A few years ago, I attended a luncheon at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City to honor women in communications and the author Samantha Power introduced one of the honorees. Someone asked me who she was. I told her that Ms. Power was a professor at Harvard and an author who had won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for her first book, “A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide.” I also told her that while a book about genocide didn’t sound like an easy read, Ms. Power’s writing made it a fascinating topic. I urged all eight women at my lunch table to buy her book.
Fast forward to March 2008: early in the month, I heard that Ms. Power was scheduled to speak at NYU about her new book, “Chasing the Flame,” a biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the United Nations envoy who was killed in a suicide bombing in Iraq in 2003. Since I saw her speak a few years back, I had informally followed her career and writing. She is a contributor to The New Yorker and when an issue arrived containing something she had written, that’s what I read first. I tuned in to PBS’s Charlie Rose when she was a guest. When I heard that she was an advisor to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, I thought what a smart person he was to have someone as smart as Ms. Power advising him.
So, I called NYU to RSVP for the event and marked it on my calendar. A few days later, my husband asked me if I’d heard about the Obama advisor who had been dumped from the campaign team for saying that Hillary Clinton was “a monster.” He put a copy of the New York Post under my nose: “Isn’t that the author you really like?” Yes, there was a picture of Samantha Power and she was indeed the advisor who was dismissed from the Obama team. I realized then that the Monday night event might be more than just a book discussion and signing.
As detailed in the New York Times article by Cara Buckley, Ms. Power took the stage that night and said “I want to thank you all for coming out, in spite of me.” The comment made me sad. How could we not come to see her? She is one of most compelling speakers I have ever heard as well as one of best writers around. She tackles topics that make people uncomfortable (genocide) or slightly bored (a United Nations envoy) and makes them come to full, vibrant life. She obviously cares so deeply about what she writes and talks about that she can’t help but be honest. Is a political campaign really the place for someone like her? Maybe, and maybe not.
Anyone who follows politics knows that many people have been tripped up by things they said during the heat of a campaign. They also recover, and the world forgets. Ms. Power’s comment won’t derail her stellar career permanently, but she may be sidelined for a while. It’s a tragedy because she is just the kind of person the country needs right now – well versed in world affairs, honest, forthright, whip-smart – and those people really don’t fit well into the world of politics.
On January 20, 2009, I want a new president who will call Ms. Power and say, “Let’s forget the past – I want you to work for me because I need the strongest team possible.” Hopefully, this is not merely wishful thinking on my part. Meanwhile, I am reading my autographed copy of “Chasing the Flame,” and sometimes shedding a few tears because Sergio Vieira de Mello is no longer in this world, while sending silent thanks that Ms. Power is and is writing books.