Decades before she became the first woman to serve as secretary of state, my dear, longtime friend Madeleine Albright was a refugee of war.
After Czech Communists — with Soviet support — overthrew the government of Czechoslovakia in 1948, the family immigrated to America, where “Madlenka” at the age of 11 became “Madeleine.”
In 1957, Albright became a U.S. citizen and two years later earned a degree in political science – with honors – from Wellesley College in 1959. She would go on to earn a Ph.D. in public law and government from Columbia University, where she studied under a fellow refugee from Poland – my father, Zbigniew Brzezinski.
In 1976, she became the chief legislative assistant to Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, and two years later Albright found herself in a windowless cubbyhole in the West Wing as a staff member in the White House, brought there by my father, then national security adviser for President Jimmy Carter. She served as a congressional liaison for Carter’s National Security Council.
My dad brought her in for her knowledge, her skills and her ability to bluntly tell him what he needed (not necessarily wanted) to hear.
With their similar backgrounds and shared ideals, my parents became close with Albright. In fact, when we moved to Washington D.C., my dad rarely made a move without Albright’s stamp of approval. When he wanted to buy a wild pony for my mom, Albright found us “Strawberry.” And it was Albright who found our farmhouse in McLean, Virginia.
Later in life, she tried to get me to call her “Madeleine,” which never worked. That sort of informality was impossible. I admired her too much. With a quick wit, loving heart, worldly knowledge, and deep passion for freedom, Albright was a towering and inspiring figure in my life.
In some ways, Albright’s passing on Wednesday felt very much like losing a part of my family history.
Madeleine, as my dad called her, and “Zbig,” as she called him, both had such a prescient understanding of the world and its geopolitical challenges. Even as a young girl, I saw how Albright could command a room. She had the presence of someone who knew their value. She knew how to speak eloquently about both herself and international affairs.
For me, as a jittery 10-year-old kid, she was an example. She showed me why it was important to make a difference with my life. She also showed me that women can and must be at the most important tables, making the most important decisions in the world.
That’s exactly what she did as secretary of state under President Bill Clinton. She was perhaps best known for being a transatlantic groundbreaker, promoting the expansion of NATO eastward toward the former Soviet Union.
She successfully pressed NATO to intervene militarily during the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo in 1999, furthered the normalization of relations with Vietnam and favored the Kyoto Protocol on global climate change. She tirelessly and fiercely advocated for democracy, freedom and human rights.
I remember going for a run in Georgetown – amid the heated 2016 presidential election –when I saw Albright off in the distance walking down a cobblestone street toward Wisconsin Avenue. I shouted her name multiple times. She heard my voice, knew it was me and turned around with an angry look. Her demeanor had nothing to do with me, though. She had one thing on her mind: Donald Trump. “This man will take this country down. You need to listen to me,” she told me. I did.
Albright, who fled fascists and Nazis to come to the U.S., doesn’t take freedom and democracy lightly. She instilled in me, even as a small child, the idea that freedom is precious and must be defended with your heart and soul. And she didn’t take kindly to people who were flip about our democracy and the rule of law.
Her passing should inspire us all to recognize what is once again at stake in Europe — and the world.
Albright used to call me on my dad’s birthday every year, just as an excuse to say hello. When my dad passed away, she started calling me on my husband Joe’s birthday. So, this week, I feel like I lost a part of my dad, too. They were both so close and aligned on the importance of protecting democracy.
Joe’s birthday is coming up soon. I’ll miss that call.