A Czechoslovakian refugee, Madeleine Albright, now 66, arrived with her family in the United States at the age of 11. In fulfilment of the American dream, she became ambassador to the United Nations and then was the first woman ever to serve as U.S. secretary of state, under President Clinton. That makes her the highest-ranking woman in the history of the United States.

She chronicles her fascinating rise to prominence in her memoir, "Madam Secretary," in which she is both personal and political.

Albright hopes that she was "not a historical accident" and that other women will have similar opportunities, she said during a telephone interview from Seattle.

As a young woman growing up, she had a genuine "serious streak," causing her to color-code her class notes in school, then transfer all of them to index cards for study prior to exams. Albright conceded that she was "a little anal" then, but she is not apologetic for her reputation for hard work.

She was educated at Wellesley, where she believes women have genuine "opportunities to develop leadership roles." Back then, she expected to be a journalist. But she quickly changed her mind when she and her new husband, Joe Albright, went to dinner with his new boss, the managing editor of the Chicago Sun-Times. He informed her that she would be unable to work at the same paper as her husband for policy reasons — and that it would not be helpful to his career for her to work for an opposing paper. "So I'm afraid you'll have to consider doing something else," the editor said.

In those pre-feminist days, she passively switched her interests to politics and international affairs. "It seems ludicrous now that I just saluted and moved on," said Albright, but she soon came to claim her favorite politician as John F. Kennedy, whom she interviewed for the Wellesley paper in 1958. When he was president, she and her husband were living in Washington. "Excitement permeated the city. It was palpable."

Later, she went to graduate school at Columbia University to study Soviet politics. One of her professors was Zbigniew Brzezinski, who would be President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, and her boss. "He was a remarkable professor and had a great deal to offer students. He was very tough and very smart. I was delighted when he asked me to come and work for him. He was very nice to work with. He had no temper tantrums and he was very collegial. He taught me a lot about foreign policy."

Albright also learned a great deal from Sen. Edmund Muskie, in whose senatorial office she worked, and then again when he became Carter's secretary of state. "Muskie taught me about the functioning of the political system and what a good politician could be — serving the public. He had a huge influence on me."

She also has great admiration for Carter, especially for his human-rights approach to foreign policy, "and his incredible detail to the Mideast peace process. He has found a niche for himself that is remarkable, partly due to his brain power and dedication. He doesn't mind getting his hands dirty. He builds houses for the poor, doesn't take himself that seriously and doesn't need post-presidential pomp and ceremony."

Albright admired Gov. Michael Dukakis, whose presidential campaign she advised in 1988. "I thought he was a very smart, remarkably kind person with a level head and a good sense of self. And to this day, he harbors no bitterness for his loss. He would have been a very good president."

On an international level, her favorite person is Vaclav Havel, the poet and playwright who went from prison to the presidency of the Czech Republic. "The thing that made him a key figure was his strength of belief in how nations relate to each other. He came at a time when the Czechs had so lost faith in themselves, they didn't have the ability to function at all. He represented the strength of the human spirit."

Although Albright was shocked when President Clinton's sexual misconduct was revealed, she still considers him "one of our greatest presidents. He had an understanding of the very interesting post-Cold War era. He seized the moment on a lot of important issues and got a lot of respect from most of the world's leaders. He could converse with them in a very sophisticated way. I do think what he did in the Lewinsky matter was wrong — but it had no effect on foreign policy. He was always available to talk about the things I needed to talk about. He was always very focused on foreign-policy issues."

Predictably, Albright is not complimentary about the foreign policy of George W. Bush. "His major mistake is his lack of understanding about international cooperation and treating allies and friends with respect, rather than insisting on their following our lead. He is seeing a greater need to practice diplomacy now, showing he has learned from his mistake, but it makes it harder to succeed."

On the other hand, says Albright, "I think this White House has had a very bad couple of weeks — and having been through that sort of thing myself, I have some sympathy for them. Things get out of control at times."

E-MAIL: dennis@desnews.com