WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. leaders past and present praised former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as a fighter against fascism and a champion of women on Wednesday at a funeral service honoring her life and legacy as the first woman to serve as the United States’ top diplomat.
President Joe Biden called Albright a “force of nature” who changed the tide of history and said she was a big reason why the NATO alliance — which he has rallied to support Ukraine against Russia’s invasion — is strong and galvanized today.
Albright, who served as secretary of state from 1997 to 2001, died last month of cancer at age 84. The professor, businesswoman, mother and grandmother was heralded as a trailblazer after her death.
“Her name is still synonymous with America as a force for good in the world,” Biden told mourners at the Washington National Cathedral.
“She loved to speak about America as the indispensable nation. … It was about gratitude for all this country made possible for her. It was a testament to her belief in the endless possibilities that only America could help unlock around the world.”
Albright and her family fled the Nazis in her native Czechoslovakia during World War Two. They eventually settled in the United States, where Albright grew to become a tough-talking diplomat, famous for a sometimes-sharp tongue and a collection of pins she would wear to send political messages.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who as first lady urged her husband, then President Bill Clinton, to choose Albright to be secretary of state, said it was important to heed the lessons of Albright’s life experience.
“Once again, we must heed the wisdom of her life and the cause of her public service: Stand up to dictators and demagogues — from the battlefields of Ukraine to the halls of our own Capitol,” she said, referring to the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack by supporters of then-President Donald Trump, who was not present at the funeral.
Clinton noted Albright’s support of other women.
“She didn’t just help other women; she spent her entire life counseling and cajoling, inspiring and lifting up so many of us who are here today,” Clinton said.
As U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 1993 to 1997, Albright raised eyebrows with her response to a 1996 incident in which Cuban jet fighters downed two unarmed U.S.-based planes, saying: “This is not cojones, this is cowardice,” using a Spanish vulgarity meaning “testicles.”
Former President Clinton said he told her afterwards that it was the best line anyone had used in his administration until then. “I called her and I said, ‘I’m just jealous,'” he recalled.
More than 1,400 people were expected to attend Albright’s service, according to a spokesperson for the family, including foreign ministers, ambassadors and members of Congress.
The family requested that attendees wear masks inside the cathedral; Washington has experienced a dramatic uptick in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks.
Albright’s three daughters gave tributes and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave a reading from the Bible.
Former President Barack Obama, former first lady Michelle Obama and former Vice President Al Gore attended along with current administration officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Trevor Hunnicutt; additional reporting by Susan Heavey; editing by Bernard Orr and Jonathan Oatis)