the Clinton administration. The attack on the U.S. embassies, which was I think the first time many Americans heard the term al-Qaeda. The embassies came in Africa during the Clinton administration. Some people would argue that, and you know forgive me, but this is the kind of thing that puts Democrats at a disadvantage. It gives people the impression that Democrats are the first to blame America rather than underestimate the degree to which these global actors are a threat to American interests, sort of and values. What would you say to that?

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, first of all we're not blaming America. I'm blaming the President of the United States and his administration. Obviously, various terrorist things happened while we were in office. We worked very hard to try to figure out how to fight terrorism without creating more terrorists. As you mentioned the embassies. The embassies that was August 7th, 1998 and we then knew that it was al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and so we launched cruise missiles against the camps in Afghanistan and bombed a pharmaceutical company in Sudan. And if you remember people actually thought we'd made it up, that it was kind of wag the dog to...

MARTIN: Distract from President Clinton's personal problems related to his involvement with Monica Lewinsky.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Correct, but everything changed after 9/11, and all of a sudden there really was an understanding how tough terrorism and fighting terrorists was. We had been trying to fight terrorists. It was hard to explain what was going on, and as I said the ultimate act of those cruise missiles, people thought we'd made up.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us I'm speaking with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright about her new book "Memo to the President Elect." Let's talk about what you think needs to happen in the future because whoever wins the election is going to be a new administration. It's the first time in I don't remember how many years that there hasn't been a sitting vice president sort of on the ticket. So it's going to be a fresh start regardless, and so what are some of the steps that you would like to see the next administration take to repair these issues.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well one of the things about this book and the reason - as I wrote it, it became clearer and clearer to me, I think this is going to be one of the hardest presidencies that has ever been experienced.

MARTIN: In fact let me just, again, read a line. "You say you are to inherit a peck of troubles with no power over the heavens and little enough here below."

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, just huge with all these issues and the second part of the book outlines some of the issues. But what I believe needs to happen is obviously I think we have to figure out how to get out of Iraq. That is going to be number one issue for the next president. Then they're going to have to be a series of priorities that have to do with the economy that clearly is going to take up a lot of the president's time and how to fight terrorism without creating more terrorists. How also to signal to the world that we want to do business in a different way, and I would recommend immediately signaling that we want to deal with the huge kind of combination of issues to do with climate change, global warming. But the point that I make, Michel, is that there's going to be a ton to do, but the president has to set priorities in a way that looks as though, not just looks, but shows that a lot is being done. So just as a marketing thing, for instance, if you set four priorities and you accomplish two, you've done half of what you wanted to. If you set out 10 and you only accomplish four, despite the fact that you've doubled the number of things you've done, it looks as though you haven't. I have also advocated getting rid of the hundred day thing.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that because I was going to ask you what do you think the president should do in his first hundred days and then being mindful of the fact that you said it, actually that's a bad way to look at it.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, it's so different. You know it all happened under FDR, and he was dealing with one issue when the country was totally focused because we were in the middle of a depression, and now there are tons of things to do, and I think that there have to be a series of priorities, something that as I outlined can be done immediately, but medium and long term. But the hundred day, it's a gimmick, and I think clearly the president has to lay our priorities, but not in that particular way.

MARTIN: I don't know if you still are, but you were very close to the current secretary of state, the incumbent Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, she was a student of your father Josef Korbel and you are often quoted as saying that you know Connie, how can you be a Republican, you know we have the same father? Is it painful for you to be so critical of this administration when she's such a fundamental part of what you think has gone wrong?

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well it's very interesting. We actually do not know each other that well. I mean we've gotten to know each other recently, but I didn't know she was student of my father's until my father died, and I did make a phone call to her trying to persuade her to help me with Michael Dukakis and she said, Madeleine, I don't know how to tell you this, but I'm a Republican. At which point I said how could you be? We have the same father. But I think that first of all the job of secretary of state is the best job to have, but it is also very, very difficult, and so I am suspending judgment in terms of her particular activities. I know that she is now spending a lot of time on the Middle East and that that is absolutely essential. And that she has traveled a lot and that she has given a great deal of herself to make this work. I just often say that I think we probably learned different things from my father.

MARTIN: You say in the book, and I quote, "especially in Washington, and you can trust me on this, two people can agree on every major substantive issue and still fight like scorpions because they are so intent on occupying the same space." This is in a section where you're talking about how the president should go about thinking about the people he needs to have - he or she needs to have around him or her. And I know you're supporting Senator Clinton. You've been very clear about that, I'm just wondering what is the basis of that? Is it because you served together?

Ms. ALBRIGHT: No - I mean, yes and no, frankly. I mean I think I know Senator Clinton very, very well. I spent a lot of time with her, and I know how she works and I know...

MARTIN: What's she good at?

Ms. ALBRIGHT: I think she is very good at understanding the complexity of issues which is really important and goes back to my book. I think this is going to be a hard presidency and there aren't any really simple answers, and she has the capability of understanding and analyzing and problem solving and coming up with solutions. I think she's actually really good at working with people and what she's done on the hill is the capability of crossing the aisle and working with people. For me, the epitome of this is working with Senator Lindsey Graham, the man who actually led the impeachment charge against her husband. So I just think that we are actually very lucky to have these two incredible candidates running.

MARTIN: Well speaking of that. Speaking at that, what is your take on this kind of race gender dynamic and how it's playing out? For example, you know former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro is recently quoted as saying that she thinks that Barack Obama is getting off lightly and she also said that if he were a white man he wouldn't be treated this way or if he were a woman of any color he wouldn't be treated this way.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, I can only speak to the woman thing which I really do think that there have been some quite interesting and difficult sexist aspects to this where people find it perfectly acceptable to use some sexist term. Or I'm sure this has happened to you, where in fact exactly the same thing that a man might do and you do is described in a different way. I was, for instance, called aggressive. A man might be called bold. I felt very strongly about what was happening in Bosnia and Kosovo. I was called emotional. A man might be called sensitive. So the other day I was on a radio show and somebody said and she cackles, well people don't say that about a man. And so I find that truly unfair and untrue, and then Shirley Chisholm is the one who actually often said that it was harder to be a woman than to be an African-American.

MARTIN: OK, well that was one person's take on it, but I don't know how many white women in this country have been lynched. I don't know whether there have been any - this whole thing about his middle name and people using his middle name...

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, I think that's outrageous.

MARTIN: As a way to, you know sort of locate his identity in a certain way.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, I find that offensive, you know. But I do think that on the women issue I find that there are sexist comments made and what I also find very interesting, and I saw this frankly - I traveled with Geraldine Ferraro when she was the vice presidential candidate and what I find interesting is sometimes the people that are hardest on women are other women, and so at that stage that campaign was totally covered by women reporters who were trying to prove how tough they were by being tough on her, and I think there's a little bit of that going on now too.

MARTIN: Yeah, but interesting now though, amongst voters it seems to be that her strongest base of support is women, particularly older women. So do you think that maybe something's changed?

Ms. ALBRIGHT: You know, we'll see. But I do think that what has happened, at least the way I read the newspapers, it is somehow acceptable to make sexist statements, and I find that that's unfair. And you know the hardest part about this is that we really do have such an unbelievable historic opportunity here to have the first women president. I would really love to see that, and we have a wonderful African-American running who could be the first - I mean when, you know she's criticized for saying I?m honored to be here with Barack Obama, it is an unbelievable honor for Americans to see these two remarkable candidates and one of them is going to be President of the United States and history will be made.

MARTIN: There's somebody else running too, I just thought I'd mention that.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well I've heard that, I've heard that.

MARTIN: Do you think though that your service in some way - your visibility being in the line of succession for example, perhaps paved the way for this moment?

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, I don't take myself very seriously, but I do think people have come up to me and said you know you proved that a woman could be secretary of state and that that glass ceiling was broken and we talked about Secretary Rice. I mean my kids call me up and say mom you know when she was named National Security Advisor or Secretary of State people might have disagreed with policies, but nobody said she couldn't do it. And I think in that way that I did help on this and it makes me very proud and I hope very much that this last glass ceiling will be broken.

MARTIN: Madeleine Albright, a former secretary of state, author of "Memo to the President Elect: How We Can Restore America's Reputation and Leadership." I think it's available in most major bookstores now. Madame Secretary, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Great to be with you, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: Remember, with Tell Me More the conversation never ends. Quite clearly former Secretary of State Albright has her own views about the war in Iraq, but as we head to the fifth anniversary of the war we would like to hear from you. If you've served overseas or if you have a loved one who is serving we'd like to know how the war in Iraq has changed your life. Share your story and tell us more. We plan to broadcast some of these messages next week. Go to our blog at and you can also call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Again that number is 202-842-3522.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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