It would be difficult, if not impossible, to argue that Samantha Power is not an extraordinary woman. An all-but-unique combination of combustible contradictions, she is simultaneously a foreign policy insider and outsider, an academic and journalist, an activist and observer, a world-class schmoozer possessed of a burning intensity and an obsession with the understanding and prevention of genocide. Regardless of what form her work takes, Power is exactly the kind of person whose experience, expertise and passion might help repair what remains of America’s tattered reputation as we finally approach the close of a benighted political era.
Of course, Power is no politician. She ended up as an adviser to Barack Obama because, as she explains it, “I was supposed to meet him for an hour…. And entering the fourth hour, I heard myself say, ‘Why don’t I leave my job at Harvard and intern in your office?'” And she hardly spent much time on the campaign. Power received no salary and rarely traveled with the candidate. For much of the past year, she has been finishing and then promoting her massive new book, Chasing the Flame, a study of the life and work of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN envoy killed in a terrorist bombing in Baghdad in 2003. She was doing just that when, during a moment of foolishness, she called Hillary Clinton “a monster” in the presence of a journalist.
Power’s problem, as I understand it, is that she forgot she was speaking to a non-American journalist. In this country, typically, journalists are far more interested in maintaining good relations with their sources than they are in reporting what is said and done by politicians. And so most would have gladly allowed her to take her comments off the record retroactively. This practice is arguable at best as a matter of ethics. I don’t fault the Scotsman for printing what Power said, but I do fault the newspaper, much of our mainstream media and of course the increasingly cynical Clinton campaign for their deliberately inflammatory treatment of it. I mean, really: does anyone think that Clinton campaign staffers–indeed, any campaign staffers–do not talk about their opponents in a similarly angry fashion? And does it really make a damned bit of difference to anyone what Power says she thinks about Hillary Clinton in a moment of unguarded frustration?
Power was forced to resign, owing to the pitiable truth that the people charged with the conduct of our political debate are just too stupid–sometimes purposefully, sometimes cynically–to consider her outburst in context. Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz was among the first out of the gate, gleefully crowing that Power’s comments managed to “blow up her brief political consulting career.” Now, Kurtz knows that Power had no career as a “political consultant.” She was an unpaid adviser. (Kurtz is actually married to a former Republican “political consultant,” one who was quite well paid for her efforts, and so really can have no excuse in this matter.) On his CNN gabfest, Reliable Sources, he was joined by a panel of Washington insiders eager to smirk at Power and draw what they pretended were larger lessons from her travails. ABC News’s Jake Tapper–projecting what was hard not to view as a hint of the intellectual insecurity and animosity that often afflicts journalists who report on accomplished academics–explained, “But I thought what was even more revealing from that interview was the elitism, the disdain that she talked about, Ohioans concerned about job losses, and they’re obsessed with NAFTA. That just kind of betrayed–and that was on the record. That betrayed a sort of university elitism that we have seen before in the Obama campaign.” Had Tapper actually been in a classroom at the time, his professor might have asked him to supply, say, a scintilla of evidence for his accusation, or perhaps a definition of “elitism” that somehow excludes extremely highly paid and pampered television personalities. But of course Kurtz let it go. The apotheosis of this supposedly anti-elitist mind-set could be found in the New York Daily News, which ran a shot of Power in an evening gown with the headline Pretty Dumb! (That’ll show that Harvard hussy. What right does someone who cares about genocide have to wear evening gowns?)
It is a fact, almost universally admitted, that the United States has rarely if ever in its history suffered from more egregious misrule than it does today, and its good name has suffered accordingly and appropriately. And while the denizens of the Bush Administration bear the brunt of the blame for various catastrophes their ignorance, arrogance, incompetence and ideological obsession have visited upon us, a healthy share of the responsibility can also be laid at the feet of toothless media and a spineless foreign policy establishment that helped enable it, despite its better judgment at the time.
Armed with the advice of new voices with new visions, like Samantha Power, Barack Obama represents a challenge to discredited clichés that have hitherto governed US foreign policy. When Obama announced during the Democratic debating season that he had no fear of negotiating with America’s enemies, he was immediately attacked by the same tired old voices in the media, the establishment and, it must sadly be added, the Clinton campaign. How refreshing at that moment was the Obama campaign’s unyielding response, in the form of a memo by Ms. Power, who wrote:
American foreign policy is broken. 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. Yet conventional wisdom holds that people whose experience includes taking these positions are held up as examples of what America needs in times of trouble…. We cannot afford any more of this kind of bankrupt conventional wisdom.
If that’s “university elitism,” I say, bring it on…