WASHINGTON — Tossing out the first pitch of the baseball season and signing autographs are antics usually associated with press-the-flesh vote-stumping, not the rarefied, gray-suited arena of international diplomacy.
But in her four months in office, Secretary of State Madeleine Korbel Albright has often acted as if on the hustings. She revels in crowds that greet her on her domestic travels, sports head-turning headgear, and maintains a "Reaching Out to Americans" site on the Internet, in which she exhorts ordinary folk to e-mail her their opinions on foreign policy (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Combine all this with her status as the highest-ranking female public official ever to serve the country, add the attention won by revelations of her Jewish heritage, and stir in a pinch of chat-show verve. What comes out is a recipe for approval ratings higher than those of her boss, President Clinton.
Some followers of international affairs are unimpressed. To them, Ms. Albright's conduct is proof that her appointment has brought a change in style, but not substance, to Clinton second-term foreign policy. Where, they ask, are the new initiatives and geostrategic ideas?
Says Josh Muravchik of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank: "She is much more process than substance."
Others disagree. They say it is too soon to assess Albright. She is yet to be tested by a major international crisis and has been hamstrung in filling top State Department vacancies by delays stemming from a White House order to intensify FBI background checks.
Moreover, many policies over which she presides she inherited from Mr. Clinton's first term. She is, however, getting some credit for helping to win Senate ratification of a global ban on chemical weapons in April and for her role in forging the NATO-Russia charter signed this week.
As for her penchant for limelighting, these experts fault her not.
They concur with her view that the nation's diplomatic corps, after years of budget cuts, requires fresh resources at a time when the country faces new threats and grows ever more reliant on foreign trade for domestic jobs. The first step in reversing that trend is reawakening popular support for foreign policy, they say.
"She made a conscious decision ... to pay early and considerable attention to shoring up the base of Clinton administration foreign policy," says Casimir Yost, director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University in Washington, where Albright once taught. "That base was eroding and eroding badly."
That erosion began with the end of the cold war. It was exacerbated by the low priority afforded foreign policy by Clinton in his first term and the secrecy in which it was shrouded by Albright's colorless predecessor, Warren Christopher, experts say. The resulting complacency contributed to steady cuts in foreign-affairs budgets and fed a public misconception that the US was handing out more aid abroad than it was spending on domestic programs like Medicaid.
Albright has set out to restore public support for foreign policy with five trips to different parts of the country - as many journeys as she has made abroad. In her domestic appearances, she tries to cast in easy-to-understand terms a subject steeped in concepts as arcane to most Americans as quantum physics.
"We can't carry out diplomatic initiatives very well or for very long if we don't have your understanding and support," she told an audience in Wilmington, Del., earlier this month. "And it should matter to you because the success or failure of American foreign policy will be a determining factor in your lives, and the lives of your children and grandchildren."
Her words may carry extra weight because the public is aware that she knows whereof she speaks: Albright's own childhood was upended when her family fled Eastern Europe during World War II.
Crowd-pleaser in Congress
Administration officials say Albright's efforts are paying off in an important venue: the Republican-run Congress.
For a start, they say, she has fostered closer cooperation on foreign policy with GOP lawmakers, including fierce administration critics such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina.
Remembering the tensions that prevailed during Mr. Christopher's stewardship of the State Department, one administration official says Albright's "personal popularity with members and popularity and profile on the job clearly contributed" to the improved atmosphere.
As a result, administration officials say, GOP leaders agreed to Albright's request for more funds for foreign affairs and built the increase into the plan they fashioned with Clinton to balance the federal budget by 2002.
Furthermore, prospects are growing that a deal will be struck with Senator Helms on another of Albright's priorities: paying approximately $1 billion the US owes to the United Nations and international lending institutions.
Finally, Albright will be able to draw on her reservoir of support among the public and on Capitol Hill when she grapples with whatever international crisis may confront her in the future.
Says the administration official: "She is still enjoying a honeymoon, and the hard parts are sure to come. There are about five or six hot spots that could blow, and then she will be tested."