Politics

Samantha Power on What Really Happens in the Situation Room

How the former U.N. ambassador learned to speak up when it mattered the most.

A headshot of Samantha Power
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for TIME.

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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. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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 beginning, it just meant that I had to get a bunch of people I didn’t know to sign on to whatever scheme I was cooking. Without coalitions, allies, and personal relationships, you’re just pushing water uphill. And when you’re carrying a human rights portfolio, given the security imperatives and then the economic recession, that was a steep mountain.

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What do you wish someone had told you before you went to D.C.?

Never compare your insides to somebody else’s outsides. When I got to the White House, I’d been close to Obama the senator. I was expecting to be able to have walk-in privileges to the Oval Office. But I got a rude awakening.

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A few months into Obama’s tenure, I finally got my occasion to brief him in the Oval when he was seeing the U.N. secretary general. I was going to just nail the briefing. He was going to remember how brilliant and indispensable I was—those walk-in privileges would be coming. As it happens, I’m seven months pregnant at the time. I walk over from my office to the West Wing, and I realize I don’t actually know where the Oval Office is. So I go back to my office and go onto the unclassified system on my computer and Google “Oval Office, West Wing.” I print out a map, and the map is basically a Washington power map about where Valerie Jarrett is sitting in relation to Barack Obama in relation to David Axelrod. So I go in carrying this map and I’m ten minutes late. I’m stressed out. Anyone who was in the meeting knew that I had blown my first occasion to brief Barack Obama. But the point of the story is not even the chaos and indignity of that particular experience. It’s that I thought I was all alone. I could have asked somebody, “Where’s the Oval?” But in addition to being new to government and the executive branch, I didn’t want to be the person who didn’t know her way around. And when I got more comfortable and finally had friends, I learned that so many of them had printed out the same map.

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The advice I hear very frequently about politics is that we need people reaching across the aisle and forming human connections. How do we find that connection? 

Well, I’ll offer an example—my relationship with the Russian ambassador, Vitaly Churkin. His position versus my position on Syria were night and day. And yet it turns out we both love sports and had a son and a daughter. We took the time outside the formal settings of the U.N. to go to NBA basketball games.

You would literally call him up and say, “Hey Vitaly, do you want to come see a Nets game?”

Yes. I mean, sometimes I’d need to cool off for days before because he would cross lines that would make it impossible for me to do what I’m describing. But after cooling off, I had to recognize I couldn’t get one thing done on behalf of human rights, not one thing that I could do in the U.N. Security Council without Russia acquiescing to it. So I just did not have the luxury [to not form a working relationship with him]. And I think American politics, particularly in divided government, is a lot like that.

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Before you went into government, you were someone who was very openly critical of some of the decisions that both Democrats and Republicans had made when it came to foreign affairs. How did you stay true to the activist in you when making your case in the middle of a White House meeting?

In the Situation Room, I often felt like each of us came in, including me, with an idea of what we wanted to get out of the meeting. Sometimes when Obama felt like I was being not sufficiently prescriptive, he would snap at me and say, “We’ve all read your book, Samantha.” My thought bubble was “Actually, I’m not so sure about that. Copies can be made available upon exit.” I felt crummy, but Obama almost invariably would come back to me 10 minutes later and say, “Let’s get back to Sam’s point. I was a little hard on her. Let’s tease that out a little bit.”

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Then the other cool thing is pretty much every time I would receive a note passed from the head of the table—not from the president but from the vice president. I would be demoralized, kind of slouching in my chair, and Biden, with his emotional intelligence, saw that. He had not only the human touch to see beyond the issue at hand to the individual who is wallowing a little bit at the end of the table, but also the decision-making style that wanted dissent. This is often when Biden would disagree with me, but he would write me a note something like, “That’s exactly why you’re here. He needs to hear this.” I have a stack of the notes here in my office. One of them said, “Go Irish!” Another said, “Never stop raising your voice.”

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To hear Samantha Power in conversation with new Congresswoman Marilyn Strickland about how to get things done in a divided nation, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! wherever you get your podcasts. 

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