Column: Remembering Madeleine Albright and everything she shared with the NewsHour

In the decades since she left as Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright would say, with her customary humor and spirit, that the PBS NewsHour helped launch her into a storied spot in American diplomatic history.

In 1987, when I was the senior producer for foreign affairs and defense and planning heavy duty coverage of the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Washington, D.C., Robin MacNeil and Jim Lehrer wanted a regular team of commentators available to wrap up each day’s events (a short-term diplomatic equivalent to our popular political segment featuring, at the time, Mark Shields and David Gergen).

One of our plugged-in foreign affairs and defense beat reporters, David Shapiro, suggested Albright, a professor at Georgetown University. She was a classic Washington insider, had served in Senate offices and on the National Security staff of Zbigniew Brzezinski. I have to admit I had never heard of her.

We paired her with a long-time associate of Henry Kissinger, William Hyland, the deputy national security Advisor to President Gerald Ford. He was more familiar to NewsHour buffs, serving as our guest commentator during the first Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Geneva two years before.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Albright, who died this week at the age of 84, said those constant appearances on the NewsHour helped push her into a wider and more publicized circle beyond the Democratic Party ones she already occupied, having served as foreign policy advisor to the candidacies of Geraldine Ferraro and Michael Dukakis.

Two other memorable visits to the NewsHour happened before 1992, when Bill Clinton went from Arkansas Governor to American president and named her Ambassador to the United Nations. By then she was well positioned behind the scenes and in front of them to rate a high level appointment.

In August 1991, the first day of what would be an ultimately failed Moscow coup against Gorbachev, Albright was on a concluding panel that assessed where the USSR and U.S. were headed. Our coverage that night drew accolades from The New York Times tv critic, who said it was the first time the U.S. public would understand that a comic fiasco not a successful seizure of power was underway in Moscow.

WATCH: Madeleine Albright, first woman to become secretary of state, dies at 84

Another Albright mission was behind the scenes. A native Czech, she accompanied to our Virginia studios her good friend Václav Havel, the new president of a Czechoslovakia liberated from Soviet control. As I was reminded by another NewsHour reporter, Jonathan Spalter, Havel wanted a cigarette break before the interview with Jim Lehrer. She walked with him to the somewhat dilapidated park behind the building where he could smoke in peace. As she later acknowledged, she was less successful in having Havel look directly at Jim while answering questions. That sad habit came from his experiences dealing with interrogations with communist security police.

WATCH: Remembering the life and legacy of Madeleine Albright

As UN Ambassador and then Secretary of State, Albright never forgot her ties to the NewsHour. There are too many interviews to recall during all the crises of the Clinton years.

But one stands out, from the Kosovo war in 1999. The NATO bombings seemed to be producing nothing more than a standoff with Serbian occupiers. Suddenly, the dam broke. That morning, as a Serb surrender was materializing, we received a call from one of Albright’s assistants; the secretary wanted to come on the program that night. Her interview was, as Robin MacNeil would later note, a fitting finale to a war in which she had become a frequent target of criticism but which had concluded on a far more successful note than most had predicted.

Just as she was assertive in promoting American interests and democracy and human rights, so she projected on many an evening on the NewsHour a clearly spoken directness to the American and global publics.

She leaves many legacies to her adopted country and beyond. For us, she leaves many special memories that will endure.

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