In honor of Independence Day, we caught up with Albright, who made history in President Clinton's administration as the first woman to serve as U.S. Secretary of State. Albright was born in the Smichov district of Prague and moved to the United States in 1948 after her father, Czech diplomat Josef Korbel, requested political asylum. In her recent book, Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948, she traces her family's history while examining Europe during World War II. We caught up with Albright, who will spend the Fourth of July on her farm in Virginia, by phone on June 22.
"When people ask me what is the most important thing that ever happened to me, I tell them it is becoming an American, hands down,'' said Albright, 75. "To me, the Fourth of July is the epitome of what this country is about: the independence, the bravery and the pride of being an American. My mother would call on the Fourth when my children were little, and she'd say, 'What are you children doing? I hope you all are singing patriotic songs.' I am proud of being patriotic.''
What is on your nightstand?
I have a new habit of reading several at a time. I'm still reading Henry Kissinger's book On China; Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie; and then two books that I'm getting started on are Berlin 1961 by Frederick Kempe, about what happened that year between Kennedy and Khrushchev, and Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden. It's about a person that was in a North Korean prison camp.
Because of your ties with Kissinger, was the book still able to provide you with surprises?
First of all, Henry Kissinger has a reputation with the Chinese that is unparalleled. I've been with him in meetings, and in China, they treat him as a demigod in many ways. The book, I think, was very well done in explaining how relations with China were changed during President Nixon's administration. I think the book is brilliant that way. Also, it is interesting how he analyzes and describes longer term Chinese history. There was an opera that I saw last year called Nixon in China, which is not complimentary, so I was happy to read Kissinger's terrific book.
Do you recommend the book on Catherine the Great? Was this a pleasure read for you?
It's a different way to tell the story of Catherine the Great. She's an amazing character, and it delves into her background. I always love reading about Russia. I tell the story often about how even though I read Tolstoy's War and Peace in high school, I decided to re-read it again as an adult. I found myself reading the 19th century novel on a 20th century plane on a 21st century iPad. I like to say I covered all the bases.
With regard to Tolstoy, in contemporary times, is there anyone, European or American, who has come close to his style?
In terms of his capability to report on war and then delve into the personal motivations of people and their relationships and then get into the nitty-gritty of war, nobody else has quite done all that. It may be impossible.
As a child, what did you read?
As a small child growing up in Europe, there were many fairy tales to read. One of my favorites — it sounds crazy — was on a family of fireflies. The fireflies went out at night to collect food, and they got drunk on the juice of one grape. I thought it was so fun, but when I got the translation for my own daughters, they hated it and said it was sexist. The girl fireflies stayed at home, and, it is true, it is sexist, but it was written in a different time.
What book strikes you as quintessentially American?
There's so many aspects to this country and how we see ourselves that it's hard to name one. A book that doesn't present the best of America but shows what life is like is Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie. Sinclair Lewis is also good, and Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath is great, of course. John Updike also presents amazing pictures of America.
What books would you like to see young Americans, the ones ready to vote in the next election, read?
I encourage them to read books that are biographies of the presidents because it shows what a difference a president can make. I also encourage them to read about the Supreme Court to realize that the election of the president will influence the success of the court for years and years and years. Any of the Doris Kearns Goodwin books are great, and I love David McCullough's book Truman. The Truman election was a very close one, and that will be true of this coming up election. I think people need to realize that their vote does matter. Voting is not just a privilege but a responsibility. So, first and foremost the biographies show importance of the individual president. This is where I disagree with Tolstoy. He said the higher role you have in government the less power you have. I disagree with that.
Piper Castillo, Times staff writer