Today, Madeleine Albright, the United States’ first female secretary of state, was named one of 13 recipients of this year’s Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor that the country bestows upon civilians. Commended for her efforts to bring peace to the Middle East and Africa, reduce the spread of nuclear weapons, and for her role as a longtime champion of democracy and human rights all over the world, Albright was among a luminary group of honorees that included such cultural icons as the singer and songwriter Bob Dylan, the author Toni Morrison, and former Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens.
“These extraordinary honorees come from different backgrounds and different walks of life, but each of them has made a lasting contribution to the life of our Nation,” President Obama said in a statement announcing this year’s winners. “They’ve challenged us, they’ve inspired us, and they’ve made the world a better place.”
On Wednesday, Newsweek/The Daily Beast’s editor in chief Tina Brown hosted a luncheon to celebrate the publication of Albright’s new book, Prague Winter, a memoir of the former secretary of state’s early life that weaves together autobiographical stories with an historical account of the tumultuous period between 1937 and 1948. In a conversation with Brown, attended by the journalist and author Rula Jebreal, editor and former diplomat Jamie Rubin, and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, among others, Albright spoke of her time as secretary of state and the importance of individual action. But she spoke most movingly of her family, and how, as an adult, she had learned that she was Jewish and that many of her relatives had perished in the Nazi death camps—a subject she bravely explores within the pages of her new memoir. “To her credit she never loses sight of her own family’s extraordinary journey to safety in America, and of the debt she owes her parents for her own amazing ‘success story,’ and for the many benefits we all gained when she was secretary of state by her experience, and knowledge of how terrible the consequences can be for a small state when it gets in the way of the ambitions or the self-interest of greater powers,” Michael Korda wrote in a review of the book for The Daily Beast. “That sensitivity is amply demonstrated in a book that is not only a family story—a proud and moving one—but a brilliant and multilayered account of how Czechoslovakia was formed ... Prague Winter is an altogether fascinating and inspiring read.”
Last month, Albright appeared on stage at Newsweek/The Daily Beast’s global summit, Women in the World, where she discussed the memoir and brought the house down with her rousing and frank remarks about the dearth of women in power. “People say there are not enough qualified women,” she said to Charlie Rose. “That’s one of the biggest bullshit things I’ve ever heard.”
Albright will receive the award in a ceremony later this spring at the White House.