Madeleine Albright says she knows how to have fun.
Soon after Albright became Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton LAW ’73, she received a memo informing her that she would be required — at an upcoming Asian summit of foreign ministers — to perform a skit. After much confusion, she decided to write a parody of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” and came dressed as Madonna.
But, as she said to hundreds of Yale students and faculty — who met Albright in person on Tuesday afternoon in the packed Yale Law School auditorium — Albright’s definition of fun has more to do with service than revelry.
“My kids have always said, ‘Mom, you’re not laid-back, you’re laid-forward,'” Albright told the crowd. “I am somebody who finds a lot of fun in the possibility of being able to make decisions that have an effect on Americans, on our foreign policies and in trying to solve problems.”
Albright’s talk was titled “Public Service in the Age of Globalization.” Many audience members praised her candor, saying she provided an eye-opening behind-the-scenes perspective as America’s first female secretary of state. But others said that while her message was powerfully delivered, her words were inapplicable to students not planning on careers in the upper echelons of government.
Public service work can be more glamorous than people often expect, Albright said.
“Most lectures about public service … quote Mother Theresa and urge people to join the Peace Corps, that personally ambitious people need not apply,” she said. “My message to you this afternoon is a little bit different. I urge you to see public service as a means of self-fulfillment and not self-denial.”
Albright said that in her former position, her greatest accomplishment was halting the genocide during the conflict in Kosovo, but she expressed regret for not taking action to end the Rwandan genocide in 1994, when she was still serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Before she became the highest-ranking female government official in U.S. history, Albright said she first had to defy the discrimination that prevailed as she grew up.
“I married and became part of a group of young couples living in Washington,” she said. “John Kennedy was president then, and public service had never seemed more glamorous. We actually made a bet about who within our group would become the first to appear on the cover of Time magazine. Who, that is, among the husbands. The women were not even considered.”
Albright also had special words for Yalies. Noting the preponderance of politically minded students at the College and Law School, she said students should never give up on dreams of political leadership, even in the face of pressure to make a sure living at a law firm or investment bank.
Addressing the Bush administration’s leadership, Albright said Americans must be thoughtful in confronting challenges arising from the war on terror.
“How do we reconcile the need to protect ourselves from terror with a need to safeguard our civil liberties from abuse?” she asked. “Where’s the line between torture, which cannot be justified, and rigorous interrogation, which could save thousands of lives?”
Albright criticized the current administration’s activities in Iraq and response to Hurricane Katrina, and said the Clinton administration was more willing to admit its foreign policy mistakes.
At one point during the lecture, a student asked the former secretary how she could reconcile imposing economic sanctions in Iraq at the expense of starving children. Although she said she acknowledges ethical concerns, Albright defended her underlying position toward Saddam Hussein.
“Don’t shake your head,” Albright said to the student. “I was there.”
While introducing Albright, Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh drew on his own experience serving as assistant secretary of state under Albright. As a fellow immigrant to the United States, Koh said, Albright has inspired him as a worldly “fighter” for humane globalization.
“Can you imagine that in her time, the Secretary of State of the United States spoke to the Russians in Russian, to the French in French, to the Serbs in Serbian, to the Czechs in Czech, to the Poles in [Polish]?” he said.
In many ways, Koh said, Albright “broke the glass ceiling” and opened the path for other women and minorities to top roles in government.
“When the Bush administration took office, my son asked me, ‘Who is now America’s secretary of state?'” Koh said. “I told him Colin Powell, and he looked at me kind of funny. I said, ‘You know, in this country, anybody can be anything.’ And he said, ‘That’s not the problem. I just have trouble imagining a man in that job.'”
David Kasten ’08 said Albright’s address gave the audience a peek into the challenges facing a secretary of state.
“You get a real sense of the weight of the obligations that [she] felt, and just how deeply they feel the weight of history upon them,” he said.
But at least one law student said he felt “disconnected” from Albright’s message.
“I feel like her sort of classic sassiness was in full force,” Jamie Hodariylsoh LAW ’07 said. “But … for people our age, obviously there’s the sense that NGOs and more small-scale stuff is more nimble and more responsive to the things we’re interested in, whereas it was clear that [Albright] still views government as the pinnacle of public service, which I don’t think is necessarily the case for most people at Yale.”
The lecture was the inaugural address of the Samuel and Ronnie Heyman Federal Public Service Fellowship at the Law School.