In This Review

Madeleine Albright: A Twentieth-Century Odyssey
Madeleine Albright: A Twentieth-Century Odyssey
By Michael Dobbs
Henry Holt, 1999, 466 pp
Seasons of Her Life: A Biography of Madeleine Korbel Albright
Seasons of Her Life: A Biography of Madeleine Korbel Albright
By Ann Blackman
Scribner, 1998, 398 pp

Few secretaries of state get even one biography while still in office, so Albright has achieved rare celebrity with these two volumes. She is, of course, the first woman to hold the office. She has also honed a talent for fierce, pithy sound bites. Finally, her background is a good story. Her father, Josef Korbel, was a Czech Jew who fled to England and converted to Catholicism in 1941. After the war, Korbel worked for the postwar Czech government, trying to stay on the fence while the communists took power until he resolved his doubts and fled to the United States for good. (Dobbs broke the story of Albright's Jewish past for The Washington Post and argues convincingly that Albright was not entirely honest when pressed about what she knew about this.) Then there is Albright's own personal story of marrying into a wealthy family, studying while raising a family, and working through the pain when her husband left her. Although she published no important writings, she became a fine teacher at Georgetown and flourished as a Democratic political adviser.

Yet if measured by formal credentials and experience, Albright was the least-qualified person to become secretary of state this century (except perhaps for Philander Knox, in the Taft administration). Thus a central question for these two books is to explain her ascension -- and both authors suggest that her gender was a vital advantage. So were the years of political networking as a Democratic policy adviser. But such skills are bound to be elusive to an outsider, especially if the key records are unavailable. Neither book carefully analyzes Albright's actions at the United Nations or the State Department. Because it is well informed by interviews with Albright and her inner circle, Blackman's account is all the more troubling in its last chapters, which handle Albright's record in the awestruck, credulous style usually found in celebrity biographies written for children. No serious consideration is given to Albright's ideas or to the quality of her thought. Such gushy trivialization is not patronizing. Worse, it is matronizing.