Before my telephone interview with Samantha Power, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, her publicist tells me that Power has asked that all interviewers read her new book in advance.
This is followed up by two emails from Power’s secretary at Harvard, where she teaches, asking how I am getting on with the (550-page) memoir. Do I need more time, they ask. “She is happy to postpone the interview by a day or two. She wants to respect your deadlines, but also wants you to have time to really dive into the book!”
Writers who have sometimes spent years writing their books want them to be read. But as every writer and journalist and publicist must know, it’s pointless putting this kind of interview clause in, as it would be so easy to lie or bluff or just read a bit of the book.
What it comes down to, of course, is trust between interviewee and interviewer. But as Power has had a catastrophic experience in the past being interviewed – about which more later – perhaps it’s her way of attempting to exercise some control over the process.
Power, currently a professor of global leadership and public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, was born in London and lived in Dublin until she was nine. Then her mother, Vera, took her and a younger brother to live in the United States, a move that was to be permanent. Her father, Jim, stayed in Dublin; both parents by then were with other partners.
The opening chapters of The Education of an Idealist relate deeply painful pieces of family history. For various reasons, Jim Power saw little of his children once they left for the US. He died of an alcohol-related illness at 47, found badly decomposed at home in the bed his absent daughter had once occupied. Neither of his children attended the funeral in Dublin. It’s a shocking, disturbing and harrowing story.
I’m on the phone with Power, who is at home in Massachusetts. “The material at the beginning of the book was the hardest material to write,” she says. “Doing that in a way that was true; true in terms of the feelings; true in terms of the facts. That was very hard. And also, what I had to do in order to reconstruct some of that time. What I had to do was re-engage people who were so central to my childhood when I lived in Dublin, and those who were very close to my father.”
Power’s father died of an alcohol-related illness at 47, found badly decomposed at home in the bed his absent daughter had once occupied. Neither of his children attended the funeral. It’s a shocking, disturbing and harrowing story
Aged 14 when he died, Power was in therapy for years, believing that in some way she had contributed to her father’s death. She writes movingly and honestly about all this messy, complicated stew of familial love, guilt and emotional legacy. She also writes about her considerable struggles to have her second child, Rían, in 2012, which happened only after four miscarriages and four unsuccessful rounds of IVF. (Her first child, Declan, was born in 2009, the year after she married a fellow Harvard academic, the legal scholar Cass Sunstein. They married in Waterville, Co Kerry.)
Talking about her decision to include such personal information, she says: “To me that just felt like the right thing to do. Anything else would have been an artificial, too tidy a tale.” She continues: “I just know so many women who are struggling to have a child, because they married late or they are just struggling. From the outside it looks like I’m so blessed. I have these two children, and it looks like it was all meant to be, and it’s just a crucible. It’s a struggle.”
Notwithstanding these revelations, it’s the story of what happened in her first pregnancy that is really astonishing. Barack Obama had just been elected president for the first time. Power was waiting for a job interview in the US state department. The foreign-policy job she coveted had the wordy title of “senior director and special assistant to the president for multilateral affairs at the National Security Council”.
She was pregnant at the time, and she writes that she was “determined to keep my pregnancy hidden from my colleagues on the transition team... I feared I would get a lesser job if senior personnel found out, so I wore oversize Irish woollen sweaters and wide scarves, often keeping my winter coat on indoors.”
There is something deeply dispiriting about discovering that even at the most famous workplace in the US, high-profile women have been second-guessing management’s reactions to a pregnancy when going for an interview. Isn’t this workplace discrimination, which had been illegal long before 2009, when Power was pregnant? Choosing to conceal a pregnancy with outsized clothing for as long as possible due to fear – however unfounded it may have been – of discrimination surely belongs to the very bad old days for women. Did Power really think pregnancy would seriously affect her chances at a job interview?
“Absolutely,” she says. “Those Aran wool sweaters that I hadn’t worn in years were dusted off for the American workplace. I absolutely thought that [I might not get the job if my pregnancy were known about]. I don’t know if I was right. Again, some of these things are what goes on in our heads and some of it is very real – the bias.”
She wasn’t the only woman at that time concealing her pregnancy while interviewing for a job in the Obama administration. Power writes of a second woman, due at the same time as she was, with whom she “traded scarves”.
“We just didn’t want to chance it,” she says now. “It wasn’t that we thought, Are they mad at us for having babies? but [that we thought] would they rather hire someone who wasn’t going to go on leave?”
Is this not essentially the same thing? Power doesn’t agree, pointing out that certain jobs in the administration require overseas visits and a preferred continuity of service. “But maybe we need to change; to be bolder and more assertive,” she says. “Were we overcautious? We might have been.”
Childcare data can measure how many hours you’re home with the child versus in the office, but it’s the mental preoccupation of the playdate, and the birthday present, and who’s going to do the soccer prep
In the memoir she also writes about what happened when she did eventually get the job. She arrived at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where most White House staff work, and discovered her office was a lot smaller than that of other senior directors. Not only that, but she also soon discovered she was being paid less than a fellow, male senior director. An email cleared this up, and her salary was raised accordingly, but what remained unclear was if it was a mistake or not.
I ask Power how far she thinks women are from attaining gender equality in pay and at work.
“I think we are really a long way away. I think at the current rate of progression in this country [the United States], it’s decades,” she says. “Even the childcare data doesn’t reflect the intangibles. Childcare data can measure how many hours you’re actually home with the child versus in the office, but it’s the mental preoccupation of the playdate, and the birthday present for the thing, and who’s going to do the soccer prep, and shovel somebody from this place to that place: it’s just that mental ownership. There is less space in any parents’ head – man or woman – who is carrying that set of questions.”
And so to the big guns. It’s inevitable that anyone picking up this book who knows anything about Samantha Power’s career will be paging straight through to the chapter entitled “Monster”. This is a reference to the least diplomatic incident in Power’s diplomacy-centred working life.
It was 2008, and Power was a senior adviser to Obama during his first presidential election campaign. She was in Britain, promoting her biography of Sérgio Vieira de Mello, Mary Robinson’s successor as United Nations high commissioner for human rights, who had died in a bomb attack, with 21 colleagues, while serving as Kofi Annan’s special representative in Iraq.
Having completed a round of media interviews, she was then in Dublin, having a drink at the Shelbourne Hotel with the musician and producer Brian Eno (Bono had just left them), when her phone rang. It was Denis McDonough, the foreign policy co-ordinator for Obama’s first presidential campaign. Had she seen a certain right-wing news website? She had not.
“They have you saying all kinds of crazy sh** about Hillary to the Scotsman,” he told her.
The “crazy sh**” included referring to Hillary Clinton, then a presidential candidate, as “a monster” and the observation that “the amount of deceit she has put forward is really unattractive”.
As Power relates in her book, she told McDonough that she could not possibly have said these things, as she had not even been in Scotland on her book tour. Then she told Eno: “I couldn’t have said those things, because that’s not what I think.”
But as it emerged, when Power’s memory of her publicity tour returned in full, she realised she had in fact given an interview to the Scotsman, to a reporter named Gerri Peev. From her hotel room, past midnight, she called Peev. She writes in her memoir, “I assumed she had made up the quotes loosely based on whatever she had written in her notebook.”
Power is a former reporter herself – she covered the war in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, and in 2003 she won a Pulitzer Prize for her first book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. She hardly needs to be reminded that fictionalising quotes is profoundly unethical. Why would she assume that Peev had invented the remarks, I ask.
“Because I didn’t think I said any of those things. I didn’t have those views,” she says.
But as Power recalls in the book, Peev held her recorder up to the phone and played back Power’s quotes. She had reported them verbatim.
At some point in the interview with Peev, Power writes in the book, she had interrupted it to take a call from a friend. After Power’s call, as she writes it, “I vented in frustration [about Clinton], using the kind of hyperbole and profanity I typically reserved for Fenway park umpires. I naively assumed that this part of my conversation with Peev wasn’t for publication…”
I ask first why she had seemingly not understood that everything she said while being interviewed was fair game.
“I operate by different rules. I establish ground rules. If I interview somebody for one purpose, you know, it’s just different. I think maybe the standards there [in Europe] might be different from here,” she says. “I just lost my judgement. It was completely my fault. I don’t blame anyone but myself.”
As for the contradiction of apparently thinking one thing of Clinton yet saying the total opposite, she says:
“I guess you’ve never said anything you don’t mean in your life.” And then, “If you’ve never said anything you don’t mean, you’re definitely in a different category than me.”
Then she says: “I was upset. I said something. My actual view of Hillary, who was a complete trailblazer for women – looking out for women’s rights, children’s rights, with whom I’d had nothing but positive interaction – she’s an inspiration to people of my generation. Those are the views I held, and hold.”
In the book, there are several extremely personal emails from Obama, when he was president. One such, sent after the “Monster” fallout, reads: “Wanted to check in with you to make sure you’re OK. I know this whole thing is sh**ty. I hope you know how much I love and appreciate you, that all this will blow over, and that we are going to change the world together...”
I ask Power what the protocol with publishing verbatim personal emails from a former president is: did she have to ask his permission to include them?
“I’m in touch with him,” she says. “Basically, when it came to reproducing things he had said or written, I absolutely wanted to make sure he was comfortable, that he trusted me over all those years, so I’m in touch with him and he certainly knows what’s in the book... We’ve always read each other’s work. But this is my book and he was very respectful of my agency and he said you have to tell your story.”
It would be very hard to be a champion for human rights and human dignity when you have a president who is attacking minorities, people of Jewish faith, the media, judges, opposition politicians
From the former US president to the current one. Has she met Donald Trump?
“I have not.”
What does she think would have been challenging about her UN ambassadorial role under President Trump?
“It would be very hard to be a champion for human rights and human dignity when you have a president who is attacking minorities, people of Jewish faith, the media, judges, opposition politicians. It would be very hard with a straight face to advance the kind of values I have in the book – inclusivity, global co-operation, US-European alliance, the importance of human rights. It would be very hard to do that if the person who has appointed you is trampling over everything you believe in,” she says. “The hardest part of the job for my successor would be just getting out of bed every morning.”
Does she think President Trump will win a second term in office?
She hesitates before answering. “He can never be underestimated again. He’s ruthless, and he’s well-resourced. I don’t think he will, but I also think we can take nothing for granted.”
The Education of an Idealist, by Samantha Power, is published by William Collins on Thursday