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Running with Samantha Power

Running with Samantha Power

On a jog through a battlefield, James Astill discusses war and peace with the conscience of the Obama administration

On a jog through a battlefield, James Astill discusses war and peace with the conscience of the Obama administration

James Astill | October/November 2019

I show up at Samantha Power’s handsome clapboard house outside Concord, Massachusetts, a little after 8.30am, bleary-eyed and rather nervous. I have not merely arranged to interview Barack Obama’s former human-rights guru and ambassador to the UN. She has also suggested we run together. And having been up half the night reading Power’s doorstopper of a new memoir, a late arrival from its publisher, I am slightly dreading whatever workout she might have in mind. Almost as an aside in her book, “The Education of an Idealist”, she describes running the Boston marathon in her early 20s (for the first of several times). Her running mates wrote witty slogans on their T-shirts to draw shouts from the crowd. Fresh from a stint of war reporting in Bosnia, she wrote on hers: “Remember Srebrenica – 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys murdered”. Power is not to be taken lightly.

Tall, athletic and still flame-haired at 48, the former diplomat answers the door in running gear – purple shorts and a grey T-shirt – and fixes me in the eye. “Have we met before?” she asks. Then, noting that I’m not dressed to run, she wants to know why.

Maybe we should start over coffee? I say sheepishly. “Oh, absolutely!” she perks up, in an accent tinged with a Dublin brogue from her Irish upbringing. “I mean, we don’t have to run at all if you don’t want to?” Power, it turns out, loathes running. “It’s painful, it’s boring,” she grumbles. But hang on, what about all those marathons? “Oh, they were just to motivate me to run five miles a day,” she says, dismissively. “If I didn’t, I would feel horrible. And, of course, as a woman it was important to me to try to look good.”

The streets of Washington, DC, are crowded with obsessively self-improving runners – hyper-ambitious policy wonks and congressional staffers, such as Power once was, padding along the Potomac and National Mall. She went into government via a brief stretch as a journalist: her first book, a history of America’s passive response to atrocities in Rwanda and elsewhere, brought her to the attention of Obama, then state senator, for whom she later worked in Congress, the White House and at the UN in New York. She ran there, too. Her ambassadorial security guards used to jostle to avoid running with her through Central Park and the New York countryside. “I am not fast, but I have a certain stamina,” she says modestly. I recall the verdict of one of her (admiring) former aides at the White House: “She’s relentless – not everyone could keep up with her demands.”

Power was perhaps the staunchest proponent of liberal internationalism in Obama’s cabinet. That made her a target for his critics. Her openness to military intervention – she was against it in Iraq but for it in Libya – drew flak from the left. As UN ambassador, she was eviscerated by right-wingers for writing emails criticising the incoming Trump team. She has continued to question its policies from her new perch as a Harvard Law School professor, especially the administration’s relative disregard for human rights, for which she remains a forceful advocate.

Her book is part of that effort. It was envisaged as a record of Obama’s administration, but became her life story. She hopes it will help restore the public’s flagging faith in the integrity of government and its ability to do good. She argues that Obama’s foreign policy was less cautious and more humanitarian than is often thought. She makes a decent case, even if her own relentless high-mindedness risks coming over as preachy at times. Reading her book I stumbled over lines such as: “I felt a profound disconnect between my personal good fortune and the state of the world.” Power’s brief spell as a journalist is an important part of her self-image; she sees herself as a truth-seeker, not a bureaucrat. But few calloused foreign correspondents would write so ingenuously. Quite who does she think she is?

She gave some sense of the answer on our drive into Concord with her ten-year-old son Declan, whom we planned to drop off at baseball camp before our jog. I had rashly expressed cautious surprise at the significance she attaches in her book to Declan being born on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. “But why?” she asked sharply. She had lobbied the Obama administration, unsuccessfully, to recognise the 1915 massacre of Armenians as the genocide that it was. “And every year we light candles to remember the Armenian genocide. It’s important to us as a family.” I now felt chastened. What I had found slightly self-aggrandising, Power appeared to see as an almost sacred opportunity for remembrance.

What sustains such idealism? Her immigrant spirit – a sense of America as a place of redemptive potential – must be part of the answer. Her mother brought her to America aged nine, to escape Power’s beloved but irretrievably alcoholic father. Her book contains a poignant description of her blighted childhood, dominated by his slow descent into addiction and ill health, and of her new life in Pittsburgh. Having kept in close contact with Ireland – she is still an Irish citizen and visits her family there every year – her memory of that contrast remains keen, perhaps uncomfortably so. When I tell her I was moved by her description of her father’s death, at 47, as he lay alone in her childhood bed, she winces: “Let’s see how it goes down in Ireland. You know how it is in families. Most of those events have not been discussed in 30 years.”

Pepped up by caffeine, I am now eager to get running. But Power looks unenthusiastic: “It’s probably like 1,000 degrees out there.” I check the temperature on my phone, which indicates a pleasant 26 degrees. “Fine then, but I’m not sure how far you want to run,” she says. “How about three or four miles?” I suggest. With a look of relief, she confesses she had been dreading something much longer.

We set off at a gentle trot towards Concord’s famous battlefield. Its lovely water meadows echoed in 1775 with the “shot heard around the world”, in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s phrase, at the start of the revolutionary war. For sure, the inhabitants of nearby Lexington also claim to have hosted the first shot, which Power acknowledges as we weave through a stream of tourists headed toward the river where the fighting took place. But Concord was where the Americans first fired back at their British aggressors, she says firmly, as we cross the river and head towards the surrounding woods. Indeed, the house she shares with her two children and husband Cass Sunstein, a fellow Obama alumnus and Harvard professor, was part of that drama: it was used as a weapons store by the militiamen ahead of the battle. It seems appropriate that, having conquered America’s establishment, Power should own a piece of its most treasured history.

We re-emerge from the woods and circle back to the battlefield, completing a two-mile loop. It is gone noon but still pleasant. I suggest another circuit, but Power, checking her watch, is reluctant to go on. She has a lot to do – and she much prefers ball-games to running, she says wistfully. “Basketball, squash, anything with a wall.”

During her stint at the White House she shot hoops with its security guards. Only once did she receive a coveted invitation to join the president on court – and, to the astonishment of her colleagues, she turned him down. The Haiti earthquake had just happened. “It became this thing…me and the Haiti earthquake,” she tails off, sounding mildly embarrassed, or perhaps still halfway unsure what all the fuss was about. Not many White House officials would turn down an opportunity to go one-on-one with the president; not many are so conscientious.

I had expected to run with her for as long as we talked together; it hasn’t turned out that way. Power is a better – and certainly more enthusiastic – talker than she is a runner. Even so, our jog through the battlefield had established enough sweaty rapport to leave us mildly confused about our footing. As we said goodbye outside her house, I stuck out my hand just as Power opened her arms for a friendly hug. I was as touched by her pleasantness as I was impressed by her cleverness. Speaking up for government isn’t easy; with her pavement-pounding stamina she does it well.

To learn more about Samantha Power’s memoir, read the latest coverage from The Economist