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From the very heights of government and diplomacy, to fierce advocacy for democracy and refugees, Madeleine Albright set a new and trailblazing standard. The first woman to become secretary of state died Wednesday afternoon in Washington, but leaves an impressive legacy. Nick Schifrin reports and Judy Woodruff speaks with former President Bill Clinton by phone to discuss her life and career.
Here in Washington, she was just known as Madeleine. Most everyone in politics, statecraft, and journalism instantly know who that was.
From the very heights of government and diplomacy, to fierce advocacy for democracy and refugees, Madeleine Albright set a new and trailblazing standard.
The first woman to become secretary of state died this afternoon in Washington, and leaves quite a legacy.
Here's Nick Schifrin.
From her childhood fleeing Nazis to, in the '90s, becoming the highest-ranking woman in U.S. history, Madeleine Albright was guided by one principle.
Madeleine Albright, Former U.S. Secretary of State: I so believe that we are all the same, and we want to be able to make decisions about our own lives, and the only way to do that is through democracy.
She was born Marie Jana Korbelova in 1937 in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Her family lived under Nazi occupation and then communism, before fleeing first for London and then Colorado. Marie became Madeleine, and, at age 20, a U.S. citizen.
In the 1970s, she entered Democratic politics and worked on President Carter's National Security Council staff. She then became a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University focused on the Soviet Union.
Robert MacNeil, "NewsHour" Co-Founder: Also with us tonight is a Soviet expert from Georgetown university in Washington. She is Madeleine Albright.
If the West keeps the pressure up, it is possible that they will make further concessions and further admissions, but we are not awfully good at predicting Soviet behavior.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton named her ambassador to the United Nations…
I, Madeleine Korbel Albright…
… and then, in 1997, the country's first female secretary of state. She was confirmed unanimously.
Bill Clinton, Former President of the United States: Madeleine Albright has the strength and wisdom to help ensure that America remains the indispensable nation.
In that role, she pushed for NATO's expansion east.
The new expanded NATO is a — not contrary to Russia, but, in fact, is being designed in order to help provide security and stability in Central and Eastern Europe.
In response to Serbia's ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians in the former Yugoslavia, she led the charge for NATO intervention.
The bombing campaign lasts 78 days.
Jim Lehrer, "NewsHour" Co-Founder: Why did you feel so passionately about Kosovo?
Because it isn't just Kosovo, Jim. It is what was going on in the region.
When we were fighting Hitler, it wasn't just Hitler. It was fighting against fascism. When we were fighting against Stalin, it wasn't just the cruelty of a totalitarian dictator like Stalin. It was against communism that extinguished people's ability to be free.
And when we're dealing with a now-indicted war criminal such as Milosevic, it isn't just him.It is struggling against the concept, which is that it is not appropriate, possible, or permissible for one man to uncork ethnic nationalism as a weapon.
In a visit to Kosovo following the campaign, Albright was greeted as a hero and expressed a hope for Europe that is still unrealized.
Never again will houses and villages be burned, and never again will there be massacres and mass graves.
When she used those words, she hadn't yet learned her own family's history. Her parents were born Jewish, but converted to Catholicism and invented a Christian history to protect their family; 26 family members died in the Holocaust.
And I had no idea. And it's one thing to find out you're Jewish, which is — does add interest to an already complex background, but another to find out that relatives had died in concentration camps. And that was a stunning shock.
In 2001, she left public office. But her consulting group remained influential, and she continued to advocate for democracy, including in Ukraine.
I do not speak for my country anymore, but I do speak as chairman of the National Democratic Institute. We want very much to be in Ukraine, to be supportive not only of the elections, but of all the work that is going to have to take place afterwards.
She endorsed Senator Hillary Clinton in 2008 and again in 2016, after Clinton had served in her old job.
Just remember, there's a special place in hell for women who don't help each other.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Barack Obama, Former President of the United States: This is one of my favorite stories. Once, at a naturalization ceremony, an Ethiopian man came up to her and said, "Only in America can a refugee meet the secretary of state."
And she replied: "Only in America can a refugee become the secretary of state."
Her personality always larger than her 4'11" stature, always humble, always funny. Albright's family today called her a loving mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, and friend.
Madeleine Albright was 84 years old.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.
And just moments ago, I spoke with former President Bill Clinton by phone from his home in New York.
President Clinton, thank you so much for joining us.
We're so sorry for your loss. We know that you and Secretary Clinton were very close to Madeleine Albright.
What are you remembering tonight?
I'm remembering, first of all, how proud I was of her to — and the way she conducted herself at the United Nations and at the State Department.
And, secondly, I have been thinking about all the meals we had with Vaclav Havel and how honored I was to go his to funeral and have Madeleine speak, not me, because she could stand up in Prague in a very cold cathedral and give a passionate, hot speech about her friend in Czech.
And they loved the fact that an American secretary of state was a refugee from their country. And she was so wonderful. I have been thinking about that. I was thinking about two years ago, when we took our last trip to Kosovo when they were celebrating the 20th anniversary of their victory and ours in ending the ethnic cleansing and the threat to Kosovo's very existence.
And we walked on a sunny day down the main street of town in a parade with all the Kosovar officials. And when we ended, we were down in a little park-like area where they dedicated a beautiful bus to Madeleine and a — and tribute to the work she had done there.
You know, I'm really proud of the life she lived. And I'm so grateful that Hillary and I became friends with her. I met her in 1988 when she was working in Governor Dukakis' presidential campaign. And Hillary became quite close with her. And she was a strong supporter of her appointment as secretary of state. And I'm so glad I did it. She did a great job.
You named her U.N. ambassador shortly after you were elected president in 1992. And, as you said, four years later, you named her secretary of state.
What were the qualities you saw in her then? You were — she was the first woman to serve in that job.
I — first of all, I thought she represented America's best possible future. She was an immigrant, a refugee, an American citizen.
I knew she was a great teacher, because she taught at my alma mater in Georgetown and a couple of times was voted the best teacher in the — on the faculty by the students. And I thought she would be a clear voice in the United Nations for the world we were trying to build after the Berlin Wall fell.
You know, keep in mind that my first term was the first full term any president had served since the end of the Cold War, although President Bush had more than half of his term there too.
And I thought it was really important that we build alliances and stand up for freedom, because, just because the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union broke apart, it didn't mean that there were no more enemies of democracy and the rule of law and freedom.
And so I thought she was important. And she was great in handling the issues around Bosnia, and later, as secretary of state, great with Kosovo and many other things that we did in Asia and Latin America and around the world to promote peace and freedom and security.
Of course, being from Czechoslovakia, born in Czechoslovakia, she was part of Eastern Europe, a woman for that era with so much change in that part of the world.
Oh, yes, she was.
And she and her family were — basically had to leave the Czechoslovakia twice. First, they were running from Hitler. And, second, then they were running from Stalin.
And she developed a keen appreciation of the importance of liberty and the rule of law. And she lived the rest of her life trying to bring it to everybody else.
And, of course, that part of the world right now, President Clinton, is in turmoil again, with the crisis in Ukraine.
I have to ask you, what more at this moment do you believe the United States and NATO could be doing to help the Ukrainian people? And what is it going to take to stop Vladimir Putin?
Well, first of all, let's give credit where credit is due, the — first to the Ukrainians.
They have fought and fought and fought. And Russia can drop more bombs and fire more missiles from ships on Odessa, but Ukrainians have fought like the devil. And they have put the lie to the whole world of Putin's argument that they really want to be part of Russia. It's just home to mother Russia.
It's not true. And so I think that President Biden has done a good job of helping to unite the Europeans and unite NATO.
And I say this with all respect to Switzerland, but it's been a rare occurrence in the last 50 years when the Swiss have walked away from the primacy of their banks and their politics.
President Clinton, we thank you so much for joining us.
And, again, our condolences on the loss of your and Secretary Blinken's good friend, Madeleine Albright. Thank you.
Thank you. She was a treasure for America.
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