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'She always had my back.' A former Cape resident remembers Madeleine Albright

"We were often the only two women in the room," says Mara Rudman, who grew up in Hyannis and worked with Secretary Albright at the White House. “She was a model of public service."

Madeleine Albright arrived in the U.S. as a child refugee from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, and in 1997 became the first of only three women to serve as secretary of state. Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton later served in that role. Albright died of cancer this week at 84.

CAI’s Patrick Flanary spoke with Mara Rudman, who grew up in Hyannis and later worked with Albright at the White House. Rudman served as a deputy national security advisor to Presidents Clinton and Obama, and today is executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.

Patrick Flanary: How are you reflecting on Secretary Albright's legacy, not only as it relates to women in top leadership positions, but also as someone who traveled here as a Czech refugee?

Mara Rudman: I am very reflective at this point on her passing, because of the volume of contributions she made as a human being as well as a public servant. And in so many ways she was a model for public service.

I have to say, in this week of hearings for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, we're at another inflection point as a country.

When I first met Secretary Albright, she was the U.N. ambassador [in the Clinton administration]. I later worked more closely with her when she was secretary of state. And we were often the only two women in the room of the National Security Council. My first job, coordinating legislative strategy across national security agencies, was actually the position she had held in President Carter's administration. She modeled in how she looked out for others, how she looked out for someone like me. I always knew she had my back, although she was leading the State Department and I was working for the national security advisor. She in many ways showed me how to be O.K. in my position in the room, and to show care and compassion.

PF: You served as a deputy national security advisor to Presidents Clinton and Obama, with a focus on the Middle East. What did you learn about the intricacies of diplomacy and foreign policy from Secretary Albright?

MR: She showed a very clear sense of what her value structure was, and what was best for the United States. And that doing well for others beyond the United States was also a win-win proposition for the kind of country we could and should be. She set those big goals and had those clear North stars, but also had a very practical and very savvy way of how you got stuff done.

PF: You grew up in Hyannis.

MR: I did. My family still lives there. We moved to Cape Cod when I was 9. I went to Hyannis West Elementary, Barnstable Middle School, and Barnstable High School before I went off to college.

PF: How did that time shape your interest in policy and government?

MR: I was raised with a sense of the importance of asking tough questions about the United States and the world, and not just what was happening in Hyannis or in Barnstable or in Massachusetts. Dinner-table conversation for us involved a wide range of issues. And so I think I went to school equipped with that, and I think my teachers would say I pushed more than they would have liked for answers to tough questions.

PF: What's the tough question on your mind these days?

MR: How to secure democracy, not only at home but around the world. And what's happening in Ukraine brings that to bear so clearly. A lot of what Madeleine Albright's life embodied was strength and the constant threat that democracies face internally and externally, and the value of having strong, secure allied democracies throughout the world — the critical nature of that, and how easily it can slip away.

PF: Your mother Gloria was a Barnstable town councilor, and was named Mercy Otis Warren Cape Cod Woman of the Year in 2010. What did you learn from her?

MR: I learned from both my parents about the importance of public service, and respecting everyone around you and people throughout the world, whether you agree with them or not. Doing all that you can in the community you live in, but defining that community locally, nationally, and globally.

PF: Did Secretary Albright ever visit the Cape?

MR: I am sure she was on Martha's Vineyard because there were at least a couple of meetings gathered with President Clinton there.

PF: What do you remember about your last conversation with her?

MR: The last in-person was sadly, or ironically, at a birthday party for [Clinton's national security advisor] Sandy Berger shortly before he passed. And I remember talking to her there and she really had no airs about her.

She liked to have real conversations with people. And she felt awkward, as many of us do, in big gatherings. We talked through what her methods of coping were, and I have taken that and counseled many young people I know who also feel insecure or uncomfortable when they're asked to speak. I say, "Listen, this is how Madeleine Albright, a former secretary of state, feels about this. And this is what she does."