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Through the glass ceiling

It is not - as the rasping Teutonic tones of Henry Kissinger still remind - the first time that a naturalised central European has been invested with the mantle of the United States' top diplomat, writes Rupert Cornwell. But Madeleine Korbel Albright extends the frontier a mighty step further. A glass ceiling has been shattered. For the first time a woman will be Secretary of State. And if her performance as Ambassador to the United Nations is any yardstick, the show will be worth watching.

Love her or hate her, on one thing all are agreed. In almost four years in New York, Ms Albright has been the most powerful occupant ever of a post shaped in equal measure by global political realities and the whims of the administration of the day. Never before has Washington's UN envoy enjoyed both Cabinet rank and full membership of the President's National Security Council.

And she has taken full advantage. She admits she is no grand strategist like Kissinger. Throughout a career which has taken her from aide on Capitol Hill to professor of international relations at Georgetown, hard work and a steely determination have been her hallmarks.

"The Queen of Mean", her foes have called her. Even afriend from the UN calls her "abrasive", projecting a "cold, hard image". Boutros Boutros Ghali, the Secretary-General that Washington is in the process of ousting, would in private have choicer epithets still.

But Ms Albright has not thrived on nastiness alone. Unlike the diffident and retiring Warren Christopher whom she will replace, she is a masterly user of television. More precious still, she can claim a longstanding friendship with Bill and especially Hillary Clinton. Indeed, Ms Albright's trip this year with the First Lady to her native Prague, which she left with her family when the Communists staged their coup in 1948, was billed by some as "the audition". If so, it won her the job.