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Madeleine Albright learns to 'know thyself'

Did the secretary of state discover her Jewish heritage in the pages of

MADELINE ALBRIGHT: A TWENTIETH-CENTURY ODYSSEY By Michael Dobbs Henry Holt 466 pp., $27.50

The life story of Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as United States secretary of state, "can be read as a personalized version of the story of the twentieth century," writes Washington Post correspondent Michael Dobbs in this new biography.

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"Her family was formed and buffeted by the great events of the century: the industrial revolution, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the rise and fall of Nazism and communism, the Holocaust, World War II, America's ascent to superpower status."

Ms. Albright is also a stand-in for Everywoman in America, too. "In her progress from Georgetown housewife to secretary of state, Madeleine would become a symbol of the women's movement in America and the struggle for full equality with men," Dobbs continues.

Albright's story is also one of self-discovery - or rather of being discovered. Like a classical hero who discovers his true identity only after reaching the pinnacle of achievement, she came to the public acknowledgment of her Jewish origins only after she was named secretary of state.

The revelation was dramatic enough in itself, but it was complicated by evidence of her apparent reluctance to confront her own past.

Dobbs was the man who forced her to do so.

Albright, born in Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II, and twice a refugee from her native land - fleeing first Nazism and later communism - has famously said that her mindset is Munich, not Vietnam.

Working on an in-depth story on Albright that would consider her personal history in order to understand this worldview, Dobbs ran across Dasha Sima. She was Albright's cousin in Prague, whom the future secretary had seemed uncurious about getting in touch with, even once the Iron Curtain had lifted - despite their having spent much of their childhoods together. "Dasha was eager to tell me her story - partly, I suspected, because I was the first person to really want to hear it," Dobbs writes.

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Shortly, he had documentary evidence of her family's Jewish background and the loss of her relatives in the Holocaust.

When the story came out, a great outcry ensued, including from Jewish groups outraged that she would apparently seek to hide her background. The questions quickly became, What did she know and when did she know it?

Dobbs now concludes, "By Madeleine's own account,... she knew by 1994 at the very latest that she was related to a man who had lost his entire family in the concentration camps."

It was all so ironic: If Albright's story, her "myth" in the Joseph Campbell/Bill Moyers sense, is about a World War II refugee making good in America, "the indispensable nation," then her story only becomes truer if she is Jewish. How could she have failed to ask questions?

Madeleine adored her parents - who had quietly dropped the umlaut from the family name, Korbel, to make it sound less Jewish and more Czech. They raised their children as Roman Catholics. "She may have suspected that there was something strangely selective about their reminiscences of the past. But for her to challenge their story would be to challenge them, and this was something she was not prepared to do."

Described on its jacket as "an intimate biography," this book seems quite at home calling its subject simply "Madeleine" most of the time. A put-down from the male establishment? Perhaps, but it doesn't come across that way. This is a sympathetic biography. It gives a richly nuanced picture of Albright, contradictions and all.

Dobbs seems to understand that women's career paths are often different from men's, especially for women who came of age in the 1950s. For instance, he makes Albright's volunteer fund-raising work for the tony private elementary school her children attended in Georgetown sound like a perfectly logical steppingstone to serious involvement in Democratic power politics - as indeed it proved to be.

The book shows a keen sense of the moments in which things happen: Madeleine bonding with Hillary Rodham Clinton on the way to the 1995 women's conference in Beijing, for instance - and gaining an ally who would prove useful later on. This is a book bright young women on the way up will read for useful pointers.

In fact, this book is more successful as an account of how Albright got to her present high office than as an assessment of how she has performed there, which has been rather disappointing, Dobbs suggests. He quotes "a senior administration official" as saying, "Her strength is public articulation of clear positions; her weakness is making it happen bureaucratically."

But it's simply too soon to tell. It was inevitable that the luster of her "star quality," during the phase when everyone was "mad about Madeleine," would dim over time. How many cabinet secretaries ever get star billing at all?

A more positive assessment comes from Catherine Kelleher, head of the Aspen Institute in Berlin: "I think she rewon a constituency for foreign policy.... What might have been in the offing was a return to neo-isolationism. She has made that impossible."

This assessment, too, may be premature. But if it stands the test of time, that will represent a remarkable achievement for the little girl from Prague.

*Ruth Walker is the Monitor's Toronto correspondent.

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