It’s 8:00 pm on a Tuesday night, and I’m standing outside a synagogue on the Upper East Side (two spaces that I infrequently inhabit, to say the least). It’s cold, the first real week of fall, and I’m wearing “nice clothes.” Privately hired security guards swarm the street outside the building, weirdly buzzed to talk to anyone around. They give off the same vibes that seventh graders give when they swarm the sidewalk outside the Bar Pitti on their iPhones, searching for the omnipresent celebrity. I catch a quick glimpse of a woman who has a mysterious resemblance to the infamous Annette The Sub, or maybe just another elderly white lady in a sweater, and my fear is confirmed: the people who show up (albeit on a weeknight and in a synagogue) to an appearance of Madeleine Albright and Dick Cheney are old. Very old.
Nonetheless, here I am, standing next to my mom and brother, waiting to enter the synagogue. My mom had bought tickets a few weeks earlier, in a frenzy of excitement at the prospect of listening to someone talk about foreign policy who might actually be qualified—Albright, not Cheney, of course. My brother and I are excited, too, though our immediate familiarity with Albright exists not much beyond being a landmark for women in politics, and Cheney not much beyond the Vine.
I’m excited to listen to Albright for the obvious reasons, (she escaped civil strife in Czechoslovakia in 1948 and went on to work for the U.S. National Security Council, then became the first female Secretary of State) but also for an arbitrary one: I’ve always loved that trippy Gilmore Girls episode about Rory’s 21st birthday where she dreams that Albright is her mother, and the real Albright visits her in the middle of the night to offer maternal advice and raunchy jokes. While the episode is by no means a landmark of Albright’s decorated career, it might offer something accessible.
Over the summer I read Albright’s most recent book, Fascism: A Warning, which was Ann’s recommended summer reading. The book focuses on fascist leaders and their personal and political brutality, beginning with Mussolini, and ending, unsurprisingly, and perhaps unavoidably, with Trump. Albright, a member of Clinton’s former cabinet, is vocal in her political and personal disdain for President Trump. Albright is a politician and a foreign policy expert, so the fascinating parts of the book are not the sections where she attempts to artfully recreate the image of Mussolini’s corpse hanging upside-down in a gas station, but the places where she examines her own career and the implications of President Clinton’s eight years of foreign policy. Albright’s legacy is not without messiness— her reluctance to label the killings in Rwanda as genocide, for example—and this is not lost on me as she begins answering questions.
Because the venue for this particular event is a synagogue, the moderator centers much of the conversation around foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly around Israel. Albright claims that the US needs to “cut the B.S.” which means that we can’t renounce the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) despite our historical alignment with Israel. She seems, at least in this context, to view the Israel-Palestine conflict as of the utmost importance to American foreign policy agenda. Cheney, on the other hand, downplays the issue (the irony of Dick Cheney minimizing the importance of conflict in the Middle East!) and claims that it is “maybe not the one that deserves this kind of attention.” Instead, Cheney focuses on the “huge issue” of the Iran nuclear deal, and then reverts to criticizing Obama-era foreign policy: “the administration made a huge mistake when they turned their backs on our allies in the region and signed up with Iran.” President Trump fulfilled his campaign promise to abandon the nuclear deal in May. Later, Albright quoted Cheney’s longtime Republican colleague, James Baker, saying that Baker warned of the impact of attempting to create lasting peace in the Middle East. It takes too much time and risks too many vulnerable alliances.
The conversation uncomfortably drifts to the inevitable topic: President Trump. Albright is clearly reigning herself in, focusing on the policy discrepancies in Trump’s rhetoric, and the lack of responsibility or nuance with which he approaches foreign policy. As someone who arguably escorted the US out of the Cold War, she seems the most upset about Trump’s opinions on NATO. Presidents in the past have requested more financial contributions from European countries, but none have questioned the importance, relevance, or intent of the organization. Albright urges us to educate ourselves on NATO and think about what it can be in the 21st century.
Cheney closes on a different note. As the epitome of neoconservatism, Cheney sees enormous importance in America promoting its own interests in foreign countries by establishing friendly capitalist democracies. His biggest issue with Trump is his America First agenda. While I disagree with the neocon doctrine in practice, I see what he’s getting at. Cheney explains that the people that Trump appeals to are those who don’t believe that the US should hold a place of leadership in the world, the “same people that FDR had to convert to enter WWII.” Dick Cheney is worried that it requires “strong leadership” to bring Americans out of their own lives and into the world.
At the end of the night, the moderator opens up the conversation to a town hall-style Q&A. It feels as if Cheney and Albright are on a hypothetical campaign trail, debating in a synagogue community center and answering the questions of a handpicked few from the crowd. My mom, incidentally, gets chosen to ask a question: if you could change one thing in the Trump administration, what would it be? I forget Albright’s answer not more than ten seconds after she’s said it, or maybe I’m not even really listening because I know what I’m going to hear. Cheney, however, looks straight into my mom’s eyes with his own hawkish ones and effortlessly deadpans: “Get Trump a tutor.” There’s a moment of contemplative silence, then another of exchanged respect, and then the synagogue unanimously gives into laughter— Cheney and Albright included.