Madeleine Albright Marks Opening of “Read My Pins” at the LBJ Library

On Oct. 26, Madeleine Albright clasped a commemorative pin on the left shoulder of her jacket. She was in Texas, so her pin featured a lone star, a Stetson cavalry hat, and cowboy boots.

Albright was in Austin to celebrate the opening of Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection at the LBJ Presidential Library. The city is the last stop for Albright’s nine-year traveling exhibition, which displays a collection of pins and brooches that she wore from her time as American ambassador to the U.N., secretary of state, and beyond.

“I have personally revived the costume jewelry industry,” Albright jested. Her collection runs the gamut from “fun and friendly” animals to sinister predators. The pieces range in origin and make. Many are cheap and plastic, straight out of a costume jewelry store. Other pins, bejeweled, diamond-studded, and gold-laden, were gifts from foreign heads of state of Greece, Yemen, Israel, Pakistan, and more.

Alongside a display of jewelry, timepieces, and trinkets owned by Lady Bird and President Lyndon B. Johnson, Albright cut the ribbon to open Read My Pins, touring the exhibition with local media. As she led a throng of reporters, Albright couldn’t help but reminisce.

“Each pin does have some message on foreign policy, and I have always tried to make foreign policy less foreign,” she said. While weaving through a collection of over 200 pins and brooches, she zeroed in on some of the most important pins to her.

Albright began with what started it all: a snake pin that she wore as ambassador to the U.N. This snake, the inspiration for Albright’s jewelry arsenal, stemmed from an unlikely suspect. Following the Gulf War, Albright was trading barbs with Saddam Hussein, an international pariah, with the hopes of deterring future Iraqi aggression.

“Every day I said something perfectly terrible about [Hussein], which he deserved,” Albright recalled. The Iraqi dictator responded by dubbing her an “unparalleled serpent” in state media. This description sparked the idea for her to don a gold antique snake pin. From there, the idea snowballed.

Perusing the pins, viewers can see mementos from a long diplomatic career and critical junctures of U.S. foreign policy. Some pins bring up fond memories, such as meetings with Nelson Mandela and American allies. Others bring to mind the not-so-cozy diplomatic démarches, with authoritarians and tyrants. A lion pin from when Albright met Syria’s then-president, Hafez Al Assad (whose name translates to “lion”). A crude “bug” pin from when the U.S. discovered Russians had bugged the State Department. A dazzling, fist-sized American flag pin from Albright’s tête-à-tête with Kim Jong-Il.

The logic behind the pins, Albright explained, was that she could convey her reservations non-verbally. If a foreign counterpart wanted to know how Albright was feeling on any given day, she quipped: “Read my pins.” The pins sparked small talk, fostered discussion, and served as statements of U.S. foreign policy.

On days Albright wanted to project aggression and fierceness, she would clasp on a pin that sent a “sharp” message: a wasp, spider, or snake. When Albright and President Clinton met with Vladimir Putin, Albright’s pin with three monkeys “nearly got me fired,” she joked. The “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” monkeys signified Russian indifference toward wartime atrocities in its Chechnya campaign, something she said directly to Putin’s face.

Parts of the exhibit are personal. One pin, her favorite, was handmade by her daughter when she was five years old. Many pins and photos in the collection remind Albright of breaking through the glass ceiling to become the first female secretary of state. When she was sworn in on Jan. 22, 1997, she became the highest-ranking woman in the history of the U.S. government. Albright discussed the difficulties she had with foreign leaders, all male, that were either untoward and inappropriate or dismissive and condescending.

Across a near-decade, Albright’s pins have passed through countless museums and eight presidential libraries. Next year, the exhibit will be put on permanent display at the U.S. Diplomacy Center in Washington, D.C.

There, her collection will rest for good among a trove of artifacts that catalogues the long arc of American engagement with the world. In the meantime, Albright plans to keep wearing her pins.

Featured at the LBJ Library from Oct. 28, 2017 to Jan. 21, 2018, Read My Pins explores the journey of Albright’s time as a chief American diplomat and architect of U.S. foreign policy.

Photo by Jay Godwin.


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