This is Real Life Sale

The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, October 21st, 2003


Madam Secretary

by Madeleine Albright

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

This memoir's publication provides ample evidence of the peculiarities of the book business, which is governed neither by the iron law of the bottom line nor by a high-minded commitment to producing literary works of lasting value — or at least of passing significance. Albright had been out of office less than a week when Harvey Weinstein, the thuggishly glamorous co-chairman of Miramax Films (no doubt just off the phone with Gwyneth Paltrow), tracked her down at a spa in Mexico to urge her to choose Miramax Books as her publisher. That any publisher would so ardently pursue this quarry is quite odd; that the tinseliest would is unfathomable. Nearly all high officials' memoirs are as unrevealing as they are self-serving. (Albright's, no surprise, lacks a forthright account of the Clinton Administration's complicity, or acquiescence, in Croatia's ethnic cleansing of the Krajina Serbs; of the decision to expand nato, the most sweeping expansion of America's security commitments since the late 1940s; or of the causes and conduct of the war against Yugoslavia — the first war the U.S.-led nato waged, and one fought against a country that, however unsavory, posed no threat to any member of the alliance, least of all the United States. Readers will, however, find much State Department spin circa 1998, complete with the inevitable invocation of the lessons of Munich.) Moreover, such books promise to be boring, for when a former Cabinet officer unlike, say, a record producer reminisces, she perforce adopts the sonorous and bloated tone of one writing A Work of History, as she chronicles, for example, her speech endorsing "intercultural communications." So Madam Secretary won't be flying off the shelves at Costco, nor does it rival Memoirs of the Prince de Talleyrand. It's neither better nor worse than others of its ilk, although the former secretary's unwinning attitude and demeanor, which uniquely combine the attributes of the Democratic Party hack and the self-righteous Wilsonian, prove as irrepressible in print as they were when she sought and held office.

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