Former Secretary of State discusses women, politics during visit

Story and photos by Cindy Hadish

CEDAR RAPIDS – Madeleine Albright wasn’t just handed her position as the first woman U.S. Secretary of State.

During her trip to Cedar Rapids, Ms. Albright, who served as Secretary of State from 1997-2001 and is fluent in several languages, attributed her success to intense studying, hard work and a good education.

She called the current issues swirling around sexual abuse in the military appalling, but said women in general continue to make strides in the political world and business world.

“Women can do anything they want to do, but it does take work,” Ms. Albright, 76, said May 17, at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library. “It won’t just happen for them.”

Ms. Albright’s connection to the museum stems back to the 1980s, when Czech and Slovak artifacts were displayed in a house in Czech Village in Cedar Rapids.

She accompanied then-Czech president Vaclav Havel to the new museum’s dedication in 1995 and was in Cedar Rapids during Hillary Clinton’s run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Her May 17 visit, however, was her first to Cedar Rapids since the expanded museum opened after the 2008 floods.

“It’s a fabulous museum. I have watched it enlarge and change,” Ms. Albright said. “It should be a source of great pride to everyone of this background.”

That background is one Ms. Albright shares and the reason the museum is hosting an exhibit of Ms. Albright’s pin collection.

A native of the former Czechoslovakia, Ms. Albright was the daughter of a diplomat who spent World War II in exile in England before returning briefly to her homeland and then emigrating with her family to the United States.

Traditions followed her family to their new home in Denver, including a Czech culinary favorite of mushrooms. Czech Village, where the museum is located, began its annual Houby Days celebration during the time of Ms. Albright’s visit, prompting her to suggest that she might eat some mushrooms. The festival centers around “houby,” the Czech word for mushrooms.

Ms. Albright said her mother went “mushrooming” even in Colorado, where she one time ran into problems harvesting from a national forest. She was sternly told she could not take anything out of the national site.

Ms. Albright’s favorite Czech food is what is known as the Czech national meal of pork or duck, dumplings and zeli, or cooked cabbage. Taking her friend Ms. Clinton to dinner in the Czech Republic, Ms. Albright insisted that Ms. Clinton be brought more zeli before Ms. Clinton admitted she didn’t care for the dish, she said with a laugh.

Ms. Albright’s sense of humor carried over to the pins she wore as Secretary of State, beginning with the pin that began her extensive collection: a snake. While she was ambassador to the United Nations, Saddam Hussein “called me an unparalleled serpent,” she said during a tour of the museum’s exhibit.

Ms. Albright wore the snake pin to send a message when dealing with Hussein and subsequently bought more costume jewelry to use as a “diplomatic tool.” That pin is among nearly 300 on display through Oct. 27 at the museum, at 1400 Inspiration Place SW.

On good days, she said, she would wear flower or bird pins and others to convey a happy tone, but Ms. Albright would bring out the spiders or carnivorous animal pins to stress a more stinging tone.

Pins of Prague Castle and the Czech Republic that she wore at the museum conveyed her warm feelings about her homeland, she said.

Photos that accompany some of the pins in the exhibit show Ms. Albright with world leaders including Nelson Mandela, one of her favorite people, she said; to others such as Kim Jong-il.

“He’s weird,” she said simply, pointing out the pouffy hair and high heels worn by the late North Korean leader in the photo. “He was an evil dictator, that’s for sure.”

For that meeting, Ms. Albright intentionally chose to wear a large American flag pin, which she knew would show up in media coverage of the trip. The exhibit, called “Read My Pins,” attracts both women and men, she noted.

“The pins have been a vehicle for people to understand foreign policy stories,” she said.

As for the future of women in politics, Ms. Albright stands by Ms. Clinton. Ms. Clinton would make a good president, she said, backing Ms. Clinton’s reaction to the Benghazi attack while the former First Lady served as Secretary of State.

“She called for a review board,” Ms. Albright said, citing several steps Ms. Clinton took after the attack. “I think she took responsibility.”