Ostensibly, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was here to promote her latest book, an account of her journey to discover relatives who died in the Holocaust — family she never knew existed, until at age 59 she discovered she had been born Jewish.
But the roughly 1,000 people who turned out Wednesday to hear the tiny Czechoslovakian-born woman who became the nation’s first female top diplomat got far more than just a tale of her heart-wrenching trip back in time to when the Nazis killed three of her grandparents and two dozen other relatives.
At times irreverent, sometimes self-deprecating and occasionally unabashedly partisan, the 75-year-old promoted “Prague Winter” and also fielded questions during her appearance at the Palm Beach County Convention Center. She offered her thoughts on dozens of foreign policy issues, from the outbreak of violence in Libya to the impact of social media to the biggest threats facing the United States. In between, she offered her views on Oscar-nominated films that deal with terrorist crises.
She warned self-appointed foreign policy experts to be careful when they try to judge what America is doing abroad. “I think it’s very important for people to always understand what the context of a decision is and what information you have at the time,” she said.
Albright said she still regrets not doing more to thwart mass murder in Rwanda, first as a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and then as secretary of state. But she said, other horrific humanitarian assaults were occupying the international community. And it wasn’t until later that officials realized a “volcanic genocide” had erupted in the African nation.
“All the things we know now, we didn’t know then, believe me,” she said during her luncheon speech at the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches.
She returned to that theme when asked about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s handling of the killings of U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans. When she heard about the September attack in Benghazi, she said she hearkened back to Aug. 7, 1998 when hundreds were killed in explosions at U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
“I identify with what the State Department was going through, trying to figure out what the information was … and who in the State Department knew what,” Albright said. “I think Secretary Clinton and others did, I think, a credible job in terms of trying to explain what happened.”
At the same time, she said, the constant buzz of social media is often deleterious. “It provides information very quickly and often not accurately,” she said.
Having served as secretary of state under President Bill Clinton from 1997-2001, Albright occasionally showed her Democratic stripes. After defending Hillary Clinton, she bemoaned that the attack in Benghazi has “turned into a political football.” When asked to name the biggest threats facing the country, she blasted Congress. “We are a threat to ourselves unless we can figure out our economic situation,” she said to applause. “This is an amazing country, and to see us in gridlock I find very mystifying. The president has put out some really good plans and I think we need to resolve this.”
She demurred when asked whether Navy SEALS, who brought down Osama bin Laden, should be writing books. But, in a not-so-veiled criticism of the second-guessing of the mission, she added: “Zero Dark Thirty was not as good as Argo.”
She acknowledged that she plowed new ground as the nation’s top diplomat. She said she was the inventor of “diplomatic kissing” and used broaches to telegraph her mood. On Wednesday, her pin was a bright one, signalling a good day. On bad days, she wears ones featuring insects, carnivorous animals or reptiles.
She developed the practice in Baghdad when she donned a pin of a snake as she excoriated then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. It’s good shorthand, she said.
Want to know her mood? “Read my pin,” she said.