Madeline Albright's biography has given me so many things to think about in recent weeks. Here is just a sampling, and then I will try to make some sort of point with this post:
1. Late Clinton-era politics are more complicated than I remembered or took the interest to find out. The first news of Lewinskygate broke less than a month after I was home from my mission. I was a bit preoccupied that year and my information about events outside of my own life were whatever I could garner from soundbytes. My understanding of just what took place in the Balkans during the mid-nineties was weak, at best. As Albright's book is her story of those years, anything to do with Lewinsky is pushed aside in exchange for world events pertinent to the Secretary of State. Anyone who still says Bill Clinton became heavily involved in the Balkans or bombed Afghani targets in the wake of the embassy bombings in order to cover up his affair, is either willfully ignorant or clueless about the complexity of world affairs. (Hey, I'm not calling you any names I haven't applied to myself.)
2. The foreign policy approach of the Clinton administration was tough enough. After 9/11, it was so common to hear people say, "If only Clinton had gone in. . ." meaning that if the bleeding heart Democrats had been tough enough to take out Al Qaeda before the towers were struck, it wouldn't have happened. Albright's book, though of course calculated to cement her own reputation and place in history, illustrates to me that the administration behaved in the late 90's exactly in accordance with public sentiment and political will. Because the Balkan Wars were, in their own right, so successful, it is easy to forget that while the Middle East was boiling toward a major event, America was integrally involved in both UN and NATO missions in Eastern Europe.
3. A combination of force, diplomacy, dependence on allies and legal systems prevented Eastern Europe from imploding in the post cold-war era. The world acted together to prevent another genocide that would have rivaled the Rwandan tragedy of the early 90's. (Secretary Albright counts American and UN failures there as the the worst of the decade, and her personal vow that such a thing would never happen again made her a very vocal critic of the Milosevic regime that sought to eradicate the Albanian-Muslim population from Kosovo.) Foreign policy that doesn't make full and careful use of all these avenues is bound to fail. The trick in maintaining peace (or obtaining it) is which combination of these to use, and when a certain avenue isn't working and talk must be taken to the next level. The courage comes from changing your tack in the face of all the facts, even when popular opinion isn't necessarily on your side.
4. All fascinating foreign policy discussions aside, and on a more general level, I was impressed with both Ms. Albright's work ethic, and the dedication with which many others mentioned in her biography gave (and continue to give) to the government. It is easy to be an armchair politician and make deep criticisms and witticisms from afar, and without a doubt, there are many who enter politics with some deep need for power and influence over others; however, there are so many unknown individuals working in government, some playing very key though obscure roles, who are there because they love America. They love freedom. They believe in the rule of law and that carefully worded and compromise-driven policies can change lives for the better. My reading of her biography has restored some of my faith in politicians and government. It has made me grateful beyond measure to be an American.
The memoir, however, has had another startling effect on me: one I absolutely did not expect, and this is the point that I've been rambling for paragraphs to make.
Without giving more detail here, Albright's background is fascinating and serendipitous. She was prepared in every way from her earliest childhood (including the unique family situation she was born into), to exactly take her place in history at the time she did. To think that there was even debate as she entered the "short list" of candidates for Secretary of State during the second Clinton administration is laughable to me--I can't believe there was any list at all. Nobody else was so positioned to take on that role. Born to the kingdom for such a time as this, indeed.
A couple of weeks ago, I was watching some women on a PBS show debate the health care issues--one was a congresswoman, a few were writers, one was a former adviser in the Bush administration, and there was a journalist there as a mediator. As I followed the discussion and thought through various points these very bright women were making, I thought, "I could do this. I would be comfortable sitting in that room and talking with any one of those women, confident that I could make my voice heard."
Almost immediately following that thought came the next, "You could. But you won't . You turned away from that path long ago." When? I don't know, exactly. Maybe it was during my junior year when I decided not to apply to Pacific University where I might major in marine biology because the tuition was too high--I never even thought about scholarships. Maybe it was three months shy of my 18th birthday when I told the sterling scholar interviewer that I was looking at nursing instead of medicine because I wanted to be a mother. Maybe it was when I chose teaching as a college major in equal parts because of interest and practicality. Maybe it was when I chose to go on a mission instead of running for student body office. Maybe it was when I decided to marry Plantboy instead of backpack across China with Chrisw. Maybe it was when I gave up a really wonderful professional opportunity to give my husband his. Maybe it was when we decided that my continuing to work after our kids were born would mostly be paying for a lifestyle . . . I'll stop there.
No doubt your own life is filled with myriad tiny crossroads. You wake up, you are in your 35th year and you wonder at the trajectory you are on.
Notice I didn't say that you doubt your choices or are unhappy with them. You just wonder, that's all.
I tried to explain some of these musings to Plantboy the other night. I'm not sure he understood entirely, though he maybe did a bit. (For all that it is easy to look at a working husband and think that his own dreams are only bound by the limits of his ambition, I'm not sure that is entirely accurate. Plantboy's dreams are less Secretary of State, and more Bear Grylls. Of course, if I couldn't be the uber-serious policy influencing type, I think I could have gone in for Megan McCormick's life too. Maybe Plantboy and I aren't so different.) I emphasized to him that I wasn't in any way unhappy, but that a woman can't really fathom what she is trading off when she decides to have children. Nor, for that matter, can she fathom the happiness that is in store.
I wouldn't trade paths, not for anything in the world. Even Madeline Albright acknowledges how difficult it is to answer questions from women's groups about the dissolution of her marriage. Her entry into adult-hood during the opening days of the feminist movement tells her that her husband did NOT leave because of the time she spent working and the ambition she had--he was, after all, her greatest champion. Yet, at the same time, she knows that she worked hundred hour weeks as secretary of state; her only priority outside of government was her grandchildren. There would have been no time for a husband. Her own trajectory, had she stayed married to a wealthy, trust-funded husband, would have taken her in a wildly different direction. Even with her lifetime of accomplishments, she acknowledges that her greatest personal failure is the ending of her marriage.
I think we can and should dream. But I think at some point we also have to acknowledge that making a certain set of choices ultimately leads to another set of choices, and so forth. Are they still dreams if they get the qualifier, "realistic?" If my dreams are realistic then they become achievable goals. If my dreams are things that could have only belonged to another life, then am I damning myself to a life of discontent?
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