Known as a straight-talking negotiator, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright used not only her words but her jewelry when speaking the language of diplomacy. And, she says, her collection of some 200 pins and brooches, which resulted in both a book and a museum exhibition, would never have come about if it hadn’t been for Saddam Hussein.
“What happened was, I was sent to be an ambassador at the United Nations in February 1993,” Albright said during a recent stop at the Denver Art Museum, where Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection is currently on display. “It was the end of the Gulf War and the cease-fire had been translated into a series of sanctions, resolutions that had to be kept in place. I was an instructed ambassador, and my instructions were to say perfectly terrible things about Saddam Hussein constantly. He deserved it. He had invaded Kuwait. So I went at it every day, and all of a sudden a poem appeared in the papers in Baghdad comparing me to many things, but among them, an ‘unparalleled serpent.’ ”
In response, Albright decided to wear a snake pin she happened to have, and when the press asked her why, she told them.
“I thought, well, this is fun,” she said. “So I went out and I bought a lot of costume jewelry that would in fact reflect what I thought we were going to do on any given day. On good days I wore flowers and butterflies and balloons, and on bad days, a lot of spiders and insects and carnivorous animals. And when the other ambassadors would ask, ‘What do you feel like today?’ or ‘What are we going to do today?’ I would say, ‘Read my pins.’ The first president Bush had said, ‘Read my lips—no new taxes.’ So, that was kind of the new way to talk.”
We walked with the first female secretary of state through the traveling exhibition of her pins, where she told stories about pieces from the collection. Here’s what Albright had to say on everything from her favorite pieces to the bauble that got her in trouble to her relationships with Hillary Clinton and Condoleeza Rice.
On turning her pin collection into a book and an exhibit: “I wanted to make foreign policy less foreign. The pins basically are a way to tell foreign policy stories. They have some kind of a story that goes with them, that allows me to talk about a particular part of the world or a leader I met, or to try to tell a funny story that goes with it.”
On the pins carrying meaning: “What was interesting was that the other ministers began to pick up the story. I was negotiating the antiballistic missile treaty with the Russian foreign minister and I had a pin on that’s actually kind of an arrow. He looked at it and said, ‘Is that one of your interceptors?’ And I said, ‘Yes, and we make them very small and it’s time to negotiate.’ So it did become a message to people.”
On her most prized pin: “I think pins also have a capability of carrying a lot of emotion with them. I’m often asked what my favorite pin is, and it’s a ceramic heart made by my daughter. People will ask, ‘How old is your daughter?’ And she has aged over the years, but she says, ‘Mom, you’ve got to tell them I made it when I was five years old.’ ”