Skip to Content
Blogs | June, 15 2021

Keynote Speaker Madeleine Albright Discusses Her Career, the Fragility of Democracy, and Her Pins

Recently, the MSBA had the distinct honor of welcoming Dr. Madeleine Albright, the 64th U.S. Secretary of State and the first woman to hold the office, to the Legal Summit. Outgoing MSBA President, Judge Mark Scurti interviewed Dr. Albright, who graciously spoke about her youth, education, her illustrious career, and even her television cameo appearances. 

Dr. Albright began by expressing her admiration for the legal profession and the importance of the Bar Association in providing access to justice to everyone. She remarked that she is surrounded by lawyers in her family, which means the conversation is often legal in nature. 

She then told the story of how her family eventually migrated to the United States in the turbulent aftermath of World War 2. Her father, who was a Czech diplomat, moved the family to Denver in 1948 after the communists took over what was then Czechoslovakia. They settled in Denver after having sailed to the states aboard the USS America. Dr. Albright remembers the ship passing the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Dr. Albright’s father would often say that democracy is a gift, and it is fragile. He worried that Americans did not understand or appreciate that – sentiments that remain strong with Dr. Albright. 

Dr. Albright, the mother of three, said she first got into politics when she started fundraising for her children’s school. One thing led to another, and she started fundraising for Senator Edmund Muskie. After she received her PhD, she went to work as a legislative assistant for Zbigniew Brzezinski on the National Security Council under President Carter. Brzezinski had been her professor. After Carter lost the election in 1980, Dr. Albright joined the faculty of Georgetown University, and continued to advise Democratic candidates. 

Dr. Albright met Bill Clinton during debate prep for the 1992 election. After his victory, she helped him put together his national security team, and President Clinton appointed her the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Two years later, when the top job at the State Department was opening up, there came, as Dr. Albright calls it, “The Great Mentioning.”

The United States had never had a woman in the job of Secretary of State. Dr. Albright’s name was mentioned as a candidate for the job. But there were those in 1996 and 1997 who felt that a woman could not do the job. Dr. Albright said that one of the reasons used to explain that a woman couldn’t be Secretary of State was that the Arab countries wouldn’t deal with a woman. To counter this theory, UN ambassadors from several Arab countries signed a letter saying that they would engage with Dr. Albright as they had when she led the U.S. delegation to the UN. It also didn’t hurt that then-First Lady Hillary Clinton was very much in Dr. Albright’s corner. Dr. Albright says she told her husband that he would make his mother proud by appointing Dr. Albright. 

Dr. Albright served as Secretary of State for the entirety of President Clinton’s second term. She feels that it was important for a woman to lead the State Department because it helped to make clear that women’s issues would be central to American foreign policy. She also felt that a female leader is good at multitasking and has a keen peripheral vision. As Secretary Albright, there were many cross-border conflicts that occupied her attention. She applauded the success of the Rule of Law in bringing the perpetrators of genocide to justice in Kosovo. Her one regret was that the U.S. failed to do more to stop the genocide in Rwanda. 

Secretary Albright was faced with the AIDS epidemic in the 90s. The current pandemic is much more broad, and requires an even greater effort. She says there needs to be a truth telling about how the pandemic started. Countries must take preparatory steps to ensure that they are ready for whatever may happen next. Dr. Albright says the silver lining is that the world is now realizing how closely linked together we all are. She characterizes herself as an optimist that worries a lot. 

Going forward, Dr. Albright says that there are many global challenges, not the least of which are climate change and the ongoing pandemic. She feels strongly that the United States must be involved, and must lead. She praised President Biden for his engagement so far on the world stage. She views Russia as a threat under Vladimir Putin’s leadership. And, again, she repeated her father’s warning that Americans must appreciate the fragility of democracy, something she expounds upon in her book, Facism: A Warning (Harper 2018). 

When asked by President Scurti her advice to young people and young women in particular, Dr. Albright emphasized the importance of hard work. She said it wasn’t easy for her. She said she found it difficult and a real impediment to be judged by other women, and it holds women back. She echoed her famous phrase that there is a “special place in hell for women that don’t help each other.” Looking back she says one of the greatest privileges one can have is being a public servant. 

Dr. Albright says it took her a long time to find her voice. Throughout much of her career she was the only woman in the room, and that meant that she needed to find allies. Because she had taken time out to get her PhD she was often 10 years older than everyone else, and that was a difficulty as well. Hard work and perseverance were always required. 

On a lighter note, Dr. Albright said she has enjoyed her many television appearances where she has played herself. It all started with “Gilmore Girls” when the producers sought her advice on who should play her. Dr. Albright said she didn’t want anyone playing her because she wanted to play herself. That lead to appearances on “Parks and Recreation” and several guest appearances on “Madam Secretary” including one episode which included Dr. Albright and former Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and Colin Powell.

Finally, Dr. Albright revealed details about her famous pins. She purchased many of the distinctive brooches in New York when she was UN Ambassador. There was a snake, an eagle among many others including the scales of justice that she wore when she spoke to the MSBA. The phrase, “Read My Pins,” was coined when she was at the UN. Many of the pins have been included in various museum exhibitions and remain part of her legacy as the first woman Secretary of State.