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Book Review

Read My Pins: Stories From A Diplomat’s Jewel Box
By Madeleine Albright
Published by Melcher Media/Harper Collins; Hardbound, c. 2009, 176 pp  

Read My Pins is an appealing coffee-table book; it is an indulgence. This one justifies itself by being light enough to lift, fun to read, and visually beautiful.

Beginning in 1993, Madeleine Albright served as President Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations. After his re-election in 1996, Clinton nominated her to be the US Secretary of State, the first woman to hold that position. She took the oath of office on January 23, 1997 by which time journalists and colleagues had noticed her use of jewelry, pins to be precise, to express diplomatic opinions and aspirations. Former President George H.W. Bush said, “Read my lips.” Albright reports urging colleagues and members of the media to “Read my pins.” They did.

In 1994, Saddam Hussein’s press published a poem maligning Albright as an “unparalleled serpent.” She went shopping and appeared at her next meeting with the Iraqis sporting a serpent pin. In 1996, after Cuban fighter pilots shot down two unarmed civilian aircraft over international waters between Florida and Cuba, she turned a frequently worn bluebird brooch downward, in mourning for the fliers. At the press conference that followed the attack, while using the brooch to signify her grief, she employed sharp words to tell the Cubans just what she thought: “This is not cojones, it is cowardice.” Wikipedia reports that the line endeared her to President Clinton, who said it was “probably the most effective one-liner in the whole administration’s foreign policy.”

One book reviewer has called these pins Albright’s “big honker brooches.” Paging through the Read My Pins, it is easy to be impressed by the size (and perhaps heft) of individual pieces — enormous, beautiful US flags in rhinestones and faux stones; elegant and appealing zebras (one worn, at a meeting with Nelson Mandela, perched on the top of her shoulder); eagles rendered to tantalize and terrify (see, in particular, pages 31, 118, and 132). Then there are rocket launchers, daggers, doves-of-peace, and a fairy castle. The early twentieth century struggle for woman suffrage is celebrated in a silver “Jailed for Freedom” pin. Cochairing an event with Colin Powell at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, Albright finessed an entire musical ensemble of ten pins up one side of her jacket. Uncle Sam appears in many shapes. And who could resist Mickey Mouse as patriot?

As her jewelry became the latter-day equivalent to photograph-watching during the post-Stalin period, Albright found packing for diplomatic trips, and dressing itself, a challenge. ”In the morning or even the night before, I started thinking about the right pin for the coming day and sometimes for each meeting.” Working on the political issues of the Middle East, she often wore a dove but when displeased with the pace of negotiations, she displayed a turtle or snail pin or, “when truly aggravated, a crab.” Sadly, she comments, “none of the pins proved equal to their assigned task.”

During Middle East peace talks, negotiators were pledged to secrecy yet constantly hounded by the media. To deflect their questions, Albright told reporters that “peace talks were comparable to mushrooms, thriving only in the dark.” Not long after, Albright’s diplomatic security team surprised her with a custom-made pin depicting a field of mushrooms. In the months that followed, she used the pin to signal reporters that she had nothing to say.

Her “big honker brooches,” Albright discovered, created a boom in costume jewelry. She found her picture hung on the wall of a Parisian jewelry shop where Leah Rabin had purchased a gift for Albright. An antique jewelry store owner in New York thanked the Secretary for saving her business. Elsewhere in the northeastern United States, a group of people organized a pin watch using the Internet. Participants would find out what jewelry Albright was wearing each day and then provide the requisite Rorschach interpretation.

Albright recounts humorous incidents, like wearing heeled shoes in an attempt to appear taller than North Korea’s Kim Jong-il (so did he). She speaks movingly of suffering people and different aspects of global politics. And she touches a now-tender spot when commenting “the United States is a strong, confident country; we need not be so insecure as to require constant demonstrations of allegiance,” such as when US politicians are criticized for not wearing American flag label pins.

With domestic and global problems pushing at us from all sides, Read My Pins offers a wonderful interlude in which playfully to consider the human face of diplomacy. It nicely complements Madam Secretary, Albright’s memoir, where she similarly shows herself and politicians in all their humanity.

Jill Norgren

Note: Shortly after an exhibit of the pins featured in this book (Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection) closes at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City (on January 31, 2010), the exhibition will travel to the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas. The exhibition will then be on view in Washington, DC in the summer of 2010 and Indianapolis, Indiana in the fall of 2010.

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