CNN Politics on Tap Comes to New York With a Madeleine Albright Interview

"I think that what we have to do is understand that the strength of our country is our diversity, and that refugees actually can in fact, provide some payback and really help this country."

Politics on Tap, CNN’s occasional series of events mixing an open bar, bites and political dialogue, came to New York last night for the first time, at wood-floored, white chandeliered Harding’s in Manhattan.

The focus of the evening was former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who sat down for an interview with CNN anchor Chris Cuomo.

“First of all, I’m delighted to be here and happy to be with everybody here,” said Albright as prologue to her first question.

“Is that true?” joked Cuomo. “Are you really happy to be here?”

“I am, actually,” said Albright, who then delved right into an explanation of why national debt can also be considered a national security issue.

The evening held other lighthearted exchanges between Albright and Cuomo, including the acknowledgement of mutual admiration between Albright and Cuomo’s father, the late New York City governor Mario Cuomo.

Albright also spoke of her own immigrant history, a story made all the more poignant set against an election fueled by Donald Trump‘s anti-immigrant rhetoric. “I’m an immigrant. I came here when I was 11 years old. My father was a Czechoslovak diplomat, and we came to the United States because he didn’t want to live under communism,” she said, describing her family’s life as exiles in war-torn WWII London before their emigration to the United States. “When people ask me to describe myself in two words: grateful American. And the most important thing that ever happened to me was becoming an American.”

Albright described how that sense of gratitude would help to override a moment of doubt she faced at the United Nations:

And I had the opportunity, which it never occurred to me I would have, is to be able to sit behind a sign that said the United States. You talked about the UN, first time that happened to me, I arrive at the United Nations, and I see this sign that says the United States–I think the women in this audience will identify with this–and I thought, “well I won’t talk today, because I don’t know anybody and I don’t know if they’ll like me, and maybe they’ll think what I say is stupid, and so I won’t say anything,” and then I saw the sign that said the United States, and I thought if I don’t talk today, then the voice of the United States will not be heard. And that has really motivated me.

During their disucssion, Albright made more than one reference to being old, yet everything about her belied a youthful spirit, down to her shiny, cherry-red slingbacks, a patriotic pop of color set against her navy blue suit, topped, as ever, with a brooch.

Much of the meat of Cuomo and Albright’s foreign policy discussion was couched in terms of the 2016 elections and the upcoming debates. Acknowledging both that international policy in the contemporary world is complex and that the debate would likely reduce that complexity into a simplistic assessment of “are you safe at home or not,” Cuomo proceeded to ask Albright her opinion on this question, crafted within a Trumpian frame.

“The world is a mess, there’s no question. That’s a diplomatic turn of art. The bottom line is there are all kinds of threats to the United States,” she says. “What’s happening in the Middle East in a number of different ways. All kinds of things–climate change, disease. We live in a world where we are not immune to everything. But is the threat to the United States something that makes you decide who can keep you safer? I believe you cannot make us all safer by making us terrified of each other, and of people that look and act differently.”

“We can’t just decide that everybody who is a different religion is a threat to us,” she would go on to say. “I think that what we have to do is understand that the strength of our country is our diversity, and that refugees actually can in fact, provide some payback and really help this country.”

Cuomo would return more than once to delivering the view of Trump or a supporter and asking Albright to respond. When the discussion turned to Vladimir Putin, he assessed the idea of a Trump flameout that never came:

Maybe it’s us, maybe we’re propping him up, maybe we’re giving him attention, and there are those who believe that’s what it was. I do not. On a personal level, I have no problem making this argument because I’ve been going at him from jump and I think with good reason. But it’s something else. The notion that is so repugnant to you that you would ever cotton to Vladimir Putin on the basis of strength, given what he has done. Why is it working? It is working because he is being used as a rejection of the status quo here?

And that strength is simple. But it is compelling, intoxicating even, to some people, and that even Vladimir Putin, who people should know on instinct is no one to cotton to in terms of American values, because he is strong here, there’s such a hunger for strength because we’re perceived as being weak and vulnerable, that it’s actually working. What does that tell you?

But who was singing the praises of Putin before Trump did? And why is the idea of strong leadership, not just here, but in polls and straight news items, rarely contextualized or deconstructed?

Cuomo say he doesn’t think journalists are to blame, and yet, even here with the former secretary of state, the parameters of their discussion on national security was on Donald Trump’s terms. Even when Donald Trump is not at the fore, his ideas continue to set the terms.

There are other ways to talk to talk about national security outside of the misleading and largely unhelpful weak/strong paradigm. And there are issues other than terrorism that impact the question of safe/unsafe, even though that construction, too, is problematic. One that Albright mentioned, climate change, is one such increasingly worrisome threat that deserves more attention, and that, in fact, contributes to the terrorism that captures the national attention.

But when you take the complexity out of discussions of national security and foreign policy discussions, you get–as Albright said when she responded to a proposition, as Cuomo described it, that the “status quo right now is only because of these last eight years”–BS.