Madeleine Albright, up to this minute

November 08, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN STAFF

"Seasons of Her Life: A Biography of Madeleine Korbel Albright," by Ann Blackman. Scribner. 398 pages. $27. Madeleine Albright gazes from the cover of Ann Blackman's biography with a Mona Lisa-like grin of delight and triumph. At 61, after a childhood torn from her native Czechoslovakia, a mid-life marriage breakup and years of scraping against the American foreign policy establishment's "glass ceiling," she is now the first woman secretary of state and finds it all "a big kick," her deputy Strobe Talbott tells the author.

Ann Blackman chronicles this historic climb, from the lonely world of refugees to the rarefied heights of power, with unabashed admiration for Albright's drive and growth. The result is a sympathetic, even glowing portrait, engrossing and well-written, that relies too heavily on Albright's loyal circle of friends.

But Blackman, a veteran Time reporter, is too good to gloss over trouble spots. For instance, Albright's father, the Czech diplomat Josef Korbel, may not have been quite the staunch anti-communist that the secretary describes.

Contrary to his own later account, Korbel worked closely with Vladimir Clementis, a senior Foreign Ministry official who was an ardent communist, and continued working for the Czech government for months after the February 1948 coup that brought the Communists to power. The Communists, in turn, may have been responsible for the United Nations posting that offered Korbel and his immediate family a ticket to freedom.

Such choices are understandable in light of the mortal threat to the Korbel family posed first by the Nazis and, later, by the Soviets. Nevertheless, Blackman reports that Korbel's wartime colleagues "judged him harshly for keeping ties to the Czechoslovak Communist government as long as he did."

Blackman conscientiously reexplores Albright's family background, tracing several generations of her prosperous secular Jewish forebears. She gives a vivid account of Madeleine's childhood, when she was known as Madlenka Korbelova.

The most moving part of the books are the chapters on wartime London, in which Blackman juxtaposes the Korbels' years during the blitz with a searing account of Czechoslovakia under Nazi occupation, where Albright's grandparents and other relatives were killed. Theresienstadt concentration camp, where her paternal grandfather died, was "a living hell," she writes.

Blackman revives questions about how much Albright knew or must have surmised about her family's past before it was revealed in the Washington Post early last year.

"Many of Albright's friends see her lack of curiosity about her family heritage as an act of denial," Blackman writes.

Some say the same thing about the collapse of her 23-year marriage to Joseph Albright, wealthy scion of the Patterson newspaper family. By her account, Joe simply announced out of the blue one morning that their marriage was "dead" and that he was in love with someone else."

By then, Albright had gone from being a socially and politically connected wife and mother to putting in long hours as a Washington professional, parlaying a hard-earned Columbia Ph.D. into jobs as congressional aide and later, the National Security staff.

Blackman reports at least one post-divorce romance - with Barry Carter, a fellow Georgetown University professor and political campaign adviser. Through this rough period, as later, Albright would rely for emotional support on a network of friends, most of them high-powered women, that includes Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

Blackman bills this book as a personal biography, not a book on policy. In fact, the book offers a clear-eyed account of Albright's performance as United Nations ambassador - made all the more interesting because Blackman reaches outside Albright's protective circle for insight and information.

Her legacy is a question mark: America's record in dealing with Iraq, the Balkans, Russia and the Arab-Israeli conflict are still unclear. Maybe Blackman will do a sequel.

Mark Matthews, The Sun's diplomatic correspondent, has been actively covering Albright since 1997 and has done extensive other work covering U.S. policy-making.

Pub Date: 11/08/98

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