The Breakfast Table

Madeleine’s Post-Rambouillet Flux

Dear Anne:

Here inside the magic ring (though I prefer to think of DC as the Big Donut), the CW on Madeleine Albright seems to be in post-Rambouillet flux. It’s hard to imagine that anyone could live up to the coverage she initially received. One of my favorite bits of puffery: Elaine Sciolino’s September 1996 just-us-girls cover story in the New York Times Magazine. (When Albright tells Sciolino, “I’m not that smart. I work very hard”–the kind of “aw, shucks” line used by everyone from Will Rogers to Lyndon Johnson and Phil Gramm–Sciolino gushes, “It would be hard for most men in public life to be so self-deprecating, or so honest.”) Now a trickle of negative stories suggests a turn in the tide. (When I’m feeling even more cynical than usual, I see a group of editors sitting around saying to themselves, “Let’s build her up now so we can tear her down later.”) Of course, I’d feel a little more sympathy if her handlers hadn’t been so ruthless in rewarding and punishing reporters and news organizations on the basis of their coverage.

I’ve always been a little skeptical. I agree with you on her unrivaled skill as an articulator of foreign policy and as a PR artist for the administration. (One of her secret weapons is Bill Woodward, perhaps the best speechwriter in the administration.) But despite her occasional speech in Serbo-Croatian (not to forget French and a few other languages), I’ve heard foreign reporters complain that Albright seems more interested in speaking to America than to the world. And ultimately, a secretary of state should be judged not by what she says but what she does. Besides NATO expansion, it’s hard to point to one significant foreign policy success in the second term. Not Iraq, not North Korea, not Haiti, not relations with China, Russia, or Japan. Even kissing Jesse Helms hasn’t persuaded him and his fellow troglodytes to cough up either our back dues to the United Nations or an appropriate increase in the foreign-affairs budget.

You’re right that the next few weeks will prove telling, especially this weekend. From today’s newspapers, it looks like there’s movement on the ground-troops front. The New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times all discuss the increasingly aggressive roles of France and the United Kingdom in pushing for the consideration of such action at the NATO summit. In fact, the LA Times describes Blair as “the alliance’s most outspoken hawk”–one more link between him and Thatcher, she who kept George Bush from going “wobbly.” To update Harold Macmillan’s old line, the United Kingdom is starting to look less like Athens to our Rome, and more like Sparta. You know the Land of Angles, Jutes, Saxons, and Picts–what accounts for this warlike talk, and is Tony Blair as resolute as he seems?

Finally, I have to give this morning’s Smarmy Award to Al Gore for his announcement–delivered at Ellis Island, no less–that we would resettle 20,000 refugees in the continental United States instead of at our base at Guantánamo. I guess he realized the original plan wouldn’t play as well in 2000.