There is Joy in Mudville! Samantha Power Now Batting for the Obama Team

by James M. Wall

Samantha Power first gained national attention with her 2003 Pulitzer Prize winning book, From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.  Then Senator and future President Barack Obama read the book. In 2005 he invited the 38 year old Power to his office for a discussion.  power-kennedy-school-cropped3

Powers recalled the meeting in an interview with the New York Times:

“I was supposed to meet him for an hour,” she recalled. “And entering the fourth hour, I heard myself say, ‘Why don’t I leave my job at Harvard and intern in your office?’

Which she did, later taking a longer leave to become a full time volunteer for the Obama campaign. The position she left behind was Professor of Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy, at Harvard’s Kennedy Center. A passionate human rights advocate, Power has also served as a war correspondent. Her most recent book was Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World, which the LA Times describes as:

. . .  a deeply and impressively reported biography of the charismatic, widely admired Brazilian-born United Nations diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, who rose to become U.N. high commissioner for human rights before he was killed along with members of his staff by an Iraqi suicide bomber in 2003. . .

Then came that slip in an interview in Scotland which she immediately regretted. (You can look it up.) For a time she disappeared into the dark hole the MSM (main stream media) reserves for any public figure who makes a mistake with enough juice that the cable TV and talk radio will obsess over it for more than 48 hours.

The slip came during the primaries (a comment on Hillary Clinton was involved); Obama let Power leave his campaign, but he didn’t forget her. Now, Samantha Power is back as Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs in President Obama’s National Security Council.

What exactly does the NSC’s Multilateral Affairs do? Her portfolio will include US-UN relations, human rights, democracy, humanitarian relief, peacekeeping, and refugees. How does that sound for a young Irish-born academic who went to high school in Atlanta, Georgia where she became an avid sports fan (hence the reference above to “Mudville”)?

Power has been a harsh critic of US human rights failures. The LA Times called her book on genocide, “a searing critique of U.S. policy toward mass murder with a particular focus on the reprehensible failures in Bosnia and Rwanda.”

For an on air interview of Power, click here to see and hear her, a frequent guest, as she is interviewed by David Brancaccio on Bill Moyers’ Now program, May 7, 2004. Click on the Power segment.

Criticism of her appointment from the political right has been harsh. One of the more printable is from a blogger with an Israeli flag on his site: “Samantha Power’s substantive views on foreign policy, including her stridently anti-Israel positions and attitude, make her a poor choice for the senior foreign policy position.”

Another attack on Power’s appointment comes from a blogger who is still arguing that Hillary Clinton is ineligible to serve to serve as Secretary of State. This blog calls Power “a virulently anti-Israel academic”.

In a more favorable look at Power’s career, the Who Runs Gov. website, offers this summary of her views on foreign policy:

Power’s vision for a 21st century democracy includes a respect for international law, talks with rogue states, and a commitment to intervene to stop genocide. “American foreign policy is broken,” she wrote in 2007. “It has been broken by people who supported the Iraq War, opposed talking to our adversaries, failed to finish the job with Al Qaeda, and alienated the world with our belligerence … We cannot afford any more of this kind of bankrupt conventional wisdom

Charles J. Brown, publishes a blog  “dedicated to covering the intersection of diplomacy, global issues, U.S. politics, and pop culture. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute for International Law and Human Rights, as well as Managing Partner of Occam Advisors, a consulting firm specializing in NGO management.”

Brown’s blog Undiplomatic, covers diplomacy with the eye of a veteran participant. He considers the new Power assignment to be:

. . .  a big job, as demonstrated by the fact that past Administrations have appointed similarly senior people (Mort Halperin, Eric Schwartz, and Elliott Abrams — who, no matter how despicable you may find him, was a key player during his time at NSC).

I have a passing acquaintance with Power — she served on (and contributed to) the foreign policy team I co-directed for the Kerry campaign — but I don’t know her well.  She is, by any measurement, an impressive and important thinker. . .

. . . Power is one of the few academics out there who can bring experience working on both the U.S.-U.N. relations and U.S. human rights policy.  Most importantly of all, she’s close to Obama, having served as one of his earliest foreign policy advisors.  In fact, her decision to take a leave of absence from Harvard to work in Obama’s Senate office was for me an early sign that he was thinking beyond the Senate.

You can count on her to play an important role in reversing Bush-era policies, from Guantanamo to torture to Boltonist views of the U.N.. . .

In June, 2008, Time magazine published short essays on the year’s 100 “most influential people”.  Samantha Power was asked to write the essay on George Mitchell, who is now President Obama’s special envoy to Israel/Palestine. She recalled his important contribution to major league baseball:

Mitchell succeeded in his shuttle diplomacy because he managed to build trust among the parties. And when he was invited by the commissioner of Major League Baseball to head up an investigation of steroid use in the league, he was asked to restore trust in baseball. In the previous decade, Mitchell, who played a lousy second base as a boy, had seen home-run totals soar and cap sizes swell while nearly everyone involved in the sport—the players’ union, owners, commissioners, the media and fans—turned a blind eye to the “troubles” ailing the American pastime.

Mitchell would inevitably make enemies when his findings, released in December 2007, implicated not only designated villains like Barry Bonds but also national icons. But whenever he talked about why he took the job, Mitchell mentioned the “real victims”—the honest players who had rejected illegal shortcuts. It is left to baseball to clean up its act. But by making officially known what was long knowable, Mitchell has added yet another chapter to his distinctly American story.

A year later, Mitchell and Power are players on the same foreign policy team which just happens to be managed by President Barack Obama, the senator Power first met in 2005. Obama, by the way, is demonstrating a good eye for talented players. No wonder in progressive circles there is “joy in Mudville”.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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2 Responses to There is Joy in Mudville! Samantha Power Now Batting for the Obama Team

  1. Pauline Coffman says:

    Very interesting, Jim. Thanks. I find it very encouraging that she and Obama talked for over four hours on first meeting, and that she is a strong proponent of human rights. This background is very helpful.

  2. theostelo says:

    Neat internet site=) will visit once again:)

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