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Albright and Powell, both secretaries of state, were part of a small club

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A few months before his death, Colin Powell spoke with Bob Woodward of The Washington Post about his health.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COLIN POWELL: Well, you see, I've got to go to the hospital about two or three times a week. I've got multiple myeloma cancer. And I've got Parkinson's disease. But otherwise, I'm fine.

BOB WOODWARD: Oh, no. I'm so sorry.

POWELL: Don't say no. Don't feel sorry for me. For God's sake, I'm 85 years old, got to have something.

WOODWARD: Well, you've...

POWELL: And I don't - I haven't lost a day of life fighting these two diseases. I'm in good shape.

INSKEEP: In good shape, he said. And he kept on fighting until his death from complications from COVID-19 this week. Our next guest is one of Powell's predecessors as secretary of state. Powell was the first Black person to hold the job, Madeleine Albright was the first woman. Madam Secretary, welcome to the program again.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Delighted to be with you. Thank you.

INSKEEP: You, of course, were from different parties but part of a very small club, former secretaries of state. What was Colin Powell like?

ALBRIGHT: Well, he was truly an incomparable man in every way and incredibly smart, dedicated to this country. And turned out we were - got to be very, very good friends. And he was somebody that understood what our country needed and had served it with great honor.

INSKEEP: And the fact of his career reminds me of how bipartisan foreign policy traditionally has been. When I look at your record and when I look at Secretary Powell's record, I see that he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the president's top military officer, for a period when you were the United Nations ambassador, both of you serving under President Bill Clinton. What was he like to work with?

ALBRIGHT: Well, it was very interesting because we really did argue because that's what you're supposed to do. I think that the important part about the decision-making process in our country when you meet as principals in the situation room is it's important for people to state their views. And he and I were coming at things from a different perspective. I was at the United Nations. And we were talking an awful lot about the Balkans. He had been chairman of the Joint Chiefs and national security adviser. And he was still chairman of the Joint Chiefs when we had these discussions. And I think we reminisced about them later and made it seem - you know, here he was, the hero of the western world. And I was a mere mortal, female civilian. But it was something that we talked about, and the importance of presenting those decisions. And we respected each other's views.

INSKEEP: Meaning that you could speak up to him, and he would actually listen and respond to what you had to say?

ALBRIGHT: Yes, he would. I mean, we did make quite a lot of fun of it in some ways later, because when he wrote his book, he said, I practically gave him an aneurysm with my...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

ALBRIGHT: ...Way that I wanted to use force in the Balkans. And so I called him up. And I said, Colin, an aneurysm? And he said, yes. You didn't understand that our soldiers weren't toy soldiers.

INSKEEP: Was this the famous conversation, Madam Secretary, when you were reported to have said that if we have a military, why don't we use it?

ALBRIGHT: Yes. That is absolutely true.

INSKEEP: And he had a different idea of when force should be used and maybe a different threshold for when American lives should be at risk.

ALBRIGHT: Well, the interesting part is, though, we were the same age, we had a very different, you know, background in terms of where we came from. I was born in Czechoslovakia. And for me, Munich was dispositive. Nobody did anything. And the country I was born in was sold down the river.

INSKEEP: We're talking about 1938, when Hitler's Germany took over?

ALBRIGHT: 1938.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

ALBRIGHT: And he was the Vietnam generation in many different ways. And we really did see things differently from that perspective. And as I teach about decision-making, I do make the point that people might have to know what each other's backgrounds are. Where does your thinking come from?

INSKEEP: I want to note again for people that you were the first woman to serve as secretary of state. Secretary Powell was the first Black person to serve in a number of positions in a row. I know there are special difficulties of being first. What qualities do you think he had that made him able to rise to that challenge not once but several times?

ALBRIGHT: Well, I think that it was a sense that he knew where he came from and what had to be done, and that he had a set of values that made him recognize that service to the country was very important - and that in that role, he had to understand the people that he worked with, that he depended on, as he would call, the troops.

INSKEEP: Meaning that he wanted - he would manage down, as you would say. He would take care of the people below him and also take into account what they could do and what their concerns were.

ALBRIGHT: Very much so, you know? And when - by the way, when he was named secretary, I still was. He came to my house. There have been stories about the fact that he liked cars. He drove himself over. And then we talked about what the State Department needed. And one of the things I talked about was a little modernization technologically. And he took the State Department to a whole new technological era. But mostly, he understood the importance of dealing with the people and having those that were actually doing the work have a chance to meet with the secretary of state. He really was wonderful in terms of his relationship with people.

INSKEEP: One other thing, Madam Secretary. For a lot of people, his career is going to boil down to one thing, the Iraq War. We discussed that plenty on the program yesterday. But I want to raise it one more time and just ask, was his career about more than that to you?

ALBRIGHT: Definitely more than that. I mean, I think that, you know, he is somebody that understood what America's role needed to be. He had a clear understanding of how the military worked with the civilians. And I think that what we need to think about him is his sense of the importance of giving back. He was a grateful American. He knew that public service was important. And that is the aspect in terms of understanding how to train the next generation. The thing that he did when he left was this Promise for America of working with young people, establishing a school at City College, where he went to college, for people that wanted to have public lives. And so he understood the future. And he understood what needed to be done honorably.

INSKEEP: Madeleine Albright, former secretary of State, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

ALBRIGHT: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.