Is Albright Launching Her Listening Tour?

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It's getting a little quiet at the White House. Hillary Clinton has moved away to New York and is running for the Senate there. Al Gore moved his campaign to Nashville, Tenn., and has been on the road seeking the presidency. And junior White House aides seem to depart daily for vaunted posts in private business.

Now another top administration figure is thinking about a new job, but this one is a bit unusual. It is in a faraway land and comes with a beautiful castle with uniformed guards at the gate. The candidate is, if anything, even more surprising: Sources tell TIME that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has begun to consider the possibility of running for the presidency of the Czech Republic once the second Clinton term is over. Like a woman who doesn't want to be seen dating until she is legally separated, she has let it be known to intermediaries that she is interested, but she will not discuss a possible engagement in another country until her current one runs out. "I love my job representing the U.S.," Albright tells TIME.

Albright's lips may not move, but her feet are about to do a lot of talking. Next week she will spend three days in the Czech Republic. The official reason is to commemorate the 150th birthday of Tomas Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia, known as the father of Czech democracy. Her schedule could be torn from a page in a presidential campaign: Next Monday she will fly to southern Moravia to receive a gold medal at Masaryk University in Brno; then it's off to Hodonin to visit Masaryk's birthplace. Either Albright is testing the waters, or Czech-American relations are in need of a lot of TLC. On Day Two of her exploratory tour, she lays a wreath at Masaryk's tomb in Lany, then it's on to Prague to unveil a statue of the first president in the castle square. Given all the ceremony, Albright is sure to be asked if she would like to follow in Masaryk's footsteps. "It is not impossible that they will talk about this," says Pavel Fischer, chief policy adviser to President Vaclav Havel.

This romance began 18 months ago, officials on both sides of the Atlantic say, during a visit by Havel to Washington. Havel told the Czech-born secretary of state that he would like her to replace him as president of the Czech Republic. But Albright, less than halfway through her new job, demurred. Although Havel retains only a moral authority in the Czech Republic, the presidency being now a largely ceremonial post, the courtship has begun again. In a meeting last week in Hradcany Castle, former Czech ambassador to the U.S. Michael Zantovsky reintroduced the idea to Havel. "The ball is on her side," says Jiri Pehe, a former dissident and adviser to Havel. "I think she would be the best candidate we could have for that position."

Not everyone agrees. While it would be remarkable for Albright to cap her career by seeking the top post in a country from which she and her family escaped twice, once from the Nazis, a second time from the communists, it would also be extremely difficult. Czech polls show that the war in Kosovo, often dubbed Madeleine's War, was opposed by 75 percent of the Czech people. Also, Havel's term is not up until January 2003. He has been weakened by an operation for lung cancer and has no strong political base, so his approval would not help her politically.

More troublesome, the Czech president is elected by members of parliament. Milos Zeman, head of the Social Democrats, and Vaclav Klaus, chairman of the opposition Civic Democratic Party, have their own matches to make. They might not cotton to someone who is not just an outsider but a woman as well. "I'm sure she won't have a problem finding a job after she's out of the State Department," says Jonathan Stein of Prague's EastWest Institute. "But I don't think that job's going to be in Prague." Next week Albright will begin to pursue that option for herself.