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U.S. Department of State

Great Seal Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright
Remarks at the William Safire Roast Dinner
Benefiting the Spina Bifida Association
Washington, DC, October 1, 1998
As released by the Office of the Spokesman, October 2, 1998

Blue Bar

Thank you, Mark, and good evening to you all. I am delighted to be here with my very distinguished colleagues. I am particularly grateful to have had a chance, as Congress nears adjournment, to lobby Senator McCain for his vote and to ask Chairman Livingston for money. I only hope my remarks to you will generate a more positive response than my requests to them.

I must tell you at the outset that, as a diplomat, it is very out of character for me to participate in a roast. When I joined the State Department five-and-a-half years ago, I had all my partisan instincts surgically removed, and I am afraid that that has made me much too nice. It is especially unnerving to be asked to take on our guest of honor, who has not one but three chances a week to strike back in print and who is always on the lookout not only for errors of policy but also of grammar. It would, of course, only be fair if he were to excuse me on the latter because English is, after all, not my native tongue.

(Laughter.)

Still, Bill Safire is of the media and I must say, with only a few exceptions, our foreign policy has been treated quite fairly in the press. Now, what are those exceptions, you ask. Well, let me tell you. First, some say our foreign policy is hegemonic, that we're arrogant and seek to impose our views and values on others. But let's be honest. Who cares what they think?

(Laughter.)

Some say our foreign policy is all style and no substance, but they are just jealous of my hats and pins.

(Laughter.)

Some say we've delegated too much of our foreign policy to other agencies. But Treasury Secretary Rubin assures me that that's just not true.

(Laughter.)

Some even say the Secretary of State is thin-skinned and can't take criticism. I can't stand people who say that.

(Laughter.)

Finally, some in the press seem to hold America responsible for everything that goes wrong anywhere in the world. This kind of commentary never used to make me feel guilty, and then I found out I was Jewish.

(Laughter.)

But you have to admit the criticisms of our policies are really unfair. We do, after all, live in a world of the unexpected where you can never tell what will happen next. To illustrate that, I would like to share with you a story torn literally from the day's headlines. According to Reuters, the shell-shocked crew of a Japanese trawler was plucked from the Sea of Japan last year clinging to the wreckage of their sunken ship. Their rescue was followed almost immediately, however, by their imprisonment. Authorities simply could not accept their story that the ship had been sunk by a cow plunging rapidly out of the clear, blue sky.

For weeks, the fishermen remained in prison until a reluctant air force, Russian air force, confessed that the crew of one of its cargo planes had misappropriated a cow wandering near a Siberian airfield. The crew had forced the cow into the plane and taken off. Unfortunately, they were not prepared to deal with a large and upset bovine rampaging around their aircraft. To save themselves, they shoved the animal out of the door somewhere over the Sea of Japan.

Now, I said this is a true story. We even got an action cable on this at the State Department. As Bill Safire would certainly tell you, it is a parable of our new global era. When problems arise anywhere, there are serious consequences everywhere. So the moral of the story is: Never send to know upon whom the cow falls. It falls on thee.

(Applause.)

But enough about cows. Let's talk about William Safire. How on earth did he get to where he is today? He is truly the story of America. He was born many, many years ago in a log cabin with a dirt floor and a marble bidet. An idealist by nature, he was drawn as a young man to the field of public relations where he landed - I kid you not - the prized Ex-Lax account. From there, it was but a short step to national politics.

(Laughter.)

Soon he was taken under the right wing of Richard Nixon and the rest is history. We encounter him now at the very pinnacle, for in the Land of Pundits he is king. He is word maven to the masses, writer of very fat books, and the acclaimed author of the aging but still awesome alliterative Agnewisms. As a writer, he combines the elegance of Henry James and the wit of H.L. Mencken with the sensitivity of Don Imus and the subtlety of his idol and former colleague, Patrick Buchanan. I dare to say that it would not be praising him too highly to say that here in our midst tonight is the male equivalent of Maureen Dowd.

(Laughter.)

Now, we could consider the breadth and sweep of his intellectual range, but let's not. Let's consider the fact that in about 80 percent of his political columns, Safire either reminisces about Watergate or raises the roof about Koreagate, Contragate, Iraqgate, Travelgate, Whitewatergate, and so on. He could be the dean of polemics at the school for scandal. He even went after Nancy Reagan for borrowing dresses. Nonetheless, the man is a moral icon, and that is why cabinet members bow down to him. Lotuses spring from his footsteps. Infinitives reunite for him while the Potomac divides to let him pass.

Moreover, he has done all this while serving a lifetime self-appointment as Shadow Secretary of State. Of course, he shares that title with about half the people in this room.

(Laughter.)

There is one thing about Bill Safire which we can all agree. Whether he is being balanced, in his own way on the Middle East, outrageous about Russia or a trifle paranoid about October surprises, he is never dull - except perhaps on language. How often have we picked up the Times magazine on Sunday morning only to find ourselves lulled back into dreamland by Mr. Safire's search, for example, for the etymological derivation of "obnubilate?"

But let us natter on negatively. Let us admit that whether Safire is being silly or serious, reassuring or provocative, wrong or right, or all of these things at once, he is always read. And that is because whatever he is saying, no one says it better than Bill Safire. He is quite simply the most versatile and interesting political columnist of his generation, and I am proud to say that he is - or at least he was until I began speaking tonight - my friend.

Finally, let us not for a moment forget why we are here. And remember that if there is one theme that runs through all the writings of Bill Safire, it is that there is something noble in hanging in and fighting back and refusing to quit no matter how much the odds seemed to have been stacked unfairly against you.

I said at the outset that I don't feel particularly comfortable about participating in roasts, but I had to be here tonight with all of you to say to Judy and Al, and Jeffrey, who is on the mend, and to all those who are afflicted or affected by spina bifida, hang in there. Don't quit. You have our support. You have our love. May God bless you and bring you peace.

Thank you very much.

(Applause.)

[End of Document]

Blue Bar

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