December 13, 2009

Read my pins: Madeline Albright in conversation with Tom Oliphant

To promote her recent book and an exhibition of her pins at the Museum of Arts and Design, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright stopped by the 92nd Street Y for a conversation on world affairs with Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant. Known for the pins she wore while serving under the second Clinton administration, she would carefully choose her accessories according to her thoughts on the agenda of the day. When asked by a reporter for her thoughts on a certain policy negotation, she adapted George Bush's "Read my lips" quotation to her pins. When she sent a copy of her book to President Bush, he wrote back to Secretary Albright to tell her he liked the title.

The better part of the evening was given over to discussions about the Middle East and central Asia in light of recent events. She spoke eloquently on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran, and mentioned that she hoped to teach a course on the unforseen effects of foreign policy decisions. As an example, she spoke of the US support of the mujahadein after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and of the US weapons that are still in the hands of various factions in the country. She lauded President Obama for the care in which he took to make decisions, and for the careful way in which he weighed the future consequences of his foreigh policy actions. She worried about Pakistan and Iran, and noted that the Bush administration squandered an opportunity when it decided to ignore North Korea during the majority of its tenure after the Clinton administration and Albright herself had begun talks to end testing on its missle program in the late 90s.

She gave credit to Saddam Hussein for convincing her to use her pins as an editorial voice, and told a story about how a poem that circulated in Baghdad at the time referred to her as (among other things) an "unparalleled serpent." Shortly thereafter she took to wearing snake pins in reference to the poem. Once, when asked about discussions with Syrian president Assad, she told reporters that "details of negotiations, like mushrooms, develop better away from the light." She soon took to using shorthand in deflecting questions, saying just "mushrooms," and searched high and low for a mushroom pin without success. Later her security detail would give her one fashioned from coins from the area, with a tiny diamond in the back to symbolize hope.

She was a fascinating presence, speaking in clear concise Engliish, interested in informing as many people as quickly as she could. She boiled complex history and relationships down to their essence. When walking into American classrooms, she remarked that the map usually presented North America in the center with flaps for the rest of the world. She'd always request a globe to show the rest of the world whole. She'd point out that the majority of the population lived on "the other side" of the globe, and that what happens there impacts everyone. She was humorous and erudite, and when she finished her last story I was sad to see our audience at an end. The afternoon had passed all too quickly.

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