Madeleine Albright's Gift

By Josiah Lee Auspitz

[Reprinted from the Washington Post Op-Ed Page, January 9, 1997]

Now that the Senate is moving to confirm the nomination of Madeleine Albright as Secretary of State, I must come forward to reveal an incident from her secret life-- as philanthropist. My testimony:

I first heard of Madeleine Albright in 1988 after a leading publisher agreed to give medical books to Czechoslovakia. Someone told me that she was a distinguished professor who, having been born in that country, might have good advice.

I called her cold. I introduced myself as an officer of a charitable organization that had been donating books in Poland and Hungary. Hitherto, Czechoslovakia had not even allowed its physicians to receive substantial donations of professional literature from the West.

But now the Czech and Slovak Medical Societies had persuaded their government to accept duty-free a forty-foot container, holding 20,000 medical books. The physicians would undertake to select appropriate titles and to distribute the books equitably.

I told her also that Tom Kean, then governor of New Jersey, had alerted the Slovak Catholic Sokol, a fraternal organization in his state, which had volunteered to warehouse and process the books in a port city. The missing link was overseas transport.

Our problem was timing. The publishers wanted to deliver the books before the end of their tax year, which was imminent. We couldn't accept delivery without securing shipping. Did Professor Albright have any ideas?

"Well," she said, with the air of a student coming up with the right answer, "you know, I could do this."

"I thought you were a college professor."

"Yes, but I could do this myself."

"I really didn't call you for money," I told her.

"I know, but I could do this. Would you like a check?"

"No, I think we can get everything donated. What we need is a financial guarantee in case the shipping doesn't come through."

"Well, you've got it. Send me a bill for what you can't raise."

In the end, I sent Professor Albright a bill for zero. Ocean freight and all other costs were indeed contributed in-kind, and in 1989 the books reached medical schools, hospitals and clinics throughout Czechoslovakia. She wrote back that we should let her know if we needed her again.

In 1990, the Velvet Revolution restored democracy to Czechoslovakia. The New York Times editorialized on ways Americans could help post-Communist societies. The editorial piece mentioned our organization's programs in "Poland and Czechoslovakia."

This was not quite accurate. Our ongoing programs were still limited to Poland and Hungary. We had only sent that one shipment of medical books to Czechoslovakia. The editors dutifully published a small correction, and I faxed it to Professor Albright with a note that if she wished to turn the Times' error into fact, this was probably the opportune moment.

A week later there arrived a check sufficient to launch a full-scale book donation program in Czechoslovakia. Mrs. Albright requested anonymity, but when she became Ambassador to the United Nations, she permitted her name to be published. She was persuaded that its use might encourage others to support similar educational and scientific efforts elsewhere.

The Czech and Slovak programs, which she helped to establish, have now sent more than 300,000 English-language books, journals and CD-ROMS from some 200 publishers and many private and institutional donors. A young biologist named Pavol Demes, who became active in distributing books in Slovakia, has testified to their almost magical effect:

"It may be hard to comprehend how much the gift of books means for my country. The first shipment of books to Slovakia was welcomed with a brass band...and reports on national television...This program is well-known and continues to be one of the most visible, direct and personal forms of Western assistance...

"It is not just the content of the books that is important. The whole process by which a few dedicated people obtain and distribute the books has helped to reintroduce a culture of giving and of public service. Perhaps I can best explain it this way: When books...first arrived in Slovakia, many asked, 'Why are Americans doing this? What are they getting out of it?' Today, they are more likely to ask, 'When do you expect another shipment of books?' or 'Is there anything I can do to help?'"

Josiah Lee Auspitz served from 1985-1995 as Secretary of the Sabre Foundation, which has donated nearly three million books in the former Eastern bloc since 1986.