WASHINGTON — Current and former presidents, U.S. government officials, secretaries of state, foreign ministers, ambassadors and a large congressional delegation commemorated the life of the late Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at her funeral service Wednesday.
President Joe Biden delivered the first tribute, calling Albright a "force of nature" who "turned the tide of history." Biden said he learned that she had died while flying to Europe to meet with NATO allies in Brussels to discuss the alliance's response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
"It was not lost on me that Madeleine was a big part of the reason NATO was still strong and galvanized as it is today," Biden said at the service at Washington National Cathedral.
Biden said when he spoke in Warsaw, Poland, during that trip, most people in the audience didn't speak English. But when he mentioned Albright, "They all stopped everything, they started to cheer," he said. "It was spontaneous. It was real. Her name is still synonymous with America as a force for good in the world."
Biden said Albright understood what he has always believed — that international politics is personal.
"She can go toe to toe with the toughest dictators, then turn around and literally teach a fellow ambassador how to do the Macarena on the floor of the U.N. Security Council."
Biden said Albright "learned diplomacy at the dinner table" and said nothing mattered more to her than family. He also applauded her work mentoring generations of rising foreign policy experts, especially young women, and her love for swearing in new U.S. citizens.
President Bill Clinton said in his tribute that he had spoken with Albright two weeks before she died. Clinton said they spent the first few minutes "telling stories that we swore were true and joking with each other." He said she didn't want to waste time discussing her health.
"'The only thing that really matters is what kind of world we’re going to leave to our grandchildren,'" Clinton recalled her saying to him. "I’ll never forget that conversation as long as I live. It was so perfectly Madeline."
Clinton said Albright had a "full, hopeful life" because "she knew what she believed in, she knew what she was for, she knew what she was against, and she wanted other people to feel the same way and then to talk about it, instead of killing each other over it."
He shared memories of international trips they took together, including one during his presidency when he and then-first lady Hillary Clinton walked into a dance hall in Buenos Aires.
"There was Madeline dancing a mean tango. The rest of us were looking for lessons and she was looking for the dance floor. She was always about a half a step ahead."
The former president guessed what Albright would say at her funeral: "I had a good life. I was happy. I was so blessed in my family and my work and friends, but freedom and democracy and the rule of law are not permanently enshrined just because we've survived 200-plus years. Now think about the world you want for your grandchildren and work for it."
Hillary Clinton delivered the final tribute, saying that she first met Albright in the 1980s and became friends after learning they were both graduates of Wellesley College. Clinton said they called each other "'59 and '69," the years they graduated. The former first lady revealed that she urged her husband to nominate Albright as the first female secretary of state.
"When dictators dragged their feet or ambassadors filibustered, Madeline never hesitated to speak up," Clinton said. "And just in case they didn’t get the message, she would put on a snail pin to signal her impatience."
Clinton said that she, Albright and the late-Secretary of State Colin Powell all watched the series "Madame Secretary" about a female secretary of state. "Madeleine was always making a point to the script writer, 'That would not have happened,'" Clinton said.
"If Madeline were here with us today, she would also remind us this must be a season of action," Clinton said. "And yes, once again, we must heed the wisdom of her life and the cause of her public service: Stand up to dictators and demagogues, from the battlefields of Ukraine to the falls of our own Capitol. Defend democracy at home just as vigorously we do abroad. Live up to the ideals of the country that welcomed an 11-year-old refugee sailing into New York Harbor on a ship called SS America and made her secretary of state," she said.
Biden became the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1997, shortly before Albright became secretary of state, nominated as the first woman to be America's top diplomat by President Clinton. Hillary Clinton was first lady during Albright's tenure and they became close friends.
Albright's burial was scheduled for immediately after the service and was only for family.
The attendees at the service included former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, former Vice President Al Gore, and former Secretaries of State John Kerry and Condoleezza Rice. Other attendees included several members of Biden's Cabinet and top aides, congressional leaders and foreign leaders, such as the president and prime minister of Kosovo and the president of Georgia.
Albright died of cancer at the age of 84 in March, her family said. She was born on May 15, 1937, in Prague, where her father was a diplomat, and her family fled Czechoslovakia when she was 2 years old to escape the Nazis. They initially moved to England, before settling in Denver in 1948. Albright became a U.S. citizen in 1957, and graduated from Wellesley College. She later earned her doctorate in public law and government at Columbia University.
President Clinton named Albright the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations shortly after he was inaugurated in 1993, and nominated her to be his secretary of state three years later. She was confirmed in 1997 by a vote of 99-0. At the time, she was the highest-ranking woman in the history of the U.S. government.
After she became secretary of state, Albright found out from a Washington Post reporter that she was of Jewish descent. She had been raised Roman Catholic, and was “stunned” when reporter Michael Dobbs’ research showed that “three of my grandparents and numerous other family members had died in the Holocaust,” Albright told Politico in 2012.
After leaving public office, Albright went on to teach at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and became a prolific author, writing seven New York Times bestsellers.
In 2012, then-President Barack Obama awarded Albright the Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.