A Stately Evening

A Stately Evening

Two former secretaries of state shared the stage inside Creighton University’s Ryan Center, offering their perspectives on a wide range of issues, as the culminating event in the Creighton 140 Presidential Lecture Series

By Adam Klinker

When she was 11 years old, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, PhD, remembers steaming past the Statue of Liberty aboard the SS America, an ocean liner making passage from Great Britain to the United States and delivering Albright and her family to a new life in America.

They were refugees, twice over. When Albright was just a year old, her parents, Jews who would later convert to Roman Catholicism, had fled their native Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) and settled in London after the 1938 Munich Pact in which Britain and France capitulated to Adolf Hitler and allowed Nazi Germany to occupy parts of Czechoslovakia. When the war was over, the family returned home, only to be swept up by another ideological wave in the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe.

The young Albright stood on the gleaming horizon of a life that would lead her into a career spanning six decades in the highest circles of government and service to her adoptive country. It’s a moment she recalls vividly whenever she encounters newcomers to America or, in recent days, hears of crises unfolding for refugees and immigrants.

“One of the things I loved to do as secretary was hand out people’s naturalization certificates,” said Albright, who, together with her successor in the U.S. Department of State, retired Army Gen. Colin Powell, spoke at Creighton University on Oct. 30 as the culminating event in the Creighton 140 Presidential Lecture Series, marking the University’s 140th anniversary.

“I remember doing it July 4, 2000, at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s house. And I figured, why not? I have Thomas Jefferson’s job. And I remember giving a certificate to a man, a refugee, who said, ‘Can you believe I’m a refugee and the secretary of state is handing me my naturalization certificate?’ I said, ‘Can you believe the secretary of state is a refugee?’”

Powell’s American story runs along a similar valence. The son of Jamaican immigrants who settled in the South Bronx, Powell became his generation’s most respected military leader, serving two tours in the Vietnam War, earning a four-star rank in the U.S. Army and serving as national security advisor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state under three presidents.

“My parents came from Jamaica on banana boats and raised two children here; one became a teacher and the other had success as a soldier,” said Powell, who was also honored earlier in the day with the Creighton Business Ethics Alliance’s Beacon of Ethics Award, an award Albright also earned in 2010. “You can do that in America.”

Creighton President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, welcomed a capacity crowd of nearly 2,500 to the Ryan Center’s DJ Sokol Arena, and Ben Nelson, a former Nebraska governor and U.S. senator who holds an honorary doctorate from Creighton’s School of Law, introduced Albright and Powell. The lecture was the third in a series that included talks by Chuck Hagel, a former U.S. senator and secretary of defense, in April and Dominican-American poet, novelist and essayist Julia Alvarez in September.  

“The lectures in this series have brought esteemed national speakers to our campus and the Omaha-area community, fostering insight into, and discussion about, issues of national and global import,” Fr. Hendrickson said.

Sharing Their Views

In a wide-ranging, 75-minute conversation moderated by award-winning CNN national correspondent Suzanne Malveaux, HON’12 (whose father, Floyd Malveaux, MD, PhD, BS’61, is a Creighton alumnus and an emeriti member of the Board of Trustees), Albright and Powell discussed everything from today’s headlines to the challenges faced by the Founding Fathers in drafting the Constitution. All three had visited with students earlier in the day.

“I congratulate Creighton on its 140th anniversary,” said Albright, a professor of foreign policy at Georgetown University. “It’s a great university, and I enjoyed being with students today.”

Trust and confidence were central themes of the evening’s conversation, and whatever trials the country might face today, there’s one thing to which the  pair of former U.S. secretaries of state attested.

“There is no substitute for the United States of America,” said Powell, who served as head of the State Department under President George W. Bush. “We are still the greatest democracy in the world. We are great today. We were great yesterday. We’ll be great tomorrow.”

Powell said the recent retreat of the U.S. from the world stage is creating a vacuum in world leadership that other powers, not all of them positive, are eager to fill. Citing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Agreement and the Iran nuclear treaty, among others, he said he’s concerned about the rise of extremism in Europe, Asia and other nations.

“They’re turning inward,” Powell said of nations who are looking elsewhere for standard-bearers of leadership. “They’re listening to the extremes in their countries, and it’s crushing ideals and freedom.

“We’re losing our place in the world. We are the forerunners of democracy. We have a free press, a good system of elections, partnerships. And now we’re pulling out of these agreements. I’ve had arguments with the Russians, I’ve had arguments with the Chinese,” Powell said. “That’s what diplomacy’s about. That’s what politics is about. You can’t just go your own way in this. It’s always been ‘America first.’ But it’s never been ‘America alone.’”

“We live in a very complex world where American leadership is needed now more than ever,” said Albright, who served under President Bill Clinton as the first female secretary of state and highest-ranking woman in the federal government. “It’s not this business of we’re a victim and we don’t want to be a part of it anymore. Americans don’t like the word multilateralism — it’s got too many syllables and it ends in ‘ism.’ But it’s partnership, and America needs to be a part of it. Pulling back only hurts the American people.”

Albright added that globalism does not mean a turn away from pride of country, from patriotism or American identity. What becomes problematic is the tribalism, she said, the favoring of “my group over yours.” In a multicultural society such as the U.S., where citizens are ideally bound by law and principle, the retreat to religious or racial or ethnic identity summons massive problems.

“Patriotism is good, but we must be very careful about nationalism,” she said. “This one tribe against another tribe and the exacerbation of our differences is not helpful. I don’t like the word tolerance, either, because it makes it sound like you put up with something. I think respect is what we need, to find out where someone is coming from.”

A Matter of Faith

Albright and Powell next moved into a reflection on one of those elements most tied into personal identity: faith.

Both leaders recounted moments in the White House’s Situation Room and in other crises when answers were unclear and slow in coming.

“We needed to get some of that divine information,” said Powell.

Powell said he remembers clearly a photograph of a mother at a tombstone in Arlington National Cemetery.

“And at the top of the tombstone, it wasn’t a cross, it wasn’t the Star of David,” he said. “It was the crescent (the religious symbol of Islam). It reminds me that Americans of every faith have seen fit to sacrifice for their country.”

Albright was raised Roman Catholic and did not learn of her Jewish roots until the vetting process prior to becoming secretary of state, when it was revealed that she had lost 26 relatives in the Holocaust.

“That obviously made me think about family, but also that faith is not something that divides us. It cannot be,” Albright said. “My faith has meant a great deal to me. It’s something that’s always there.”

Speaking after a week fraught with violence that ended in tragedy with a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Oct. 27 that killed 11 people, both Albright and Powell took a moment to reflect on the unswerving American asset and celebration of diversity.

“There’s no way to describe what has been one of the most disappointing, horrible and un-American set of activities that’s taken place,” Albright said of the shooting. “There are divisions in our society that have come about as a result of technology and the downside of globalization, but we need leaders who look for common ground and don’t exacerbate (division).”

Lasting Legacies

Of their legacies, both diplomats opined on their humble beginnings that eventually brought them to national prominence and service.

“I hope they might say she worked very hard to defend America’s national interests and made people proud of what America is about,” Albright said. “The concept that if you work hard and get a position that you can do something with, can give back with, that’s an American dream and legacy. I want my legacy to be I’m a grateful American and I tried to give back.”

Powell also touched on his military and civilian service.

“As a kid coming from the South Bronx, I could not have dreamed I’d reach the positions I did. But I did because this is a great country, and I’m grateful to it,” he said. “I hope my legacy is that he was a pretty good soldier, did his duty and loved his country.”