The story begins with an amethyst pin in New Orleans, one that brought Madeleine Albright to the brink of tears. Her story usually begins with the pin that started it all, the serpent pin inspired by a poem published by the government-controlled press when the former secretary of state criticized Saddam Hussein for refusal to comply with UN inspection programs.
The poem referred to her as a serpent. Albright was serving as the United States’ ambassador to the United Nations at the time.
In October 1994, soon after the poem was published, Albright was scheduled to meet with Iraqi officials. She’d purchased a pin in the image of a serpent years earlier and decided to wear it to the meeting.
The gesture didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but a press corps member who remembered the poem asked why Albright had chosen that particular pin.
“I smiled and said that it was my way of sending a message,” she said.
Before long, jewelry had become part of what Albright called her “diplomatic arsenal.”
“Former President George H.W. Bush had been known for saying ?Read my lips,’” she said. “I began encouraging colleagues and reporters to ?Read my pins.’”
The serpent pin spurred Albright’s massive collection of pins, many of which are included in the exhibit Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection, which runs through Aug. 14 in the New Orleans Museum of Art.
These are the pins that became her trademark, the pins that diplomats and world leaders read to gauge her mood during her tenure as the nation’s first woman to serve as secretary of state.
She was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1997 and served until he left office in 2001.
And during that time, people began noticing the jewelry she wore on her left shoulder.
“The idea of using pins as a diplomatic tool is not found in any State Department manual or in any text chronicling American foreign policy,” Albright writes in Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box. The book also serves as the official catalog for the exhibition.
“The truth is that it never would have happened if not for Saddam Hussein,” she continues.
Odd that the Iraqi dictator could inspire such an American tradition. True, the tradition belongs to Albright, but it’s now part of American history. This history’s timeline leads to the case highlighting the amethyst pin greeting visitors as they enter the exhibit.
Out of all of the pins, this one truly connects Albright to the city where her pins are on display. It was never used in the diplomacy process, never worn when she met with heads of state.
But it has as much meaning - maybe more - as those pins.
“In 2005, I spoke to the D-Day Museum in New Orleans, at an event delayed for a year because of Hurricane Katrina,” she writes. “At the reception following my speech, a young man bearing a small box approached me. Inside the box was a pin.”
“My mother loved you,” the man explained, “and she knew that you liked and wore pins. My father gave her this one for their fiftieth wedding anniversary. She died as a result of Katrina, and my father and I think she would have wanted you to have it. It would be an honor to her if you would accept it.”
“I am not often speechless, nor am I quick to tear up, but this gift pushed me to the brink,” Albright writes. “The young man’s father, I discovered, had earned two Purple Hearts fighting the Nazis in France, having suffered a bayonet wound and still carrying shrapnel in his left calf. His name is J.J. Witmeyer Jr., and he and his wife, Thais Audrey, were married for sixty-two years.”
Albright calls the piece the Katrina pin. It forms a flower composed of amethysts and diamonds.
“I wear it as a reminder that jewelry’s greatest value comes not from intrinsic materials or brilliant designs but from the emotions we invest,” she writes. “The most cherished attributes are not those that dazzle the eye but those that recall to the mind the face and spirit of a loved one.”
This story undoubtedly came back to Albright when she paid another visit to New Orleans, this time on May 23, when she took part in the museum’s official opening of the exhibit.
The pins fill two upstairs galleries in a sparkling display, some of them crafted by known designers, others simply costume pieces created by unknown artisans.
Whether antiques or inexpensive plastic pieces, it doesn’t matter. What counts most here are stories behind each pin, many of them worn during key moments in American history.
Many of these moments are immortalized by photographs accompanying the pins in key displays.
There’s Albright in October 2000, standing next to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Albright’s rhinestone American flag almost hides the shoulder of her blue dress.
Any doubts? Check out this massive pin for yourself in the exhibit.
“In no other country on Earth are pins more crucial or less decorative,” Albright writes. “Every North Korean is expected to wear a pin bearing the nation’s founder, Kim Il-sung. Failure to display this badge of adoration is evidence of independent political thought, something strictly prohibited and severely punished.”
Which is why Albright thinks it’s absurd when United States politicians are criticized for not wearing American flag pins.
“The United States is a strong, confident country; we need not be so insecure as to require constant demonstrations of allegiances,” she writes.
Then again, North Korea was a different situation, and Albright thought it more than appropriate to display pride in her nation.
“I wore the boldest American flag pin I had when meeting Kim Jong-il,” she writes. “North Koreans are taught from an early age that America is evil; I wanted them to reconcile that reputation with photos of their exalted leader playing host to me.”
Then there’s the side note. Kim Jong-il is a short man, and when standing next to Albright in her heels, his height would have been accented. So, to remedy this, he also wore heels in the photograph to make himself appear taller.
The Katrina pin, as well as the American flag, are part of a pin category Albright labels “Pins with a Purpose.” Pins portraying fruits and vegetables are part of a category known as “Pins with Attitude.”
Albright’s butterfly pins are also among the “Pins with Attitude,” all signifying transformation. Birds, dragonflies, leaves and mushrooms - they’re all pins with attitude.
But it’s the “Pins with a Purpose” that captivate, maybe because many viewers will remember watching or reading about some of the events they represent, which makes the pins part of the viewers’ history, as well as Albright’s.
Take, for instance, the three monkey pins representing “Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, See No Evil.” Albright bought the pins after clowning for a photograph with President Clinton and Defense Secretary Bill Cohen.
“Evil, of course, resides in the eye of the beholder,” she writes. “One of my more distinctive pieces of jewelry conveys a message about evil and how to resist it.”
This story begins in the spring of 1999, when NATO leaders celebrated the alliance’s 50th anniversary in Washington.
“As part of our preparations, President Clinton met with his foreign policy team,” Albright writes. “Just as we were getting down to business, photographer Diana Walker was allowed in.”
The photo op was great, but the discussion had to stop until Walker left.
“To dramatize the need for discretion, the president, clowning around, clamped his hand over his mouth,” Albright continues. “Defense Secretary Bill Cohen then put his hands over his ears. Taking my cue from the other two, I promptly covered my eyes.”
And there’s the photo next to the pins with the president in the center, Cohen on his right and Madam Secretary on his left.
Of course, not all was fun and games. Albright’s Interceptor Missile pin, designed by Lisa Vershbow, is found in a nearby case. Albright wore it on the day she met with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in one of many contentious discussions about nuclear arms.
Ivanov inquired about the pin.
“Is that one of your interceptor missiles?” he asked.
“Yes,” Albright said, “and as you can see, we know how to make them very small. So you’d better be ready to negotiate.”
This conversation can be found in both the exhibit’s labels and Albright’s book, as well as the Russians’ admission that they often gauged Albright’s mood by looking at her pins before beginning negotiations.
In the same cluster of display cases can be found the Trailing Eagle pin designed by Les Bernard. The eagle appears to be perched on a shield accented by red jade. Small chairs dangle from the bottom of the pin, creating the trails to which the title refers.
Albright wore this pin when posing for her last cabinet photo in 2000. She sits next to the president on the front row with the White House serving as a backdrop.
And like all of the “Pins with a Purpose” displays, this photo hangs next to the pin. Which, again, sparks memories, making the display more human, more real. And for those who aren’t old enough to remember this time in history, the exhibit gives them an ample opportunity to learn about it.
For there’s so much more to see here, and there’s so much to learn about Albright. Because the pins also serve another purpose - they introduce us to Albright as a person. Viewers experience her humor and sorrow, happiness and times of trouble.
And as she continues to collect pins, they realize that she connects with them. Especially when it comes to New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina will forever be a part of the city’s history.
And now it’s a part of Albright’s.