Thursday, June 17, 2010

Another Strong Woman



I had to stop on page 99. The jeep had reached the junction where I was supposed to alight.

Despite the inconvenience of lugging a hard-bound, 512-page book along –no,it did not fit into my bag organizer or even my bag – I could not resist the temptation of bringing my current flame with me to work. I am reading again, and I feel so alive. I can transcend the most uncomfortable commuting conditions. This time I'm reading Madam Secretary, the memoirs of former US State Secretary Madeleine Albright written with her former speechwriter, Bill Woodward.

I like reading biographies, or autobiographies, of remarkable people. The last three such books I read were on the lives of American government figures. Swept up in the 2008 election fever, I read Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father. Then last year I wrote Woman in Charge, an unauthorized biography of Hillary Clinton written by Bob Woodward of Watergate fame. (Will it count if I say I thoroughly enjoyed watching W, the Oliver Stone film on the life of George W Bush? I also have Charlie Wilson's war – the documentary, not the Tom Hanks starrer.)

Anyway I have taken note of Obama's descriptive prowess, though sometimes I wonder if he might have embellished, even if a bit. I have been wowed by the strength of Clinton's character. After all, how many women who have given it their all, yet lost, be so secure as to accept a position directly reporting to her erstwhile adversary? Woodward was factual,journalistic,objective. Yet Hillary's steely resolve comes through and you know it is she, not the author, you're beholding.

And now here is Mrs. Albright, Czech-born and tough-looking. I must admit I did not know anything about the former Madeleine Korbell from Prague except that, well, she was a woman and hers was a household name in international relations. I still don't know how well she did her job and how the rest of the world regarded her...but I'll get to that eventually.

For now I am glad I had to stop on page 99....because I needed to get home and I needed to soak in it all. I was in the chapter where Madeleine was describing the breakdown of her marriage to journalist Joe Albright, her feelings at being alone, the groundedness that her daughters provided her during those trying times.

Albright is alternately funny, authoritative, emotional, but she is always, always honest. You'd think she would be uneasy talking about such non-foreign policy matters as her assimilation into America, her parents' idiosyncracies and their great love for the family, her “inherent seriousness” her overriding guilt at choosing to do something meaningful with her life rather than stay home watching over her daughters. (She was of that era).

She talks about that winter day in 1982 when Joe told her he was leaving her for a younger, prettier reporter, his indecisive and ambivalent behavior in the months that followed, her vain hopes he would change his mind, and that way he let the fate of his marriage hinge on whether or not he won the Pulitzer Prize. You'd think somebody as smart and as principled as Madeleine (at that time she just finished her first White House stint, working with the office of the National Security Adviser. She had a PhD and spoke several languages.) would not permit herself to be treated so shabbily. And yet she was not spared from all these.
How human, how real.

I know we always have to consider the motivations of people writing about their lives. Obama wanted to be president, and succeeded. Woodward maybe sought to paint his version of Hillary by pointing out inconsistencies between his research and Hillary's autobiography. And Madeleine...maybe she wanted to cap the legacy she's giving the world.

In the next few days I am about to find out how this woman performed as the chief diplomat of the United States the entire two terms of the Bill Clinton presidency. But that's the public realm. There is a bonus, the personal side, that is unfurling. Because, hey, if someone so intelligent, accomplished, well-read, well-traveled, influential and respected can feel this weak and uncertain about herself, then we are not much different at all. What's stopping the rest of us now from giving it our all?

In her preface, Mrs. Albright says the book is “a personal account, not a history of the Clinton administration's foreign policy.” If I go by the first 99 pages, it looks like she succeeds.

“Lives are necessarily untidy and uneven, but there is a certain symmetry to the tale of my own,” she continues. How compelling. I find myself particularly drawn to this sentence. I look forward to reading the rest of the book, as I carve the rest of my untidy, uneven life that would hopefully fall into place, in symmetry, as if in a dream.

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