The brightest secretary of state

March 01, 1997|By Daniel Berger

THOMAS JEFFERSON, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren were secretaries of state who became president. James Buchanan, elected in 1856, was the last.

Foreign policy was the most important effort of central government in the republic's infancy, navigating the shoals of international politics to protect the vessel of independence.

Diplomatic and military isolation from the rest of the world, coincidental with vigorous commerce, became viable later in the 19th century. Secretaries of state became less presidential. (So did presidents.)

The last secretary of state who aspired to becoming president may have been Alexander Haig Jr. (1981), unless the distinction belongs to James A. Baker (1989-92).

The last secretary of state who went on to higher office was Charles Evans Hughes (1921-25), who became chief justice of the United States (1930-41).

In the militarization of American foreign policy from the 1940s on, the secretary of state went down in public eyes, sharing policy formulation with the secretary of defense and the postwar office of national-security adviser.

After the Cold War, the American mood went isolationist. President Clinton in 1992 promised to make national economic interest the goal of foreign policy.

Tolerance plummeted for foreign aid, diplomatic expenditure, foreigners, immigrants, the United Nations and any other country's human-rights or trade practices. Everything became a political football on Capitol Hill.

Standing out from the crowd

Following a line of gray men who presided over this descent of foreign policy among the concerns of Americans, Madeleine Albright stands out like a bright ornament on a bare Christmas tree.

What distinguishes her is not that she is the shortest secretary of state, the first female, the second foreign-born (ineligible to become president), the second of Jewish ancestry, the second with a doctorate in foreign relations, possibly the first to speak five foreign languages.

What stands out is that she is the first in a long time with a wonderful command of English -- blunt spoken English, non-jargon without euphemism that everyone understands. Compare that with the verbal timidity of her predecessors.

This does not necessarily mean she can communicate better on Capitol Hill. Nor that she towers over others in intellect.

Rather, she excels at talking to the American people, using the sound bite for true communication, going over the heads of Congress to their constituents.

It is not a particular foreign policy that she is selling, but the very primacy of foreign policy. And that means budget, congressional non-interference, living up to international commitments and practices, pursuing the national interest through diplomacy.

Whether she can charm Jesse Helms, the isolationist and truculent chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is not so important.

She has the power to persuade the American people that he is wrong. And that might buck up his fellow Republican senators to thwart his obstructionism.

The prurient interest in Ms. Albright's family history adds to the mystique. It piles wrong reasons on top of right ones for tuning in on her performances.

Given the inter-connectedness of today's world, growing more intimate from each communications advance, the impossibility of isolation as a policy grows.

Ms. Albright more than anyone in sight can bring the nation to its senses on this. Warren Christopher, Lawrence S. Eagleburger, James A. Baker III, George P. Shultz and Alexander M. Haig Jr., did not. And that makes her President Clinton's most exciting appointment yet.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/01/97

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