The Book


Heroes and Villains


Hoping to freeze time, I thought back to the phone ringing one December morning and the words, "I want you to be my Secretary of State," and to the swearing-in ceremony where my eagle pin came unstuck. I thought of little girls seeking autographs on a triumphant train trip from Washington to the United Nations in New York; of Vaclav Havel's face, warm and wise, as he placed a red sash on my shoulder and a kiss on my cheek; and of names enshrined on the wall of a synagogue in Prague. I thought of buildings in Kenya and Tanzania reduced to rubble; of coffins draped with the American flag; and of President Clinton in a rumpled shirt, with glasses perched on his nose, pleading the cause of Middle East peace.

I thought of the countless meetings, some in grand palaces in the middle of the night, others in remote villages where nothing grew except the appetites of young children yet people still laughed and lived in hope. I thought of the cheering of crowds, joyous in Kosovo and Central Europe but robotic in North Korea, and of women and girls sharing their fears in a refugee camp a few miles from the Afghanistan border.

The sound of tape being pulled away from giant rolls broke my reverie. We had been so busy, we hadn't started packing until well after dark. Now boxes and bubble wrap were everywhere, sitting amid stacks of books, discarded bags of pretzels, and mementos gathered during a million miles of travel and almost three thousand days of government service. Staff members were scurrying about, preoccupied with sorting, wrapping, sealing, and labeling. Silently I withdrew into the small inner office of the secretary of state, my office for a few hours more, and went instinctively to the window.

It was the view I would miss almost as much as anything else. Circles of light on the National Mall surrounded the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument. Between them, obscured by the January night, were the haunting bronze figures commemorating America's engagement in the Korean War, and the silent yet eloquent black marble of the Vietnam wall. Across the Tidal Basin I saw the dome marking our nation's memorial to Thomas Jefferson, America's first Secretary of State, and across the river the more distant glow of the eternal flame at John Kennedy's grave in Arlington National Cemetery. I felt intense gratitude for each day I had been given to build on the tradition of honor and sacrifice celebrated in front of me.

I may not have wished it to end, but the clock was ticking and there was much to do. I went to my desk for the last time, focusing on a piece of stationery I had centered there. "Dear Cohn," I wrote. "We have been working hard and hope when you arrive in the office it is clean. It will, however, still be filled with the spirit of our predecessors, all of whom felt representing the United States to be the greatest honor. So I turn over to you the best job in the world. Good luck and best wishes. Madeleine."

MADELEINE WASN'T MY ORIGINAL NAME. I was born in Prague on May 15, 1937, in a hospital in the city's Smichov district. In Czech, smichov means laughter but there was little of that in Czechoslovakia during the year of my birth. It was an ominous time. I was christened Marie Jana, the first child of Josef and Anna Korbel, but I wasn't called that. My grandmother nicknamed me Madla after a character in a popular show, Madla in the Brick Factory. My mother, with her special way of pronouncing things, modified it to Madlen. Most of the time I was called Madlenka. It took me years to figure out what my actual name was. Not until I was ten, and learning French, did I find the version that pleased me: Madeleine. However, despite all the language and country changes of my youth, I never altered my original name, and my naturalization certificate and marriage license both read "Marie Jana Korbel."

--Also read Chinese translation of passages relating to China in Madam Secretary

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Madam Secretary
by Madeleine Albright
Copyright 2003-2013 Marios Michael