Samantha Power knows what it’s like to take risks. President Joe Biden’s new pick for a post on his National Security Council, Samantha started out as a war correspondent in her early twenties, reporting from the Balkans. Later, she spoke out against the way governments handle genocide in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem From Hell—a book that caught Barack Obama’s attention when he was Senator. Samantha ended up working for Obama, first in the Senate, then in the White House, finally serving as U.N. Ambassador in Obama’s second term. But as she writes in her memoir, The Education of an Idealist, things didn’t always go exactly as planned once she entered the hallowed halls of government. On a recent episode of How To!, Samantha opened up about being lost in the White House, befriending the Russian ambassador, and passing notes to Biden in the Situation Room.
Charles Duhigg: Can you start by telling me what first nudged you to get into politics?
Samantha Power: It was very gradual. I grew up an immigrant in this country using sports to fit in. I went to college fully intending to become a sportscaster. But I was interning in Atlanta, Georgia and as I was taking notes on a Braves game, the footage from Tiananmen Square was beamed in on the news feed. It was uncut, unfiltered, and ghastly. I was only 18 then, and young people my age were protesting to try to get the Chinese government to liberalize. At that moment I didn’t think one day I’m going to get into politics or policy or I’m going to change the world or anything so grand. It just gave me a sense that there was more going on in the world in sports, and that I needed to get educated. That was really the gateway to learning more and making myself vulnerable. To go into a new domain and admit how little you know is a hard thing to do.
And you went on to become a journalist in war-torn areas. You wrote a book that won a Pulitzer Prize about about genocide. And eventually you met Barack Obama when he was a senator and basically just told him he should give you a job. Right?
It wasn’t quite like that. [laughs] I never had quite that confidence to put it in those terms. That might have been “the guy way” to do it, but “the girl way” to do it—my way to do it—was to tentatively broach the subject and look for signs that he had interest.
We came up with an arrangement where I would be a kind of unpaid fellow and live in a cubicle for a year as he worked on The Audacity of Hope and thought through how he would articulate a foreign policy vision that was fresh and tough and humane at the same time. And that’s what we spent much of the year doing.
As you went from being a sort of outsider who was criticizing the system to someone who was working inside the system, you wrote in your book that you felt fairly ineffective in your first few months in Washington and later, when you first started working for Obama once he became president.
Well, working in the Senate was challenging for all kinds of reasons—the gridlock and the fact that I probably had exaggerated expectations for what we could achieve from the bowels of the Senate. Obama was a junior senator with huge star power, but not with a lot of seniority up on the Hill.
I think the more dramatic personal experience was when I went to the White House. I arrived, having worked on the Obama campaign, having worked in the Senate, having worked on U.N. issues and human rights issues my whole life as an academic and as an activist. But the challenge was as basic as how does the paper process work? I am ready to try to help, for example, the people of Darfur who I’ve been advocating on behalf of for several years, but I don’t know how the hell to write a decision memo or who I have to get it cleared through. At the…