In Memoriam: Madeleine Albright (1937-2022)

I did not know Secretary Madeleine Albright particularly well, but I worked with her on a specific project at CSIS and had a number of social and professional interactions with her over the last 10 years. She will be greatly missed in Washington.

I will miss her generosity of spirit. Secretary Albright was generous with her time, her expertise, her stature, and her networks, especially to “younger” people. In the runup to the 2012 election, John Podesta and I – really with John Podesta’s generous sponsorship – came up with a bipartisan statement on the importance of democracy, human rights, and good governance. John knew Secretary Albright well, and the three of us got on a phone call to brainstorm the name of a senior Republican who had the stature and who Secretary Albright might work with on this proposed statement. I proposed former Congressman Vin Weber. I knew former Congressman Weber through Republican political activities and as the cochair of a task force I was co-directing at CSIS. At the mention of Vin Weber’s name, Secretary Albright immediately brightened. She said she knew Vin Weber well, liked him very much and she thought working with him would be a lot of fun. The four of us held a series of thoughtful conference calls, and, as the most junior person, I drafted the statement that everyone commented on. We posted a statement on the Center for American Progress and the CSIS website and we all had our names attached to an opinion piece in Politico. I was not in Secretary Albright’s league, but she was generous to include me and I learned tremendously from the experience.

The second thing I will miss about Secretary Albright was her deep commitment to the promise of democracy. Along with former NDI President Ken Wollack (Ken is now a Senior Adviser at CSIS), Secretary Albright made famous the concept of “delivering on democracy”. She and Ken posited that it was not enough to have competing political parties, a free media environment, the ability for civil society to freely associate, and the holding of free and fair elections. What was also needed was to translate the political mandates entrusted by the people into concrete agendas and actions by elected officials to make the lives of citizens better – including broad based economic growth, building useful infrastructure, functioning healthcare, education that reached everyone, and the appointment of non-corrupt judges. If a government could not “deliver on democracy,” then the democratic project would be put at risk.

Third, Secretary Albright, along with many other senior policymakers in Washington, put a relatable human face to the plight of refugees. Secretary Albright’s family was forced into exile in 1938 after the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, and the family eventually made their way to the United States while Secretary Albright was still a young girl. Secretary Albright lived the American Dream. When she spoke about refugees and the generosity of Americans in accepting refugees, she had enormous moral authority and she used that moral authority for good.

Fourth, I was fortunate to be at half a dozen parties hosted by my good friend, former Foreign Minister of Spain, Ana Palacio. Minster Palacio and Secretary Albright were friends and colleagues.  I had a chance to interact with her a little bit, and she was always charming, fun, and very human, which made her someone you wanted to be around.

Finally, I admired Secretary Albright’s willingness to be involved in U.S. electoral politics. Many practitioners of foreign and national security policy eschew politics because, perhaps, they consider it “beneath them.” Secretary Albright, in addition to her serious intellect (she had a PhD from Columbia University and taught at Georgetown for many years), understood that elections have consequences and have consequences for foreign and national security policy. She believed it was important to be involved not only with the intellectual life of a nation, but also the political life of a nation.

Every time I am part of a smart, bipartisan group trying to promote freedom in the world, I will think of her, and I know she will be there in spirit.