Samantha Power: top US diplomat's life and career

From Saturday Morning, 9:06 am on 25 July 2020

Samantha Power is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Harvard Law School professor who was President Barack Obama's human rights advisor and the youngest ever US Ambassador to the United Nations.

She has just published the memoir The Education of An Idealist.

When Illinois senator Barack Obama embarked on a political campaign in 2008, Samantha Power, as his senior advisor, was already "along for the ride" she tells Kim Hill.

"I thought I'll learn a lot about American politics and how to connect human rights issues to communities in this country, about how they want to support."

Power already had a sense of what she should do in the world from the "dark beginnings" of her education as a young freelance war correspondent in Bosnia. (Power's book about that experience – A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide  won her a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.)

"I suppose my life's project has been what can the UN do? What can human rights activists do to be more sophisticated when those kind of events are happening? To what extent are events linked to our fates in more comfortable circumstances if we're lucky in developed countries?

"One of the parts of my education that I feel most strongly about is the responsibility to weigh costs and benefits in an immensely detailed and rigorous way – on the front end – as best you can."

Powers has been labelled "the conscience of President Obama" yet this description doesn't ring true to her.

"I'm not crazy about it … I'm sure Obama's not crazy about it, either. He does very well for himself by digging into his conscience."

Known as a frequently dissenting voice in the Obama administration, in her memoir Powers is not uncritical of the former president.

In it, she describes the "stressful" argument which stemmed from Obama's refusal to name the 1915 Massacre of Armenians as 'genocide', breaking a campaign promise.

"The argument I ended up having with him on the eve of… when I thought we would recognise [the massacre as genocide] was so stressful and traumatic because I was so hopeful that he would … that my water broke, I was eight months pregnant. So my son Decklan was born on Armenian Remembrance Day.

"I think no politician should break a promise lightly. And I don't think he broke it lightly but that's not the impression, of course, that people who counted on him have."

Many thought Power should and would leave the Obama administration in 2013 when the American president decided not to launch airstrikes against Syria after President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons to kill his own people.

Power says there were more compelling reasons for her to stay.

"I've never had the opportunity to do as much for human rights as I did in the Obama administration … it was unbelievable to get to be part of ending an Ebola epidemic that was going to wipe out much of West Africa. It was an incredible privilege to be able to increase the number of refugees that the United States could take into this country … getting female political prisoners out of jail … there are thousands of examples I could give you, and that's why I stayed.

"To the very last day Obama was still trying to figure out is there a way to hustle on Syria … can we work with Putin on this, notwithstanding everything Putin has done in Ukraine? I never felt like he had given up on bringing peace to Syria.

"I'm sleepless about what is happening in Syria to this day but I'm not sleepless about the decision to continue to serve President Obama and to try to build as much as we could in the time that we had – for US interests but also for global security."

In her memoir, Samantha describes a disappointing meeting with another politician – Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi - who she was wary of immediately.

"I was young when she won the Nobel Prize… her dignity, her poise, her willingness to put her country and I thought human rights even above being at the bedside of her beloved husband... I was in awe of her, but then I met her.

"The dismissiveness, borderline contempt, cutting you off, just the failure to listen, really ... It tends to be pretty diagnostic about how someone is going to lead. If they aren't curious, if they don't listen, if they're just coming at you on offence, uncurious, that doesn't bode well. It doesn't mean she's going to end up defending a genocide one day but it was worrying."

In her memoir, Power is open about the fact that her own personal life was a "shambles" for decades before she went into therapy in the nick of time. 

She suspects that her intense desire to fix things and help people stems from trauma related to her Irish father.

"My mother, when she came to America, left my father behind because he was an alcoholic. And I'd been very, very close to my father so that was a big rupture. We went back to Ireland and he tried to keep us… so devoted was he to us but also very incapable due to his full-time life at the pub.

"In a very dramatic scene, my mother came on Christmas night and pulled us away from him, to America. It turned out I would never see him again. He died very unexpectedly a few years later … so I carried a lot of guilt and a sense of responsibility."

In the future Power may become a politician herself, but right now her focus is on helping to get Donald Trump out of the White House, she says.

"I am so focused on the existential task ahead of us – existential because of climate change, existential because of the pandemic, existential because President Trump is sending federal troops into cities … we have an existential election coming up.

"Every dollar we raise to offset Trump's financial advantage is one that allows us to support voter protection efforts and litigation if that's what's required… We know he's bringing in the heavies and using his money for some fairly dirty tricks.

"I'm thinking about that and I'm thinking about how the hell I'm going to get through homeschooling if we don't have public school coming in a couple of weeks… [My work is] a full-time job, contributing to a team of people who are trying to get Biden elected and teaching my 8-year-old and 11-year-old math, English and social studies."