For all the stories about war and peace that Madeleine Albright's jewelry tells in the "Read My Pins" exhibition, she acknowledged Friday that there's nothing to represent one of her signal accomplishments as U.S. secretary of state: making peace with Jesse Helms.
Albright came to the Mint Museum Uptown and gave a guided tour of the show, which showcases the jewelry that she made a vehicle of diplomacy and patriotism. Beginning with the snake pin that she wore as a retort to Saddam Hussein, who had called her an "unparalleled serpent," she discussed the roles that some of her favorite pins played in the tumultuous era of Saddam, Kosovo and Kim Jong Il. She also added some non-diplomatic perspective. Pointing to a photo showing her side-by-side with the North Korean ruler, who stood about the same height, she recalled the situation: "I knew I had high heels on," she said, "and I looked down and saw that he did, too."
Afterward, I asked if there was anything harking back to her relationship with Helms, who was known for bottling up State Department initiatives in his Senate committee -- until Albright staged a charm offensive. No, she said, there was no pin for him. But she did have story to tell.
Helms once invited her to speak at St. Mary's School in Raleigh, she recalled, and he came along to introduce her. In a situation like that, she said, he couldn't exactly say that she was an idiot, could he? Later, he brought her down to speak at his alma mater, Wingate University. They found some barbecue first, then went for the speech, then flew back to Washington together.
During the flight, Helms turned to her and said: "Miss Madeleine, we're going to make history together."
"And we did," she said. One thing she didn't mention: That very day, according to a news story from then, Helms had announced that he'd relent on a chemical-weapons treaty he had been opposing, and let it move from his committee to the full Senate for a vote.
"While Jesse Helms and I didn't agree on a lot of issues, we did agree on the interests of the United States," Albright said.
"We really were friends," she added. In the face of the partisanship and venom that bottle up U.S. politics nowadays, she said, she often points to her relationship with Helms as an example of how the country ought to operate.
If she can get more people on board with that, she and Helms will really have made history.
(Photo of the American flag pin by Robert Sorrell: Mint Museum Uptown)