WASHINGTON — A veritable who’s who of Washington’s political and foreign policy elite gathered Wednesday to pay their last respects to the late Madeleine Albright, a child of conflict-ravaged Europe who arrived in the U.S. as an 11-year old girl and became America’s first female secretary of state.
The trailblazing diplomat and champion of her adopted country as the world’s “indispensable nation” was joyously remembered by President Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton as a no-nonsense, valued adviser who did not suffer fools or tyrants and was most concerned about Russia’s war with Ukraine when she died last month of cancer at 84.
Biden said Albright’s name was synonymous with the idea that America is “a force for good in the world.”
“In the 20th and 21st century, freedom had no greater champion than Madeleine Korbel Albright,” he said. “Today we honor a truly proud American who made all of us prouder to be Americans.”
He said he had learned of Albright’s death while flying to Brussels for an emergency NATO summit on Ukraine and was struck by the memory of her key role in pressing for the expansion of the alliance in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union to protect Europe from a repeat of the carnage of World War II and the Cold War ideological battle between communism and democracy.
And Clinton, the man who appointed her first as his U.N. ambassador in 1993 and then as secretary of state in 1996, said his last conversation with Albright just weeks before her passing were dominated by the situation in Ukraine and her fears about the future of democracy at home and abroad.
He recalled that Albright didn’t want to talk about her declining health at a moment when the West is on edge following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Albright, Clinton recalled, assured him that she was getting the best care she could, but didn’t want to “waste time” talking about that.
“The only thing that really matters is what kind of world we’re going to leave to our grandchildren,” Clinton recalled Albright told him. He added, “She made a decision with her last breath she would go out with her boots on.”
Biden and Clinton, along with former President Barack Obama and several of Albright’s successors as secretary of state, including Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, John Kerry and current office-holder Antony Blinken, were some 1,400 mourners who attended the funeral at Washington’s National Cathedral.
The service was punctuated at points by tears, laughter and applause during reminiscences from Biden, Bill and Hillary Clinton and Albright’s three daughters, Anne, Alice and Katharine, who remembered her as a doting “mom” and “Granny Maddy” to their own children even amid a hectic work schedule that often took her around the world.
That schedule didn’t let up when she left government service in 2001 and returned to teaching at Georgetown University, started a successful international consulting company, served on the boards of numerous women’s and human rights groups and became a best-selling author.
Hillary Clinton recalled stories that she had lobbied for Albright to serve as secretary of state, a role that Clinton would serve in herself during the Obama administration. “It’s been said that I urged my husband to nominate her as our first female secretary of state,” she said. “Unlike much that’s said, this story was true.”
The two developed a strong friendship over the years. and Hillary Clinton recalled a pair of stories about her and Albright on visits overseas during which they bonded.
Once on a walk in a drenching rainstorm in the Czech capital of Prague, Clinton said they laughed so hard they forgot they were wet. On another occasion in Beijing, Clinton recalled that she and Albright had marched through mud in a torrential downpour and confronted Chinese security forces to meet women’s rights activists.
Clinton in her own tribute recalled some lighter memories of Albright, including the time she taught the foreign minister of Botswana the Macarena and danced the night away with a young, handsome man at her daughter Chelsea’s wedding. She also remembered Albright as a fearless diplomat that broke barriers and then counseled, cajoled and inspired women to follow in her footsteps.
“The angels better be wearing their best pins and putting on their dancing shoes,” Clinton said. “Because if as Madeleine believed there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women, they haven’t seen anyone like her yet.”
On the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and one month before her death, The New York Times printed what would be Albright’s last published writing. She wrote that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion would be a “historic error” that would cement his legacy as one of “infamy. “Until the end, she was still in a hurry to do good,” Clinton said.
Other top current officials who attended the service included Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, CIA Director Bill Burns, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Mark Milley and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan. The members of the VIP audience were masked, as Albright’s family had requested.
Foreign dignitaries invited to the funeral included the presidents of Georgia and Kosovo and senior officials from Colombia, Bosnia and the Czech Republic.
Albright was born in what was then Czechoslovakia, but her family fled twice, first from the Nazis and then from Soviet rule. They ended up in the United States, where she studied at Wellesley College and rose through the ranks of Democratic Party foreign policy circles to become ambassador to the United Nations. Bill Clinton selected her as secretary of state in 1996 for his second term.
Although never in line for the presidency because of her foreign birth, Albright was near universally admired for breaking a glass ceiling, even by her political detractors. Several senior Republican lawmakers, including Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, attended the service.
As a Czech refugee who saw the horrors of both Nazi Germany and the Iron Curtain, she was not a dove. She played a leading role in pressing for the Clinton administration to get involved militarily in the conflict in Kosovo. “My mindset is Munich,” she said frequently, referring to the German city where the Western allies abandoned her homeland to the Nazis.
As secretary of state, Albright played a key role in persuading Clinton to go to war against the Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic over his treatment of Kosovar Albanians in 1999. As U.N. ambassador, she advocated a tough U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the case of Milosevic’s treatment of Bosnia. NATO’s intervention in Kosovo was eventually dubbed “Madeleine’s War.”
She also took a hard line on Cuba, famously saying at the United Nations that the 1996 Cuban shootdown of a civilian plane was not “cojones” but rather “cowardice.”
Bill Clinton recalled the moment in his tribute, remembering that Albright faced criticism at the time that the sharp barb was “undiplomatic” and “unladylike.” He absolutely loved it.
“I called her and I said … ‘This is the best line developed and delivered by anybody in this administration,” Clinton said.
In 2012, Obama awarded Albright the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, saying her life was an inspiration to all Americans.
Born Marie Jana Korbel in Prague on May 15, 1937, she was the daughter of a diplomat, Joseph Korbel. The family was Jewish and converted to Roman Catholicism when she was 5. Three of her Jewish grandparents died in concentration camps.
Albright was an internationalist whose point of view was shaped in part by her background. Her family fled Czechoslovakia in 1939 as the Nazis took over their country, and she spent the war years in London.
After the war, as the Soviet Union took over vast chunks of Eastern Europe, her father brought the family to the United States. They settled in Denver, where her father taught at the University of Denver. One of Korbel’s best students was Condoleezza Rice, who would later succeed his daughter as secretary of state.
Albright graduated from Wellesley College in 1959. She worked as a journalist and later studied international relations at Columbia University, where she earned a master’s degree in 1968 and a Ph.D. in 1976. She then entered politics and what was at the time the male-dominated world of foreign policy professionals.