The former secretary of state stops by the Bellevue Arts Museum for a visit to an exhibition of her storied jewelry.
For all the weight she carried as the United States Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright is surprisingly small.
She walked into the Bellevue Arts Museum the other morning to preview “Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection,” and was almost lost in her entourage.
Follow her upstairs, though, and you understood. Her signature pins — some of them costume jewelry, others pure gold and studded with gems — wielded plenty of power, whether they were crabs or bugs, hearts or birds. World leaders, translators and negotiators only needed to glance at Albright’s left shoulder to know what kind of mood she was in.
“I wanted to make foreign policy less boring,” Albright, 77, cracked as she led a group of reporters through the exhibit.
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Her “pin syndrome,” as she called it, started in 1993, when she was serving as U.N. Ambassador to the United Nations. The Gulf War had just ended and she was monitoring sanctions against Iraq.
“And so every day, I said something perfectly dreadful about Saddam Hussein, which he deserved,” Albright said, adding, “They invaded Kuwait.”
When one of the papers in Baghdad printed a poem referring to Albright as “an unparalleled serpent,” a light went off. Albright found a gold snake pin she had owned for years, and put it on.
“Whenever we talked about Iraq, I wore that pin,” she said. Cameras zoomed in, reporters asked about it.
“I thought, well, this is fun,” Albright said. “So I went out and I bought a bunch of costume jewelry to depict what I thought would happen on any given day. On good days I wore flowers and butterflies, and on bad days a lot of insects and carnivorous animals.”
The exhibit of about 200 pins was organized by the Museum of Arts and Design, New York and is on view at the Bellevue Arts Museum through June 7.
“If you think about the message you want to send, they work really well,” Albright explained.
She wore a crab pin to Middle East talks, she said, “Because everything was going sideways.”
While she was secretary of state, she found out Russians were bugging a room not far from her office; they even found the man who was sitting outside, listening.
“The next time I was with the Russians I wore a very large bug and they knew exactly what the message was going to be on that,” she said. “So bugs were nice.”
She walked around the exhibit like a woman showing off her vacation photos, and paused to point out two of her favorites.
One is a ceramic heart her now 48-year-old daughter, Kate, made for her when she was 5 years old.
“I think every mother has one of these,” Albright said. “I’ve missed it a lot. I haven’t been able to wear it. But it’s an example of an inanimate object carrying a lot of emotion.”
The second is what she called her “Katrina pin,” given to her by a young man who approached her at a dinner at the World War II museum. He said his father had given it to his mother, who died in Hurricane Katrina. The family wanted her to have it.
“I said, ‘I can’t accept it,’ ” Albright recalled.
“You have to,” he told her. “Our mother loved you.”
When the pins aren’t traveling the country on exhibit, they’re stored in her home, organized by species.
The night before her visit to the Bellevue Arts Museum, Albright dined at the home of former Microsoft COO Jon Shirley, and was gifted with a large red pin depicting the Bellevue Arts Museum made by local artist Chris Abrass. (“I love it,” Albright said.)
Albright, who teaches at Georgetown University and runs a global consulting firm, is still in the mix in Washington, D.C. — and has made her choice for the next president.
“I really admire Hillary Rodham Clinton,” Albright said, adding that they first met when the former first lady and secretary of state was head of the Children’s Defense Fund.
“We were a fun tag team when she was first lady and I was secretary and I think she was a great secretary of state and is one of my dear friends.”
Albright could, until recently, leg press 400 lbs. She goes to the gym three times a week, does needlepoint, sings to opera in the car and yes, has seen “House of Cards,” the Netflix series about Washington political intrigue.
“I’m not sure I like it,” Albright said. “It’s too dark. I think the acting is amazing. But people are cynical enough about Washington. It isn’t quite as bad as it is portrayed.”
She prefers “Madam Secretary,” starring Téa Leoni, with whom she once had breakfast to talk about her career, “And I’m sitting there, thinking, ‘We’re actually having a serious conversation about being secretary of state.’”
Leoni and the show’s writers invited Albright to attend the White House Correspondents Dinner with her next month.
Did she want to say anything about the closed-door Gridiron Dinner? “The most interesting person there was Hank Aaron,” Albright said. “The real talent in the room.”