Unflappable, pragmatic, determined not to waste a moment—these qualities will surely come in handy as Albright, 59, prepares to become Secretary of State, the first woman ever to hold that post. Her selection has been called historic. It is, but the choice is hardly surprising. In four years as U.S. representative to the United Nations, Albright has earned a reputation as a highly effective foreign policy player and a tough negotiator who is willing to speak her mind. Her most memorable moment came last February, after Cuban pilots shot down a small civilian plane flown by Cuban-exile protesters in international airspace. "This is not cojones," Albright announced. "This is cowardice." The one-liner endeared her to President Clinton, not to mention many American conservatives, but her use of the Spanish vulgarism for testicles dismayed some U.N. diplomats who practice euphemism as an art form. "She's no shrinking violet," says Sylvana Foa, spokesperson for U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, another target of Albright's criticism. "She can be biting."
Albright does have diplomacy, if not always tact, in her blood. She was born Marie Jana Korbel in Prague, where her father, Josef, was an official in the Czech diplomatic service. When the Nazis invaded the country, Madeleine (who had picked up her new name from her grandmother) was taken to Britain by her parents. After the war they returned home—only to go into exile once again when the Communists took power in 1948. This time the family settled in the U.S., where Josef eventually became the founding dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He was a strict but doting parent. When Madeleine's date arrived to pick her up for her high school senior prom, Josef insisted on driving her in his own car while her startled escort followed behind. Already the hard-driving overachiever, Madeleine attended Wellesley College on a scholarship and majored in political science. "Madeleine had a special relationship with our father," says her brother John, 49, a Washington economist, "partly because she followed so closely in his footsteps."
Days after graduation, Albright married her sweetheart, Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, heir to a media fortune. Not only did she raise a family (in addition to Anne and Alice, a financial executive in London, the couple have another daughter, Katie, 29, a lawyer in San Francisco), she also earned a Ph.D. in international relations at Columbia University, which frequently meant getting up before dawn to study. Nevertheless, says Anne, "she was always there for us." Then one day in 1982, Albright's world was shaken once again. Out of the blue, she has said, her husband announced that after 23 years their marriage was over and that he was in love with someone else.
Albright emerged from the divorce temporarily devastated but financially secure. In addition to the couple's five-bedroom Georgetown town-house, she retained their 370-acre farm in Virginia. Taking up a teaching position at Georgetown University, where she was voted best teacher four times, she also began holding dinners for Democratic heavyweights. She was a foreign policy adviser first to vice-presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro, then to presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. Though both failed at the polls, Albright emerged as a key Democratic adviser on foreign policy, a preserve long dominated by males. After Clinton was elected President in 1992, she was named to the U.N. post.
There, as an outspoken refugee from totalitarianism, she has advocated the use of American force to promote democracy in such places as Haiti and Bosnia. Gen. Colin Powell recounts in his memoir his disagreement with Albright over U.S. policy toward the former Yugoslavia. "What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about," she reportedly asked, "if we can't use it?" (Powell recalls being so upset over the comment that "I thought I would have an aneurysm.")
Even as she learned to play hardball in world affairs, Anne says, Albright was teaching her daughters that "there is nothing wrong with being feminine." As the only woman on the 15-member U.N. Security Council, she surprised the other ambassadors on Valentine's Day by giving them each a red bag of candy and cookies. Among those she counts as a chum these days is Barbra Streisand, who enjoys shopping with Albright and chats with her on the phone. "We just became instant friends," Streisand recently told The New York Times. "We talk about everything: love, relationships, a lot of politics."
It's likely that, once the novelty wears off, few will think twice about gender, though no one, least of all Albright herself or the President, wanted to minimize the significance. As Clinton put it, "My mama's smiling down at me right now."
GLENN GARELIK in Washington and MARIA EFTIMIADES in New York City