The day Madeleine Albright learned the language of humor, in public speaking

The Secretary of State was intimidated by a Gridiron Club speech. The trust she placed in her young speechwriter paid big dividends.

I am deeply saddened by the loss of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. I am proud to say that a speech I wrote for her in 1993 — the first funny speech I had ever been asked to write for anyone! — was a triumphant moment for her and a life-altering event for me.

I will never forget meeting with Madeleine Albright, then the U.S. Representative to the United Nations, at her office in the Waldorf Towers for the first time. She let me know in no uncertain terms something I was only in the process of learning: that in Beltway Culture being asked to give a speech at the annual meeting of the Gridiron Club is a Big Fucking Deal and given the other two keynote speakers coming to the podium that night—Majority Leader Bob Dole and President Bill Clinton—she felt quite overmatched. Despite no track record to speak of, I audaciously promised her that working together, we would leverage the power of low expectations to win the night.

The contents of her speech aside, I think the real reason she went on to kill it that night had a lot to do with her performance and delivery. Weeks earlier, the first rehearsal of the first draft was nothing short of dreadful; she read the words on the page like a hostage reading a script against their will. But my panicked response gave rise to a plan. For our next rehearsal, I brought along a friend, Jeff Bergman, a stand-up comedian and voice-over artist with impeccable comic timing and cadence. Jeff stood up and performed her speech for her, whereupon she stood up and delivered a pitch-perfect impersonation of him! Someone later pointed out to me why this was an (accidentally) brilliant idea: Madeleine Albright was fluent in five languages and on that day, she had effortlessly picked up her sixth: humor! (Later in the process, Jeff recorded the final draft and Ambassador Albright listened intently to that recording up until the final hours before the speech.)

The faith Madeleine Albright placed in me to get her through this high-stakes speech was all the inspiration I needed to make this speech as funny and impactful as I knew how, even as I was learning how to do it. I should also note that during this fevered three-week process, I reached out to some top-tier comic talent and venerable wordsmiths and the final product was greatly improved for their efforts. Read the remarks posted below and judge for yourself if Team Albright pulled it off, the dated topical jokes notwithstanding.

Post script #1: A few days after the speech, Ambassador Albright called to tell me that a Cabinet meeting the following Monday, the president announced to all she had delivered the Gridiron’s funniest speech, and that in the days since she received a hundred congratulatory phone calls and been asked to fax along a copy of the speech countless times. (Of course, her friends and colleagues were celebrating her even more than the speech!)

Post script #2: immediately after the speech, I was re-introduced to the president of the United States who had just delivered his own (somewhat lackluster) speech. Bill Clinton asked if I was available to help him on his upcoming speech to the White House Correspondents Dinner. Neither of us knew at the time that I would go on to work with him on two terms’ worth of presidential humor speeches.

Thank you, Madeleine Albright, for the comic fearlessness that was every bit equal to the courage you brought to shaping America’s place in the world. Rest in peace.


Remarks of Ambassador

Madeleine K. Albright

to The Gridiron Club

March 27, 1993

Good evening Mr. President, Mr. Vice President and Mrs. Gore, members of the Gridiron, friends and neighbors. It’s a pleasure to be here with you tonight. But it does raise a fair question: why am I here?

In an administration full of hilarious men and women, how come the Gridiron Club requests a lecture from a notoriously serious academic?

The fact is, the Gridiron Club did try for someone on the administration’s celebrated roster of wits and cut-ups. Originally, they pleaded for Al Gore.

They asked Lloyd Bentsen but he suggested they ask someone funnier. His exact response was “I’m no Janet Reno.”

Peña. Panetta. Cisneros. McLarty. They asked almost everyone. And each time, Hillary said “no.”

After so many rejections, the Gridiron came back with their final demands: They wanted Clinton. They wanted Dole. And they wanted Albright. And of those three women, I was the only one to accept.

Many of you here tonight probably don’t know me well. I‘ve been working in politics at a pretty high level since Ed Muskie was an up-and-comer. Yet I’ve generated a smaller stack of press clips in the past twenty-five years than Mack McLarty has in the past sixty-six days. In fact, I was a foreign policy advisor to Democratic presidential candidates when Russia was known as the Soviet Union and George Stephanopoulos was better known as George Stuffingenvelopes.

However, in the spirit of full disclosure, I must confess this: I was in the room when the decision was made to put Michael Dukakis in that tank. But I can assure you our party will never make that mistake again. By 1996, if we have our way, there won’t be any tanks.

Those who don’t know me well are sometimes intimidated by my background as an academic. But I’d like to take this opportunity to share a secret. When my family came to the United States from Czechoslovakia, we shortened our name at Ellis Island. Originally, it was “Notallthatbright.”

However, I do have a note of caution for those who might underestimate me: Korbel, my middle name, is Czech for “Rodham.”

I do want to thank the Gridiron Club for the singular honor of inviting me to speak as the unanimous choice of the fifteenth ballot. I especially want to thank Helen Thomas.

I am very proud of Helen and so glad to be her friend. She broke a longstanding barrier by being the first woman to be elected to this club and, of course, the first to be elected its president. I’m grateful to her for paving the way for equal treatment for women in this renown fraternity. And I told her that when she checked my coat at the door.

Now I spend most days at another predominately all-male bastion — The United Nations. And I couldn’t be happier. The only problem at the U.N. is that we seem to do the same thing over and over again. It can be very, very repetitive –or so Boutros Boutros Galli tells me.

Truth is, I couldn’t be prouder to be our country’s ambassador to the United Nations. Every time I enter the general assembly, I am overcome with a sense of awe. Never have so many nations been represented in a single room since Ron Brown sat in his office alone.

But my most important role at the United Nations is to be President Clinton’s voice in the world community. Especially during rag weed season.

His very first diplomatic coup was the skillful reunification of Fleetwood Mac.

But there is still plenty of time. After all, it is a four-year term — five if you include his first week.

It is a great honor to serve as his ambassador to the United Nations. I’ll never forget my first day on the job, looking all around me and seeing a pageant of men and women representing the cultures and nations of the world. You never forget your very first cabinet meeting.

I am often asked at the U.N. to describe Warren Christopher. I tell them: Warren Christopher is certainly statesmanlike. Warren Christopher is practically sagelike. Warren Christopher is almost lifelike.

He did such a brilliant job on his recent trip to Egypt. Did you see the press coverage he got? That dramatic photograph of our Secretary of State standing next to the great Sphinx. Chris was the one on the right.

No, I haven’t forgotten my friend Bob Dole. It’s no longer enough just to say that Bob Dole is a nasty guy or Bob Dole has a wicked temper. It’s time to get specific!

Bob Dole has drawn blood so many times that Liddy had to go work at the Red Cross.

Bob keeps saying how much he wants the president’s programs to succeed. C’mon Bob. Nobody believed you when you said that about George Bush!

Bob is one of those rare Republicans who is intentionally funny. I love to hear him speak at these roast dinners — if only just to watch Landon Parvin’s lips move. But anyone who knows Bob well knows that behind that sarcastic grin is a man of sincerity and caring — and behind that, another sarcastic grin.

Actually, I think the future of the Republican party looks good —especially for women. I understand Pat Buchanan has already asked a woman to be his running mate in ‘96. And it’s a pretty balanced ticket. Pat’s from D.C. and Marge Schott is from Ohio.

I know it’s pretty easy to stand up here and poke fun at the Republican party, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that whatever you think of the last two administrations, we are forever in their debt.


And so I hope I have answered that burning question for all who have wondered why I am here. Tonight, I have tried to answer it with humor. But every day, for every member of this administration, we answer that question in a broader sense. We are here to serve, and many of us have waited a long, long time to do so.

It would be an honor for any American to represent their country in the United Nations at this extraordinary time in world history. Every day, we are testing and pushing the limits of the possible in multilateral diplomacy. It is a very special honor for this American to serve. I was not born here. I came to this country from Czechoslovakia when the communists took over. The American government granted my family asylum and, thanks to the generosity of the American people, grew up a free American.

I was eleven years old when I arrived in New York from a neighborhood in Prague called Na Smichove. “Na Smichove” happens to be the Czech word for “laughter.” And that, of course, is the theme of this Gridiron dinner. So it is my great pleasure to share with you this evening of laughter. Because, my friends, no matter the serious nature of our world at home and abroad, I still believe in a place called “Na Smichove.”

Thank you and good night.


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