Madeleine Albright, the first female U.S. secretary of state who died on Wednesday at age 84, got her start in government working for the legendary U.S. Sen. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine.
Albright, who had immigrated to the U.S. as a child, rose to the most important diplomatic position in American government at a time when relatively few women occupied important positions in Washington. She would later describe Muskie as one of her heroes.
A graduate of Wellesley College, Albright moved to Washington, D.C., with her husband in the early 1960s. Described by a friend as a “very well-known” fundraiser for various causes in the nation’s capital, Albright ended up raising money for Muskie’s 1972 presidential campaign. At the time, she was commuting to Columbia University in New York City for work on her doctorate.
In 1976, after she had finished her degree, she was recruited by Muskie’s staffer Charlie Micoleau to join his office as a legislative assistant working on foreign policy. In a 2007 interview for the Muskie Archives at Bates College, Micoleau recalled going to Albright’s home to convince her to take the job. He later called her “absolutely invaluable and great fun to work with and be with.”
Albright left Muskie’s office in 1978 to work for the White House National Security Council under President Jimmy Carter. Muskie himself would go on to become Secretary of State under Carter in 1980, although he only served in the position for roughly a year. Albright spent the 1980s working for several nonprofits, and briefly took a post as a professor at Georgetown University.
She returned to government under President Bill Clinton, who nominated her to serve as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, a position she held from 1993 to 1997. She was then nominated and confirmed to serve as the first female Secretary of State, a position she held from 1997 through the end of Clinton’s second term in 2001.
Albright remained active in Democratic politics. In 2020, she hosted an event with Gov. Janet Mills and several Maine lawmakers to support the campaign of now-President Joe Biden. She also visited Maine a number of times over the years to give lectures on foreign policy.
In the annual William S. Cohen Lecture at the University of Maine in 1999, she told the sold-out crowd gathered at what was then called the Maine Center for the Arts that she had long felt a kinship with Maine due to her connection to Muskie, who died in 1996.
“He was a plain speaker, who accomplished much and understood deeply the connections between American strength at home and leadership overseas,” she said. “Aside from my parents, he remains my greatest hero.”
In 2014, Albright was keynote speaker at the University of Southern Maine’s celebration of Muskie’s 100th birthday, and gave a speech in which she praised Muskie’s ability to buck party expectations in order to do the right thing, and to find common ground between parties.
“Even though he was a loyal Democrat, he infuriated many when he said, ‘What’s so damn liberal about wasting money?’” Albright said, during a speech given just after the 2014 election dominated by Republicans. “Voters and nonvoters sent their leaders a message on Election Day that they want them to stop bickering and get something done.”
Albright also said that Muskie’s ability to listen was one of his big strengths.
“And not only do you have to listen, but you have to listen to diverse ideas,” she said.