Madeleine Albright on diplomacy, her pins & Vegas

In matters of diplomacy, a little bling—and a quick wink at social and sexual politics—can be quite the ice breaker. So says Madeleine Albright, the U.S. Secretary of State from 1997 to 2001, whose new...


In Read My Pins, you write that you first began wearing the accoutrements prominently in the mid-Nineties, after you criticized Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi press subsequently called you a “serpent.” I understand the symbolism of wearing a snake thereafter, but were you concerned about how it might be perceived? I actually wasn’t at the time. And I think that having been called a serpent I thought I was entitled to wear what I wanted to and they saw a message received and that I had to respond.

Very quickly your pins became an expected part of your wardrobe. Did you ever arrive at a state event without one? It wasn’t true when I was Secretary of State but after I left office, I was out in Las Vegas giving a speech and the organizer said ‘So, what pin are you wearing tonight?’ And I said, ‘I’m not, because I’m wearing a necklace.’ And they said, ‘That’s impossible, you have to wear a pin! It’s part of who you are.’ So since I was in Las Vegas where you can shop endlessly, I went out and bought a pin—an eagle.

You write that you don’t spend a lot of money on these pins, and you mention a place in D.C. where you buy many of them, The Tiny Jewel Box. Where else do you shop for them? And do you have a price cap? I mostly buy costume jewelry and so [price] is not a particular issue. There’s a great store called Keith Lippert in Georgetown and it’s really terrific. Mostly what happens is, this is all serendipity. I have a farm and so I poke around antique stores in Virginia or flea markets. Or when I’m traveling, I like to go to the souks, the bazaars.

Did the many dignitaries you met ever ask you to explain the logic behind the pin you were wearing, or is small talk off the table? No, they did ask about the logic. And the reason I really wanted to write the book was in order to use the pins as vehicles for telling foreign policy stories. So for instance, one [pin] that’s in there, it’s actually an arrow. But I wore it when I was dealing with the Russian foreign minister [Ivanov] on renegotiating the anti-ballistic missile treaty. And he looked at it and he said, ‘Is that one of your interceptors?’ And I said, ‘Yes, we make them very small and we need to renegotiate.’ So they did pay attention to them.

When you teach foreign policy courses, do you ever talk about the ways in which accessories—ie your pins—can be tools of diplomacy? Nobody’s ever said that pins are a tool of diplomacy. But I’ll tell you what I do think people don’t quite get: Even when heads of state meet or foreign ministers meet, you have to begin the conversation in some way. I have been in meetings where a head of state will say, ‘I like your tie,’ to a man…or, ‘I like your country because the weather’s good,’ or whatever. So for me, the pins in some ways were openers.

My favorite in your book is the shattered glass pin—clear cracked glass attached to a gold “ceiling.” What’s the story behind it? It came early on after I became Secretary of State. I got it from a women’s group. It all seems kind of strange now, but [the glass ceiling] was shattering when I became Secretary of State. I have to tell you, my seven-year-old granddaughter said to my daughter, her mother, ‘So what’s the big deal about Grandma Maddy having been Secretary of State? Only girls are Secretaries of State.’ Most of her lifetime, it’s true. But at the time it really was a big deal. So, I think it delivered the message that we had arrived.