Madeleine Albright: 'Trump's initial reaction to coronavirus was a huge mistake. I was appalled'

America's first female Secretary of State opens up about bad leadership, beating misogyny and coping with lockdown - by knitting socks

madeleine albright 
Madeleine Albright speaks to Celia Walden ahead of the publication of her memoir Credit: Lauren Bulbin

It’s early morning in Washington, DC and Madeleine Albright is considering her options in a barren new world. ‘I have a choice of reading, knitting or cleaning drawers,’ deadpans the 82-year-old from the rambling Georgetown home she’s lived in for 52 years. ‘I’ve put off cleaning the drawers so far, and am doing a lot of reading and still teaching virtually via Zoom, so I’m getting by. But if this lasts for months I don’t think even I will have enough dirty drawers to keep me busy.’

Our interview was set up in another time: a time when people whimsically travelled between continents, went to theatres, concerts, conferences and school – all while touching their own faces 23 times an hour. Neither one of us could have imagined then that we would be conducting it over the phone, with both of us semi-isolated in our homes, both of our countries in lockdown – and Albright grimly aware of ‘how valid the title of my new book is turning out to be’.

Hell and Other Destinations was always going to be a great title for the first female Secretary of State’s extended memoir (the first, Madam Secretary, was published in 2003) – and a still greater read for anyone stuck at home. After all, this is a woman who served in Bill Clinton’s cabinet for two presidential terms from 1993 to 2001 (as US Ambassador to the UN before becoming Secretary of State) and was an active participant in some of the most dramatic events of our time, from the pursuit of peace in the Middle East to NATO’s humanitarian intervention in Kosovo.

This is a woman whose most famous quote remains: ‘There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women’; a feminist activist who decided to write this book ‘to prove that it is possible to have “an afterlife”. Because it took me a long time to find my voice, and I’m not going to be quiet now.’ But it’s true that her title seems eerily prescient today, when the coronavirus pandemic has turned so many lives into a living hell, and our destination is still very much unknown.

Madeleine Albright at Wellesley College  Credit: Getty Images 

‘This is a war,’ Albright says in the clear, measured tones of someone who has clashed with presidents, prime ministers and dictators, and is used to assessing the accuracy of every word before speaking. ‘A very different kind of war, but a war nonetheless. And I never imagined anything of this magnitude happening.

'Of course over the years I thought about the things that have affected countries across the board: terrorism, climate change and nuclear proliferation. Obviously I understood the spread of HIV Aids and things like Ebola. But this? No,’ she exhales deeply, ‘I can’t admit to thinking that something like this might ever happen.’

As a political scientist who was nagged by the same thought throughout her time in office and beyond – ‘Was I doing enough?’ – it stands to reason that Albright has primarily been thinking about the role of government in dealing with the super-virus decimating our elderly and our economy.

‘It’s what I think about all the time anyway because of the course I teach,’ she says in reference to the international statecraft course, American National Security Toolbox, she teaches at nearby Georgetown University. And of course old habits die hard. ‘Even today, when I read about an international crisis,’ she admits in Hell and Other Destinations, ‘I reflexively insert my name in place of the current Secretary of State’s and think about what I might do were I in his or her shoes.’

Albright as a child with father Josef Korbel (left) and Albright with her twins, 1960 (right) Credit: Getty Images 

Plenty of former statesmen will be relieved not to be dealing with a crisis as vast and unknowable as that caused by Covid-19, but Albright has always been atypical. Asked how she wished to be remembered when she left office, the tireless public servant snapped back, ‘I don’t want to be remembered… As difficult as it might seem, I want every stage of my life to be more exciting than the last.’

Having mulled over how best to spend her ‘afterlife’ – whether to write, teach, travel, contribute further towards empowering women, start a business or campaign for political candidates – Albright decided she’d do it all.

And when I ask what she would be doing differently to the Trump administration in terms of combatting and reacting to the spread of Covid-19, she doesn’t have to think about it for a moment . ‘Many things! First of all Trump’s initial reaction, which made very little of the coronavirus, was a huge mistake.’ And meant the US was too slow to react? ‘Yes. I was appalled by the way Trump started out. One needs leadership – no question. And that leader needs to take some responsibility for what is going on, and not blame others.’

Secretary of State Albright with President Bill Clinton in the White House Oval Office, 1997 Credit: Getty Images 

If what Albright has heard and read was true and there was no consultation with allies before the travel ban was implemented against Europe, she goes on, ‘that too was a mistake. Because for me the question is: to what extent is the whole of government operating here? If I were Secretary of State today, I would be working with the Defense Department, the intelligence community. Then you would need the Departments of Treasury and Commerce to be involved in terms of dealing with the many economic dislocations.’

The UK government was also too slow to react, she believes. ‘Very much so. And I think that some of that is due to lack of information, but some of it is straight denial: “This couldn’t possibly be happening.” Then of course a lot has to do with the mechanisms of any government, in terms of how you get the different parts of it to work together. But ultimately it’s clear to me that both of us denied the virulence of this and blamed others, rather than trying to figure out what the issues really were and using that information to help us.’

A quenchless thirst for information is one of the first things to emerge about the author of Hell and Other Destinations. Then there’s her wit. ‘I think people are surprised that I have a sense of humour,’ she says. Although I suspect it’s the acerbic nature of it they’re surprised by. When, at a party, a socialite once told Albright how ‘brave’ she thought she had been for not getting a facelift, ‘I was tempted to comment on the courage she had shown in dealing with the results of hers.’

Another time, while listening to National Security Advisor Sandy Berger’s complaints that people talked about military force ‘as if it were like having an orgasm’, Albright – who was ‘tired of debates in which every time a person favoured doing something, she was called bloodthirsty, and in which every advocate of restraint was called a wimp’ – declared, ‘Enough with the ad hominem attacks. And besides, I have forgotten about orgasms.'

Peace talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, 1998  Credit: Getty Images 

Albright was born in Prague in 1937 to parents Josef and Anna Korbel, who fled as Adolf Hitler pushed into Czechoslovakia in 1939. The Korbels moved to the UK and sought refuge in London’s Notting Hill ‘before it was fancy’. And because ‘people keep asking me how what we’re living through compares to real war’, Albright has been remembering the disorientation of those earliest years.

‘I’ve been thinking a lot about when my parents came to England in 1939 without knowing anybody, how isolated they were and what it was like to hunker down like they did. We spent the whole Blitz in a greenpainted cellar on the Portobello Road.’ She gives a small laugh that’s full of nostalgia. ‘It’s just interesting thinking about it now in terms of the sacrifices that people made and what a difference it was to have someone like Churchill making statements. Still today we remember all the brilliant things that he said; it’s hard not to compare.’

After the war the Korbels moved to Denver, Colorado, where Albright’s diplomat father taught political science, and Albright won a scholarship to the prestigious Wellesley College. While there, she met and married the newspaper heir Joseph Albright. And when, after 23 years of marriage and three daughters – twins Anne and Alice, now 59, and Katherine, 53 – her husband announced one morning, ‘This marriage is dead and I’m in love with someone else,’ Albright’s heartbreak was the making of her.

If she wasn’t going to be the perfect American wife and mother, Albright would be something without such a clear-cut mould to shatter.

Woman of the Year awards with Amy Schumer, 2015 Credit: Getty Images 

She was 39 when she got what she calls her first ‘job job’ and started working her way up the ranks of the Democratic Party, advising presidential candidates such as Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, before being made Secretary of State by Bill Clinton at 59.

Asked whether she stands by the quote in her first biography stating that she ‘would have given up any thought of a career if it would have made [her ex-husband] Joe change his mind’, Albright pauses. ‘Listen. I probably would not have had the job I had as Secretary of State had I still been married. And that’s partially because I would have tried to be more whatever-it-was-that-I-wasn’t. But I loved being Secretary of State, and being able to represent America as a refugee meant so much to me. I do regret my divorce, of course, but I have loved my life since then.’

She tells me how proud she is of her three girls now – Anne is a judge, Alice is CEO of the Global Partnership for Education, and Katie is CEO of Safe & Sound, a child abuse-prevention centre. ‘And I do give credit to their father. In the end, I think that things worked out pretty well.’

Bill Cinton may have had a weakness for women, but his quickness to appoint them within his cabinet was one of his greatest strengths. And, of course, Albright wasn’t just a woman but the first woman. ‘I remember that when my name came up someone in the White House said, “There’s no way a woman could do it because the Arab members couldn’t deal with a female Secretary of State.” But then the Arab members at the UN got together to say, “We had no problems dealing with Ambassador Albright, so we wouldn’t have any problems with Secretary Albright.”’

Albright’s family, including her three daughters, at her swearing-in ceremony, January 1997 Credit: Getty Images 

Albright’s bullishness in the face of petty and sometimes insufferable misogyny in office and beyond will make the reader laugh out loud. ‘And actually I had more problems with the men in our own government,’ she points out, ‘partially, I think, because they had known me too long. I had them to my house for dinner and passed their plates around. I had been a staffer and xeroxed and made a lot of coffee, so they must have thought, “How did she get to be Secretary of State?” That feeling was evident initially in the way that I was put down when I was a cabinet member and would be arguing for doing something in Bosnia. “Don’t be so emotional,” the men would say. And there were always ways of putting me down, but I learnt to argue in a way that didn’t get that reaction from them.’

If being among the highest-ranking women in the history of the US government wasn’t enough to quash the male sneers, nothing would. And when Albright was first asked to join the board of the New York Stock Exchange in 2003, she recalls overhearing a conversation between two male members, unaware she was on the other end of a conference call: ‘I am sure she can learn,’ said the first. ‘Yeah, right,’ replied the other. ‘And I can teach a monkey to play the piano.’

Any young woman t o day would be straight on to HR, if not an employment lawyer, I tell her. ‘Yes, but honestly I learnt to put aside things like that,’ she says without even a trace of residual anger. ‘Sometimes you do have to call men out on something, but it depends on how irritating it is. For me it was always more about trying to get the agenda through, and not caring so much about how I was being treated.’ Albright’s words remind me of those of St Paul’s Girls’ School’s former headmistress Clarissa Farr, who caused an outcry last year when she urged girls to see sexism in the workplace as an ‘attractive challenge’ rather than waste too much time complaining and developing a ‘hostile attitude’ towards men. ‘I agree with that,’ says Albright. ‘There are so many things that can be done to rectify a situation, and I do think it’s counterproductive to be permanently angry about something. Far better to sort out the problem – solve it.’

It’s apparent in Hell and Other Destinations how much its author enjoys the company of men. ‘I have a lot of male friends,’ she tells me when I ask whether her power made it hard to have close personal relationships with men after her divorce. She tells me about a group she created with her former colleagues, called the Aspen Ministers Forum. ‘Its unofficial name is “Madeleine and her exes”,’ and she assures me that she has remained a very sociable person. ‘I did love what I was doing though, so I have never felt a loss in that regard.’

It would be all of our loss, she insists, however, if we stoke the division between the sexes. ‘And I really do think that there is this division between us. But we can’t all be the same. We’re different. And I’m fascinated by why men are afraid of us. I do think we’re very hard working and caring and good at multitasking, but I am convinced that the world works better when we work together. And I don’t think we can blame it all on men.’

In Washington, DC with Hillary Clinton, whom Albright supported in her 2016 presidential bid  Credit: Getty Images 

Albright is referring to the ‘Queen Bee’ syndrome she identifies in her book: ‘Where some woman would think, “If there is only going to be one person it’s going to be me and not you.”’ Is that where her ‘There’s a special place in hell…’ quote came from? ‘ That statement came out of my own life. I would be criticised by other women for not being with my children, when guilt is already every woman’s middle name. And then there were stupid judgmental things like, “I make better hollandaise than you do.” Literally that stupid.’

But won’t the ultimate triumph be when Albright’s quote seems outdated? When women have no need to support one another any more than the next man, because they are no longer the underdogs? When, like men, women are allowed to compete? ‘I hope it will be outdated one day soon. And I do think it’s appropriate for us to compete, definitely. But I think that we are always better off if there is more than one woman in the room.’

That there still hasn’t been a woman behind the desk of the Oval Office confounds Albright, who campaigned for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and still believes ‘that some of that was sexism – no question’. ‘I do think there has got to be a woman president at some point. Americans are always very proud of being the first and there are a lot of women presidents around the world that are doing a great job. For me it’s just inexplicable. But it doesn’t mean that I would vote for someone I disagreed with simply because she’s a woman – Sarah Palin or whoever.’ She pauses before unleashing another of her greatest lines, ‘There is plenty of room in the world for mediocre men, but there is no room for mediocre women.’

Perhaps for that reason it’s a man, Joe Biden, that Albright is campaigning for in this year’s election. ‘And in fact I’m having a virtual meeting with the executive committee at the National Democratic Institute later today,’ she tells me. After the drawer cleaning? She doesn’t actually knit, does she? ‘I can knit and probably will knit,’ she flings back. ‘I’m currently knitting socks for my daughters, which I always have done.’ Really? I stutter, rocked on an almost existential level by this revelation from one of the most powerful women in political history.

Why? ‘Because their feet kept on growing.’

Hell and Other Destinations: A 21st-Century Memoir is published on 30 April (£25, Waterstones)