Long before Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton wowed with her pantsuits, before her predecessor Condoleezza Rice turned heads with those tall black boots, the first female secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, wore lapel pins.
And talk about a diplomatic fashion statement.
During her tenure as the nation’s chief diplomat, Albright often wore pins on her lapel as a creative way to communicate foreign policy messages to friends and foes alike. Roughly 200 of the pins will go on display at the Smithsonian Institution Building (better known as the Castle) starting Friday.
Some of the pins featured in the exhibit were used to comfort the nation, such as the angel Albright wore on her shoulder following the 1998 terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Others were hopeful, including a dove she wore during Middle East peace talks.
But perhaps the most famous is a pin she wore years before she became secretary, when she was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. And the message she delivered with this particular pin was pretty blunt, Albright recalled during a press preview of the exhibit earlier this week.
It was the early 1990s, and Albright had angered Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein by criticizing him on a number of things, most notably his refusal to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors, “which he deserved, because he had invaded a sovereign country, Kuwait,” she recalled.
Albright quickly figured out she had managed to get under Hussein’s skin when she got word that an Iraqi newspaper (run by the dictator’s regime) had published a poem referring to her as an “unparalleled serpent.”
Amused, Albright decided to wear a gold pin featuring a snake wrapped around a branch with a diamond in its mouth. People loved it. “I thought, Oh, this is fun,'” she deadpanned.
Seeing the ability to use the pins to send diplomatic messages, Albright decided to wear pins going forward. Some days she wouldn’t have a specific point to make, so she’d wear a pin merely to reflect her mood. On good days, she’d wear pins of butterflies and other cute things; on bad days, she’d wear spiders and similar creepy-crawlers.
But during important diplomatic negotiations, Albright always took time to think about specifics. When she took her controversial trip to North Korea to meet with Kim Jong Il, Albright made sure to wear the biggest, brightest American flag pin she could find.
During one set of Middle East peace talks, Albright picked out a dove pin but quickly made an alteration. “I started to wear a turtle because it was so slow,” she recalled.
During another set of Middle East negotiations, which the secretary hoped would remain low-key, Albright decided she needed a mushroom-themed pin, because “sometimes talks, like mushrooms, need a little dark,” she said.
When she couldn’t find a mushroom bauble, her security team had a special piece made, featuring a big mushroom (representing the United States) sitting alongside three smaller ones (symbols of Israel, Syria and the Palestinian Authority).
Eventually, so much attention was paid to Albright’s pins that foreign diplomats began to notice. Then-British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook gave her a golden lion head as a gift. And the Russians were especially cognizant.
When Albright met with then-Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov for a series of difficult weapons negotiations, she wore an arrow-like pin. Ivanov noticed the accessory, and asked, “Is that one of your interceptor missiles?”
Albright’s response? “Yes. We know how to make them very small, so you’d better be ready to negotiate.”
Ivanov was amused by Albright’s wit, but not every Russian was always so pleased. During another meeting with Kremlin leaders, Albright wanted to discuss Russia’s policy toward Chechnya.
But Chechnya was the elephant in the room — nobody was willing to bring it up, Albright recalled. So she picked out a pin featuring three monkeys sitting in the “hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil” poses.
Russian President Vladimir Putin quickly noticed the accessory. “He got furious and said, You should not have been talking to Chechnya,'” Albright recalled. “And I said, Oh, I guess I’ve gone too far.'”
Albright noted that most of the pins in her collection are inexpensive costume jewelry and would be worth only a few dollars if not for their use as a foreign policy tool. Before museum curators organized them for the collection, they had been sitting in plastic bags in Albright’s closet.
Not all the pins have any diplomatic relevance, and some of the non-message pins mean the most to Albright.
One pin she received just a few years ago, during a visit to the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina. A man brought her a pretty flower pin made with amethysts and diamonds. It had belonged to his mother, who died as a result of the hurricane but had been a huge fan of Albright’s, so he wanted Albright to have it.
At first, she refused to accept it, but she was so touched by the man’s gesture that she eventually did.
Another favorite is a simple, multicolor, misshapen clay heart, designed in 1972 by Albright’s 5-year-old daughter Katie, who gave it to her mother as a Valentine’s Day present. Now that Katie’s pin is hanging as part of the collection, Albright’s granddaughter created a replacement heart pin, Albright said.
“Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection” opens Friday and runs through Oct. 11.