THE EDUCATION OF AN IDEALIST

Yes Samantha Power was the youngest US Ambassador to the United Nations, but this isn’t your average political memoir

07.08.2020

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When Samantha Power was 14, her father died of alcoholism, alone in Ireland. She'd emigrated to America with her brother and mother, but berates himself for his suffering all the same. And so her dogged empathy was born. Galvanised when, at 19, she saw kids of the same age being mowed down by tanks in Tiananmen Square. It was then that she knew that the career in sports commentating she’d be hankering after wasn’t going to cut it.

As a 23-year-old journalism intern, the war exploded in Bosnia. Desperate to cover it, she snuck into the office of the editor of Foreign Policy, stole sheets of his headed paper and wrote to the head of the UN Press Office, asking that the UN provide Samantha Power, Foreign Policy’s ‘Balkan correspondent,’ with ‘all necessary access.’ It worked, and she pitched hard for column inches while cold-calling American officials, lambasting them for their apathy and inertia. And she didn't stop there. At Harvard, despite being timid and flapabble, she stood up before her classmates to ask them to read the pamphlet she’d written. “I just wanted to draw your attention to something that will be in your mailbox later… My lips quivered as I rushed to try to finish. “So please read it. Thanks.” 

“I didn’t lack the ability to focus — I could bury myself in the library for hours without noticing the setting sun,” she writes. Yeah, no kidding. In 2003, she won a Pulitzer Prize for her first book “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.” Incidentally, it was the book that got then Senator Barack Obama’s attention, but also the one that made her an unlikely choice for UN Ambassador. Such rampant and robust criticisms of America were hardly diplomatic. (Though her diplomacy, it transpired, was as incisive as her writing.)

The fact that she didn't cut her teeth in politics was never more obvious than in 2008, when as an advisor to Obama, in earshot of a hungry journalist, she called Hilary Clinton “a monster”. It was a spectacular fall from grace, and one that saw her exiled from the campaign. Nevertheless in 2013, aged 42, she became the youngest ever US ambassador to the United Nations.

If Obama was the heart of The White House Situation Room, Power was the conscience. A mere three weeks into her role, Assad was accused of using chemical weapons on Syrian people. The “red-line” that Obama committed to had been crossed, but no action was taken. “What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price” she thought. She felt Obama’s failure to broker peace in Syria as her own.

After her father’s death she writes candidly that she was “trailed by a morbid fear that my loved ones would suddenly die”. Meeting her now husband Cass Sustein however, brought peace. Their two children, Declan and Rhian, bring tenderness and humour to the pages. She once breastfed Rian (“an audible eater”) while on the phone to then Secretary of State John Kerry. When overhearing that Power’s step-father was flummoxed by a feeding device, Obama grabbed the phone and said “Listen, this is the President of the United States. You can do this. You just need to stay calm and focus.” And after discussing Russian sanctions on the phone one time, when shooed away, her son Declan marched off chanting “Putin, Putin, Putin! When is it going to be Declan, Declan, Declan?”

From war to college, and ultimately The White House, Power’s education evolves, but her table-pounding idealism never wanes. She learns to self-flagellate less, because as she well notes “sometimes better is the best we can do, and better is a hell of a lot better than worse.” If only she had a seat at the table now.

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