How to Not Give Up on Activism, According to Obama-Era Ambassador Samantha Power
Author and former diplomat Samantha Power brings her A-game with a candid memoir.
When Samantha Power left her post as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 2017, she didn’t expect to find herself talking about the state of national affairs on social media. She and her colleagues had “the presumption that we would lie low and give the new administration the benefit of the doubt. We thought the office of the presidency would change Donald Trump more than Donald Trump would change the presidency. We had not expected to be on Twitter doing the kinds of things we ended up doing.”
Calling out the president in an open forum wasn’t the norm a few years ago and certainly not for someone of Power’s stature. “I think while [President] Obama was in office, we had our share of turmoil, chaos, and conflict, but there were stabilizing dimensions,” she says. “We had bedrock alliances with our European friends. We built and solidified community and shared values.” Power notes that now “the U.S. is being very, very unpredictable, and our president may not be telling the truth. It’s very confusing and destabilizing, and many of our closest allies aren’t sure they’re our allies anymore.”
The rhetoric coming out of the current administration is particularly frustrating for Power, who emigrated from Ireland with her mother and brother when she was 9 and has established herself as an effective cross-party communicator. She began her career as a correspondent covering the Bosnian war in the ’90s and also served as a senior adviser to Obama while he was the junior senator from Illinois. With a B.A. from Yale and a law degree from Harvard, Power currently teaches courses such as “Geopolitics, Human Rights, and the Future of Statecraft” at her alma mater’s Kennedy School. Her first book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, won her a Pulitzer in 2003.
Power went on to write two more books, about fellow diplomats Richard Holbrooke and Sérgio Vieira de Mello, before turning the focus on herself. The Education of an Idealist, her memoir, was released in September and tracks her youth in Dublin, her desire to experience foreign affairs up close, and her attempt to balance a pressure-cooker job with being a mom of two. It even covers the day she called Obama’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton a monster in what she thought was on off-the-record conversation, which cost her her position working for his campaign. (She and Obama are still very much in touch, connecting regularly by email: “We’ve both been in book dungeons. He and I have been going over the same difficult chapters and some happy ones as well,” she says.)
While she’s made a career out of advocating for others, tooting her own horn was not easy. “There’s a saying that the Irish have trouble using the first person in therapy,” says Power, who wrote her book from her Concord, Mass., home, where she lives with her husband, constitutional law scholar Cass Sunstein, and their two children, Declan, 10, and Rían, 8. “It feels kind of self-indulgent and beside the point [to talk and write about yourself].”
Power’s prep work included reading “every memoir known to man,” and in doing so she realized that “it’s stories that bind us together.” (Her surprising favorite, Andre Agassi’s Open, is as much about tennis as it is about “solidarity in the trenches” and “building a family when you don’t have one.”) Ultimately, Power felt that her perspective was an important one to share and that keeping things personal would help draw in her readers.
“I was an outsider who went in and saw the inside of these institutions. I thought, ‘Maybe I have a responsibility with [the current state of] government services being disparaged.’ Even in my fiercest disagreements over Syria I saw good faith,” Power explains. “When people think of public service, they think ‘dysfunctional Congress.’ They think ‘gridlock.’ They think ‘bureaucracy.’ But it’s exhilarating. I’m showing the humanity of it.”
She hopes her new book will inspire a frustrated generation that longs to make a difference but is afraid that it can’t.
“I see in my students a want to change the world, but it’s all so debased and soiled and money-laden, I can also see them turning off and turning away,” says Power. Sometimes she feels that way too, especially now that she’s a semi-ordinary civilian who no longer has the authority to send a peacekeeping mission to some broken place.
“The gap between [my] tweeting and actually being able to do something has been a real adjustment,” Power concedes. “But there’s always something you can do, even if it’s super, super small.”
Though she’s mostly been out of the public eye while working on her book, she plans to be “very active once the Democratic nomination works itself out.”
And while she’s on her promotional tour she’ll be talking to millions of people (if you count television appearances), and she hopes to inspire them to act as well. “I’m there to remind them there’s a ton all of us can do,” she says. “I’m a citizen like them. We’re all just trying to make a gentler, less cruel, more humane country and society.”
For more stories like this, pick up the November issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Oct. 18.