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Courtesy of St. Xavier University

Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright gave the first lecture of a new series at St. Xavier University on Chicago's Southwest Side.

Out-of-office Albright doesn't mince words in Chicago speech

by Tiffany T. Sharples
April 11, 2007

Thundering applause repeatedly punctuated the fiery words of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who stood before a crowd of nearly 1,000 in Orland Park Tuesday night and spoke about issues ranging from the Middle East to relations with Cuba.

Her speech was the inaugural of the Voices and Visions series at St. Xavier University.

"Peace is hard,” she said. “There are elements within the religions who believe that war in the Middle East has been foretold by scripture. I'm no theologian, but I do know this: Armageddon is not a foreign policy."

Thinly veiled criticisms of the current administration and bold statements about foreign policy reinforced the first female Secretary of State's reputation as both determined and opinionated. Several times the crowd drowned out the end of especially fierce statements with applause. 

Her statements about the troops in Iraq were received with particular enthusiasm.

"The invasion and occupation of Iraq have actually strengthened Al Qaeda … I believe with the president that it would be a disaster to leave under present circumstances. It would also be a disaster to stay," she said. "We have an overriding duty to bring them home sooner rather than later."

Yet her perspective on Iraq, which is firm and thorough—down to a four point plan—was not the only subject Albright focused on. Referring to the global crisis of poverty, Albright criticized the nation's tendency toward isolationism and solitary focus.

"It's no wonder that since 9/11 our nation's attention has been focused on the drama of our confrontation with terror," she said, but added that, "The rest of the world goes on spinning."

Albright, raised in the U.S. as a Catholic immigrant from Poland who learned of her Jewish ancestry as an adult, touched on religious issues several times, predominately in the context of the Middle East.

Drawing from her personal experience and exposure while serving as the top diplomat for President Bill Clinton, she spoke about individual cases of poverty and strife. "The people I will never forget are those I encountered in refugee camps, safe havens… these are the places where human character undergoes its toughest test."

She then said that fighting for these causes should not be limited to the nation's do-gooders. "America ranks next to last in industrial nations in the sharing of wealth with the developing world. Our nation cannot long survive as an island of prosperity."

Then, adapting President Bush's moniker for terrorist regimes, Albright said, "We must confront the true axis of evil: poverty, ignorance and disease."

Her remarks also were light-hearted.

Referring to harsh media criticism, after she was stoned in a marketplace in the Balkans, she joked, "That was about the time that I began telling a friend that the reason I looked fatter was that I had grown a thicker skin."

And in the climate of a coming election in which a black man and a white woman are both legitimate contenders for the presidency, Albright recognized the barrier-breaking moment that was her appointment as the first female Secretary of State.

"I'd never seen a Secretary of State in a skirt," she said, taking pride in the fact that her two successors were a black man, Colin Powell, followed by a black woman, Condoleezza Rice.

"I think it says something about this country … it's good that the barriers are coming down."

When confronted with the inevitable question about which of the two barrier-breaking Democratic candidates she was supporting in the 2008 election, Albright reiterated her endorsement of Sen. Hillary Clinton.

"She is ready to be president," she said. "It's a revolutionary thing to have a woman."

Still, not burning any bridges, she also gave Barack Obama a glowing review. "I think that Sen. Obama is a remarkable political person with an incredible future and somebody I admire."

When asked whether she foresaw a replay for herself as Secretary of State under a Democrat as president, the now-70-year-old Albright declined, but not without a hint of nostalgia.

"I do think I had the best job in the U.S. government."