Seasons Of Her Life: A Biography Of Madeleine Korbel Albright

Emily Gordon reviews "Seasons of Her Life" by Ann Blackman.

Published December 10, 1998 7:00PM (EST)

| "Seasons of Her Life," Ann Blackman's biography of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, can't quite decide if it's for the seminar room or the airport. Peppered with gossip about Albright's love life, references to her weight and superfluous quotes from Deborah Tannen, it's nonetheless the compelling story of a shape-shifter who has lived multiple lives. Though Blackman never adequately answers some big questions -- what, for instance, are the politics of a woman who almost had an abortion, pals around with Jesse Helms and found the 1968 Columbia University demonstrations an irksome distraction from her studies? -- her portrait of the secretary is affecting and well researched.

Blackman, a veteran reporter who works for Time magazine, mostly eschews analysis of Albright's policy and instead concentrates on her life, with two particular emphases. One is her father, Josef Korbel, a high-ranking diplomat in the Czechoslovakian government under Eduard Benes. (Blackman gives Albright's mother, by comparison, short shrift.) The other is Albright's perseverance -- through a marriage in the public eye, three children (including twins), a devastating divorce and the indifference of the old-boy political establishment -- in pushing herself beyond the boundaries presented her. To paraphrase (and reverse) Albright's best-known quote: Frankly, this is not cowardice, this is cojones.

Albright, who revered her father, absorbed both the traumas and the ideological aftershocks of the era he helped shape, combing through it obsessively during her early academic career. Blackman tells the history in a telegraphic blurt as frantic as the times, which are a parade of betrayals: of Czechoslovakia by the Munich Agreement, of the exiled Benes by the United States, of the returning government by the Communist Party.

After the war, Korbel traded his political future (and likely execution by the puppet government) for the family's safety. Albright herself, after Wellesley and marriage to the scion of a prominent newspaper family, was already the immigrant kid made good: safe, rich, happy. But she had a restive mind. Over almost 13 years, she got her Ph.D. She raised money for Ed Muskie as a 35-year-old intern. Jimmy Carter appointed her his National Security Council congressional liaison. She was first Geraldine Ferraro's, then Michael Dukakis', campaign foreign policy advisor. She was ambassador to the United Nations Then, in January 1997, Clinton appointed her secretary of state.

Aside from her hard work and driving intellect, how did she get to be fourth in line for the presidency? Blackman paints Albright as a thick-skinned pragmatist, soothing conservatives even as she builds networks of women and other allies with her charismatic bluntness. After the story of her hiding her Jewish origins (and her grandparents' death in the camps) ignited worldwide controversy, a skittish secretary granted Blackman only -- count 'em -- six hours of actual interviews. Despite that, Blackman approaches the issue with sensitivity and balance, letting us draw our own conclusions about all the things that might have contributed to Albright's hiding it -- or simply refusing to believe.

There are a few other frustrating gaps in Blackman's presentation. Is Albright, as some claim, a shrinking violet who needs constant reassurance? Or is she, as others hiss, "the Queen of Mean"? And what are we to make of the quite damning character/career analysis by British U.N. Ambassador Sir John Weston, reprinted in full near the book's end but left unanalyzed by Blackman and her sources? A future edition, which could assess not only Albright's path to fame but her entire career as secretary, may well feel less evasive.

By Emily Gordon

Emily Gordon is the assistant book editor at Newsday.

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