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Madeleine Albright Has Advice For Obama

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, we're going to talk about the latest economic news, lay offs and bailout plans in this country and around the world. But first, more on the transition to a new American administration.

President George W. Bush and President-elect Barack Obama met at the White House yesterday while First Lady Laura Bush gave future-First Lady Michelle Obama a tour of the private quarters. The current and future presidents sat down in the Oval Office.

But just as the president-elect is turning his attention to the issues he'll confront during his term, so are we. Continuing with our focus on national security and foreign policy, we decided to turn to another history maker, Madeleine Albright, former ambassador to the United Nations and secretary of state during the Clinton administration.

She visited with us back in March to talk about her book, "Memo to the President: How We Can Restore America's Reputation and Leadership." Today, we're happy to welcome her back to talk more about what's ahead. Madam Secretary, thank you so much for joining us.

Former Secretary MADELEINE ALBRIGHT (Department of State): Wonderful to be with you, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: And, of course, before we get down to business, I want to congratulate you on a very special anniversary. Today is the 60th anniversary - today - the 60th anniversary of your family's arrival in the United States. Your family is from Czechoslovakia originally. You came to the U.S. at the age of, shall we say, the age of 11 on this day back in 1948. Any thoughts you want to share with us on this special day, especially in such an historic week?

Former Sec. ALBRIGHT: Well, it - you know, people ask me what the most important event in my life was/is, is coming to America. It made all the difference, obviously. And somehow, without seeming pretentious, I think that it is such an interesting link of somebody - Barack Obama and the American dream and my American dream, and we really are a fabulous country.

And I'm so very proud of America and the fact that we're going to have a chance to show what a terrific country we are again. So, I thought a lot about it and the confluence of events and how proud we should be of each other.

MARTIN: And I also want to mention that you weren't too proud to get down and dirty. You shared with me earlier that you actually went canvassing door to door on election day to get out the vote. That must have been very interesting for people who open their doors to see former secretary of state trying to get people out...

Former Sec. ALBRIGHT: Well, it was a lot of fun, and I had gone to a neighborhood in Chantilly that had just the greatest variety of people in terms of coming from many different countries, and it just proved to me what we were just saying, is that we are a country of diversity, and we are able to really make everybody feel as though they belong. So, it was great. I loved it.

MARTIN: Let's get down to the task at hand. When we spoke with you back in March, you said that the number-one issue facing the new president would be getting out of Iraq. Now, that conversation was before we knew the scope of the global financial crisis. Do these priorities have to be reordered now?

Former Sec. ALBRIGHT: Well, there's no question that the global financial crisis has kind of trumped everything, and it's on everybody's mind, and it is clearly affecting the domestic economy. But as one listens to the news first thing in the morning, it's always what's happening in Japan, or what the effect of the global financial crisis has been on China, and you see this rippling wave across. So, there's no question that it is the subject number one.

But - and this, I think, has to be made very clear - the other issues have not gone away and are very, very important. You were mentioning the fact that President Bush and now President-elect Obama were meeting yesterday in the Oval Office, and clearly, they - who knows what they really talked about, but they had to have talked about the various issues, Afghanistan and Pakistan and Iraq, which we still have to figure out how to get out of and then all the other issues that I've mentioned.

I think that the big issues are still how to fight terrorism without creating more terrorists, how to deal with the broken nuclear non-proliferation system, how to restore the good name of democracy, how to deal with the negative aspects of globalization, the growing gap between the rich and the poor. And all those issues - energy, environment, food prices - they have not gone away. And then, as I said in my book, you have to expect the unexpected. So, there's - I'm so glad we have Barack Obama to deal with the issues because this is going to be a very hard presidency.

MARTIN: But just before the election, Vice President - now Vice President-elect Senator - Delaware Senator Joe Biden said he thinks some foreign entity will try to test this new president. Do you think that that's true?

Former Sec. ALBRIGHT: Well, I had said all along that - to expect the unexpected. And we already have kind of - it's interesting because the Russian president, Medvedev, started saying, day after the election, that they were going to place short-range missiles within - near NATO. Of course, he's now backed off, which I find very interesting. But the bottom line is that the expect the unexpected will happen.

MARTIN: Do you think that the president needs to - President-elect Obama needs to take some gesture, some stance in some way to demonstrate his resolve?

Former Sec. ALBRIGHT: Well, I tell you, Michel, what is so hard about this period is that it's a relatively short period, the transition period, in some ways of getting everything ready, but a relatively long period in people waiting for the president-elect to say something. But as he himself has said, we have only one president at a time.

And I think he has repeated that so many times, as have many of us, that I think we have to really abide by that because it's confusing to the other countries in the world. But they do know that we will have a very different kind of America.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin. This is Tell Me More from NPR News, and we're visiting with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. How important is it that the rest of the world perceive this country as making a fresh start? How would President-elect Obama go about demonstrating that this is a new day?

Former Sec. ALBRIGHT: Well, I do think it's very important. You know, we go back to the 60th anniversary moment. I have loved representing the United States. Nothing made me prouder than to sit behind a sign that said United States.

And I think we all want to have an America that is strong internally and also is one that stands on a whole host of issues in a way that shows that we abide by the rule of law, that we care about what's going on in other countries. So, I would hope that what would happen very quickly is to close Guantanamo. I think that Guantanamo is such a symbol of things having gone wrong.

And second, also to rejoin in a very active way the global climate-change talks, not only because of the substance of it, but also because of the signal of understanding the importance of multilateral action. People don't like the work multilateralism, Michel, because it has too many syllables, and it ends in an ism. But all it basically is, is trying to figure out how to have partners and work on these issues that require more than just America.

MARTIN: Is there any person or group of people who you think that President-elect Obama needs to keep in place in order to demonstrate continuity and experience. For example, Defense Secretary Bob Gates, do you think he should stay on?

Former Sec. ALBRIGHT: Well, I don't want to make judgments on that. I know Bob Gates very well. We actually worked together in the Carter administration, and I think people feel that he did a very good job in taking over from Secretary Rumsfeld, who dug us into this hole to a great extent.

And - but I think that what I've said to my book is that it's very important for the president to put together a team, that it's important for him to have a variety of views, and that a confident president wants a variety of views. But the team part is important. So, I leave that to President-elect Obama to see how the team fits.

MARTIN: One of the chapters in your book is thy staff shall comfort thee, and it starts with a quote by Machiavelli, the political philosopher, which, in essence, says you can tell a lot about a leader about the - by the advisers he surrounds himself with.

Of course, his first choice was - as chief of staff was an Illinois congressman, a former official in the Clinton administration, Rahm Emanuel. We've also seen a number of other Clinton administration folks' names mentioned as part of the new team. Does this send a signal about what we can expect?

Former Sec. ALBRIGHT: Well, I think that we still have to see an awful lot. I know Rahm very well. We worked together in the Clinton administration, and I think that he is clearly somebody that not only knows Barack Obama very well, but knows Congress very well and is somebody that is so determined to get it right for America. So, I think it sends - that sends a great signal.

I don't, you know - the others are just speculation, and I do know, as they've named John Podesto to run the transition, John did an incredible job as chief of staff, really great, and somebody who has dedicated his life now to a progressive agenda, has worked very hard.

I don't know - none of us know what the next steps are, but just the kinds of people that Barack Obama's had around him during the campaign and the people that he has reached out to I think sends very, very strong signals about wanting a diversity of views and wanting to just get a great group of people.

MARTIN: What about for your old job, secretary of state?

Former Sec. ALBRIGHT: Well, I'm not going to speculate. You know, one of the things that drove me crazy, Michel, at the time that all this was going on in '92 and then in '96 is that you never really know, that people say a lot of things about you that either are true or not true, and there is just - it's not easy to be on the waiting line. You never quite know.

With President Clinton on the first term, I didn't get named to the U.N. until December 20th, so - and that, you know, people have said that was a slow transition. But it takes a while, and I think that we need to give space to the president-elect and also not prejudge other people.

MARTIN: You're saying, on a human level, it's kind of horrible to sit there and have your name bandied about. But what about - one of the names that's being mentioned for secretary of state is Chuck Hagel, who is a Republican senator. Do you think it's important for the president-elect to include Republicans in his administration as a sign of this fresh start?

Former Sec. ALBRIGHT: Well, I do. I have talked a lot about a bipartisan foreign policy. We actually, in the Clinton administration, Bill Cohen, who was a Republican senator, joined us as secretary of defense. It was very funny at the beginning because he kept saying, you all need to do this, and we didn't know if he mentioned - if he was thinking Democrats or executive branch versus the Senate.

But I do think it's important to have a bipartisan cabinet as well like getting the other party involved at a variety of levels. And again, what I think is important is to keep in mind is the team aspect of it. And so it's hard to pick out one person or another, but I do think bipartisanship is important.

MARTIN: We only have a 30 seconds left, but any desire to go back to that side of town? I mean, you're teaching at Georgetown. You have a consultancy. You're obviously very busy. Any desire to get that name that - one of those badges back?

Former Sec. ALBRIGHT: You know, there's always kind of - if you're a Democrat, and you've been in government, you think you've got to be there, but I had the best possible job for a foreign policy person, and so I'm just happy to help from the sidelines.

MARTIN: Well, we hope you'll come back and see us from time to time.

Former Sec. ALBRIGHT: I'd be trilled. Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, she is celebrating and we are celebrating with her the 60th anniversary of her arrival to the United States. Her latest book is Madeleine Albright "Memo to the President Elect: How We Can Restore America's Reputation and Leadership." And she was kind enough to join us in our studio in Washington. Madam secretary, thank you.

Former Sec. ALBRIGHT: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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