The Passing of Madeleine Albright is a True Loss

An American Original- and One of My Best Bosses Ever – Has Left This Earth


How We Came to Know Each Other

I was happily ensconced in the Brookings Institution as a Federal Executive Fellow, just over halfway through a year of study, analysis and telling the Army story to people who rarely heard directly from line military officers. It was a remarkable opportunity that I was enjoying immensely. It was a unique opportunity to learn from the best and to share our perspectives. To this day, I think Brookings sets the standards for think tanks in every way.

Out of the blue, I received a call from the Pentagon advising that I was under consideration to be the Military Chief of Staff to US Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright. I was to go to New York the next day and meet with her.

This surely sounded interesting, but I very much wanted to complete my year at Brookings, and besides, I knew not all that much about the UN and even less about Ambassador Albright. My initial thinking is that I should encourage her to look for someone else.

When we met the next day, we exchanged a few pleasantries, and it was obvious we both had read up a bit on each other over the last few hours. She explained that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had advised she could likely choose anyone she wanted, and she wanted, among other qualities, an officer with combat experience.

A Change of Plans

I asked her what she thought I or another officer could provide of value, why she wanted combat experience. She said that the UN, and diplomats in general, created policy and decisions that were essentially political and strategic. She wanted someone on her team that could explain to her what all these words would translate into for a corporal on a roadblock in some distant country overrun with bad guys and peacekeepers. What were we asking that corporal to do in real life, on the ground.

Well, shoot. That was about a perfect framing of what we might do were I on her team. I was hooked. I changed my hopes of remaining at Brookings awhile longer and told her I would be pleased to serve should she so decide. To my surprise, she decided on the spot, thanked me for coming aboard, and asked me as a first action to please go to the embassy’s  military office and advise my predecessor, an Air Force Officer, that his services were no longer needed. An interesting start, but not as awkward as it might have been. Turns out he was appointed by the last administration and was eager to retire. We did the hand off and a few days later, I moved to New York and began work.

A Unique Personal History

Albright brought some well-known personal history elements to her time of service. She had fled first the Nazis, then the Communists as a child. Her family  started life over in every sense of the word by coming to America. Albright never forgot what this country means to those who become American citizens the hard way.

She moved with grace and ease among the wealthy, the well-connected and the academically gifted. And yet, she was consistently one of the most down to earth persons I ever knew. She was never too full of herself.

Building a Team with Leadership and Humor

It was obvious to all who worked in that large embassy and those we interacted with often at State, Defense, and the international community, that Albright believed in the importance of a team. She was always mentoring, always looking for opportunities to stretch people in a good way, and to help their careers.

She had a great, dry sense of humor that we all valued. Her meetings were highly professional but often punctuated with jokes and good-natured ribbing. Two of us on the senior staff were from the same state. We took turns at the weekly meeting apologizing in advance for whatever the senior senator from our state would do that week. Albright acknowledged the chagrin.

Once, a very, very senior UN official casually called her “honey.” She advised the senior staff that she was caught off guard by that and wondered what would have been a good response. One of the female staff members replied that a proper response would be along the lines of, “No problem, stud-muffin.” The ambassador seemed pleased to have that arrow now in her quiver. The woman had a sense of humor.

The Mentor

She was always looking for opportunities to grow the people who worked with her. One evening she had four of us over for dinner. The guest was a senior US diplomat who had run a very difficult mission in a conflict zone in a developing country. He explained what he found upon arrival, how the mission was shaped and carried out, and challenges faced. We all learned quite a bit and took it to heart, grateful for the exposure.

A week later, we same four were again invited to dinner. The guest this time was the successor to the first dinner guest. He covered the same topics, but the descriptions and analysis were not at all alike. It was as though they were talking about two different countries and two different missions with two completely different sets of parameters and imperatives.

Later, the ambassador emphasized to us that both were accomplished, experienced people, yet what they saw and did could scarcely have been more different. Not much was ever black and white clear in this world we operated in on behalf of the United States.

The Task Master and the Quick Learner

The UN Security Council rotates on a monthly leadership roster, each member country taking its turn to set the agenda, assign supporting tasks, etc. The ambassadors for the member states girded themselves a bit when it was the turn of the United States. Ambassador Albright felt our countries and the UN system had a right to expect a lot from the Security Council. They had long, difficult, but rewarding agendas awaiting them when Ambassador Albright was in the lead.

The US Ambassador to the UN has a remarkably diverse portfolio. There seemed no limit to the range of topics that command time and energy. More than almost anyone else I ever worked with Ambassador Albright mastered the process of quick uptake. Often one of us would be briefing her on the walk across the street to the UN building. By the time we arrived at the appointed place, she had the meeting down cold.

Fond Farewells

I retired from the Army and left the USUN team. I was deeply touched that the ambassador hosted a farewell event for me, including the UN officials I had worked with in the celebration. It was a gracious thing to have done, the kind of thing she often did.

Just after I departed, the ambassador was confirmed as Secretary of State. I often thought about her extraordinary journey and like her, celebrated that we lived in a country in which an immigrant could one day become the nation’s top diplomat.

We could surely use more of what she stood for and what she represented. The dangers she cautioned us on, especially in recent years, warning of the risk of fascism here and abroad, is timeless and point on.

We are a poorer nation with her passing.

       Bill Clontz

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4 replies to The Passing of Madeleine Albright is a True Loss

  1. Wow is all I can say Bill. Remarkable woman and person. Thank you both for your service.

  2. Thank you for sharing I always considered her a wonder leader and a very sharp woman Your blog certainly pointed out quite a tribute and many of her attributes…, thank you for giving us an inside look…

  3. Fascinating perspective on a remarkable woman. She went to Wellesley College, as did I, so I have always felt connected to her. And she founded an institute for global affairs there ( as a resource for training women in diplomacy and leadership in international affairs.

  4. Kathryn and I had an opportunity, and incredible privilege, to share a very informal time with Secretary Albright. Those few minutes of conversation live with us to this day. It took place years ago. She was beyond remarkable. Her death leaves such a void. Thank you for sharing your wonderful experience and relationship. Alan Davis

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