The Guardian

London

It is over two years since Madeleine Albright was US secretary of state, but she still inspires the sort of deference reserved for the World’s Most Powerful. On the cover of her memoir, ‘Madam Secretary’, she is pictured looking almost saucy, the corners of her mouth dipping towards a smirk. But this is unusual.

The 66-year-old’s public image is of a woman with a power frown, unforgivably serious.

Today, Albright is actually twinkling, via a huge eagle brooch on her jacket. She has several of these, she says, which she likes to wear in public because she is “proud to be an American”. Nationality isn’t something she takes for granted.

When Albright became a US citizen in 1957, she was 20 years old and spoke four

languages: Czech, her mother-tongue, Serbo-Croat, French and English.

The Albright back story is a publisher’s dream: child of asylum seekers wins Ivy League scholarship, marries heir to newspaper dynasty, sacrifices career for children, suffers shocking divorce, gets stuck into politics and — who knew? — at the age of 54, becomes the highest ever appointed woman in American government when President Clinton makes her secretary of state.

There is an awful incident at the beginning of the book, in which she describes being taken out on a series of dates by a desirable boy at school, only to discover that he was doing it as a dare set by his beautiful girlfriend.

One wonders if she thinks the Americans are ready to elect a woman president? “It’s hard to say. I think people wondered if there could be a woman secretary of state, and now there’s a woman national security advisor. I hope people are ready for it.”

What does she think of Hillary Clinton’s chances? “I think she’s terrific, and very smart and committed. I think she’d be great.” Albright was recently encouraged, by Vaclav Havel, to run for president of the Czech Republic. If she wishes she’d been born in America so she could run for president? “It’s such a hypothetical. It never ever occurred to me that I could be secretary of state and it certainly never occurred to me that I could have been president. Since it’s not possible, I don’t think about it.” This is the Albright credo, pragmatism, applied in equal measure to her professional and her private life.

Which is why, says Albright, she was so utterly thrown by the circumstances of her divorce. Joe Albright would give his wife a daily score of how much he loved her, ranging from 30 per cent to 70 per cent. And she put up with it to the bitter end. Joe told her if he won the Pulitzer prize, he would stay with her, if he didn’t, he’d leave. He didn’t win. “What bothers me now is that I was actually willing to go along with it. I would have done anything to save that marriage.”

Albright remade herself by getting stuck into her academic career — she’d taken her doctorate while raising the couple’s three daughters — and was made

professor of international affairs at Georgetown University. From there she went into foreign policy advising. As she rose through the ranks, she was regarded with increasing suspicion by

male colleagues.

Would she have had an even tougher time in the Republican party? “No, I don’t think so. In fact, initially there were more high-level women in the Republican party. And people wondered why. This is pure speculation, but for a period of time, a lot of getting into a party was through fundraising and volunteer work, and Republican women had more time to do that than democratic women, who were out there getting jobs.”

Before taking office, Albright served for four years as US ambassador to the UN. Now she spends her time teaching and serving on various boards to promote ethical foreign investment. She has just been elected to the board of the New York stock exchange.

After the divorce, her daughters asked her what her requirements might be for a new man. She only had one: “I can’t go out with a Republican.”

Our column ‘Powerpuff Women’ introduces you to gutsy women who have carved a niche for

themselves.