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Mika: Madeleine Albright is the reason we had a horse in our house

Mika Brzezinski shares three personal stories that show a different side of her friend and former secretary of state.
Image: Mika Brzezinski, second left, with her mother Emilie, brother Ian and Strawberry the horse.
Mika Brzezinski, second left, with her mother Emilie, brother Ian and Strawberry the horse.Courtesy Mika Brzezinski

In a series of memorials this week, the world is remembering Madeleine Albright as a freedom fighter and one of the most influential and effective diplomats in American history.

But Albright wasn't just a world-changing statesperson. She was also a deeply generous person and a real friend. She had a heart bursting with kindness and love, and she would go to extremes to help her friends and family. That's how “Morning Joe” co-host and Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski remembers Albright.

Brzezinski recounted at a private reception honoring Albright on Wednesday at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington D.C., how she met Albright as a young girl. The relationship started when Albright was a student of her father Zbigniew Brzezinski at Columbia University. Later, Brzezinski's dad served as national security adviser for President Jimmy Carter and eventually brought Albright to the White House, where she served as a congressional liaison for Carter’s National Security Council.

Brzezinski told the crowd — which included Albright’s family, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Director of the Domestic Policy Council Susan Rice, President Salome Zourabichvili of Georgia, President Osmani-Sadriu of Kosovo, Prime Minister Albin Kurti of Kosovo and more — how Albright served as the Brzezinski family’s “fiercest defender and their guide throughout life.” She added, “There was rarely a decision made that did not begin without my dad seeking Madeleine’s counsel.”

Whenever Brzezinski heard her father and mother in a heated discussion, it would often end with one or both of her parents saying, “Let’s call Madeleine!”

During the reception, Brzezinski shared three colorful stories that were illustrative of Albright the friend rather than the secretary of state known by the world.

Brzezinski said she was uncharacteristically nervous to speak before the illustrious crowd, not certain how her “kooky” family stories would go over after a full day of speeches on the many ways in which Albright impacted the world.

Mika Brzezinski speaks at a private reception honoring Albright on Wednesday at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington D.C.
Mika Brzezinski speaks at a private reception honoring Albright on Wednesday at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington D.C.Aliyah Frumin

But she took a deep breath before taking the stage, wearing Ukraine’s colors – channeling Czech-born Albright, who Brzezinski said often wore a visual message on her attire. Brzezinski also donned a colorful skirt that belonged to her Czech mother Emilie. “I dressed for Madeleine today. Madeleine always loved my mom’s authentic Eastern European skirts and scarves,” she said.

Brzezinski started by telling a story when she was 10 years old and her father was asked to be national security adviser. The family of five had to hastily move to Washington D.C. – along with a dog, cat, and several geese. The family was nervous about finding a place that would feel comfortable, house all the animals, and be suitable for her mom, an artist who works on massive sculptures.

“Madeleine knew they needed a lot of creative space,” Brzezinski explained. Like Albright, Brzezinski’s family also escaped eastern Europe during World War Two. That shared history gave Albright insight into what would work for her friends.

The Brzezinskis home when they lived in McLean, Virginia.
The Brzezinskis home when they lived in McLean, Virginia.Courtesy of Mika Brzezinski

It was Albright who found their home in McLean, Virginia, a five-acre, rundown farmhouse in a “sea of McMansions.” It was perfect, “a place where she knew ‘Zbig’ and ‘Muska’ would flourish” and where they could raise their kids their own way, said Brzezinski. There was room for her family of hunters, gardeners, artists, and animal lovers. The Brzezinskis cleared the back two acres, built a chicken house, barn and fencing. Brzezinski said there were often no contractors in eastern Europe, so there would be no such thing at her family’s spider-filled, run-down farm.

Mark Brzezinski helping build the barn for Strawberry.
Mark Brzezinski helping build the barn for Strawberry.Courtesy of Mika Brzezinski

Brzezinski also recounted a time when her dad wanted to “express his gratitude to her mom for the perils and pains of being “a White House wife.” It was Albright who declared her mother needed a horse. “We didn’t even have a barn,” Brzezinski recalled, noting she was very confused the day a horse arrived. But Albright found “Strawberry” and had her shipped to McLean in a trailer just in time for Mother’s Day. Strawberry quickly became family — and was even a fixture at the family’s dinner parties. Brzezinski said her family would often bring the horse into the house and Strawberry would take part in family toasts, drinking champagne, vodka, or beer, along with the other adults. Brzezinski’s mother, with her kids’ help, eventually built a horse stable for Strawberry.

Mika Brzezinski as a child riding Strawberry in McLean, Virginia
Mika Brzezinski as a child riding Strawberry in McLean, Virginia

Brzezinski told a final story about when it was time for the Brzezinski children to go to college. Her brother, Ian Brzezinski, was set on going to Stanford University and got accepted. Albright, however, had different plans and sent Ian the application to Williams College, a small liberal arts school in Massachusetts where one of her daughter’s had gone. “Madeleine said that Stanford was perfectly fine for most students but that Ian would be going to Williams,” remembered Brzezinski. “So, Ian went to Williams – and after a few false starts, so did I,” said Brzezinski.

Brzezinski said she will remember most how Albright “moved with a sense of urgency and struck with the intensity of lightning.”

Mika Brzezinski chats with Madeline Albright at her father's funeral in 2017, which was also attended by Brzezinski's husband Joe Scarborough, former President Jimmy Carter,  his wife Rosalynn Carter and more.
Mika Brzezinski chats with Madeline Albright at her father's funeral in 2017, which was also attended by Brzezinski's husband Joe Scarborough, former President Jimmy Carter, his wife Rosalynn Carter and more.Miller Hawkins

And for Albright, what was on her mind – often issues of freedom and security – was urgent. Brzezinski recalled speaking with her husband Joe Scarborough at Albright’s National Democratic Institute’s annual dinner a few years ago and how they had to literally jog to keep up with Albright as she showed them around. Another time, Brzezinski recalled Albright running up to them in Georgetown during the 2016 presidential campaign and urgently warning them that fascism was making its way to the U.S.

Even during her last few calls with an ailing Albright, Brzezinski remembers her being tough, realistic and “slightly annoyed with my checking on her. Her tone said to me, ‘I’ll be fine. Get to work.’”

“I will not forget everything that you so urgently stood for,” said Brzezinski.