Czech-born Madeleine Albright visits Prague to launch book of memoirs

Madeleine Albright and Rob Cameron

The Czech-born former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has been in Prague for the last few days, to launch the Czech translation of her memoirs "Madam Secretary". Born Marie Korbelova in Prague in 1937, Madeleine Albright was forced to flee her native country twice, first from the Nazis, then from the Communists. She later rose to the top of the U.S. political establishment, becoming the first woman ever to head the State Department. Radio Prague's Rob Cameron spoke to her during her visit to Prague, and he began by asking her deep down, how Czech she really feels...

Madeleine Albright and Rob Cameron
"Good question. It's unclear to me. I feel very Czech, by my roots, and I love being here, and when I'm here I feel very Czech and very proud to have been born here. But I so wanted to be an American. I was so glad to be there when I was eleven years old, and I worked very hard to become an American. And I can't believe that this little Czech girl actually became the American Secretary of State. So I'm both things, and proud of both."

I find it extraordinary that you're still able to speak - so well - the language of a country that you left at the age of eleven. How did you manage to maintain your Czech over the decades?

"First of all I did speak with my parents. Though what happened is what happened to many émigrés is that you start making some kind of language up: you fit in an English word whenever you can't think of the Czech one. For me it started as an oral language. The way I really learnt a Czech that was not that of a ten-year-old was after the Velvet Revolution, and I came here, or Czechs would come and see me, and so it's evolved. And I'm just so thrilled that it works when I'm here. I forget a word here and there, but I'm just so excited that people say and are surprised that I speak good Czech."

Madeleine Albright, photo: CTK
You're here to launch the Czech translation of your memoirs, Madam Secretary. It's a very candid and in parts very moving book, particularly when you talk about the breakdown of your marriage. Why did you feel the need to bare your soul in this way?

"First of all, I decided that diplomacy and public service is made up of people. And that it's very important to see who the people are, where they come from, what their motivations are. So I thought it was important to do it for that reason. The other reason I did it is that it is a women's story. A lot of women were very nice when I became Secretary and felt that I was a role model. I felt that they needed to know that I went through a really horrible time and came out pretty well at the end. That's why I decided I had to be honest. There's no value in writing your memoirs if you're not honest."

Madeleine Albright and Rob Cameron
While you reached top of the political ladder in the United States, the very last rung - President of the United States - was always out of bounds because you were not born in America. Ironically, because you were born here, you could become President of the Czech Republic, and it was your friend Vaclav Havel who was the first to suggest it. Did you take the idea seriously then, and would you take it seriously again in the future if the opportunity presented itself?

"Well it's hard not to take it seriously when somebody you admire as much as I admire President Havel suggested it. But as I explain in the book, I am a very proud American, and I will stay that. The other part that makes me think that it's not appropriate to take it seriously is that I didn't live here through the worst times. No matter how much I know about this country, and how much I've studied it and how Czech I feel, I really do think that the president of this country has to be somebody who lived through those horrible Communist times; the distrust and the horror and the poverty and the intellectual strictures that existed here. I love this country, and I would love to be of any help I can, but I think that it's not appropriate."