BBC sounds, music, radio, podcasts. Hello, I'm Lauren Laverne, and this is the Desert Island Discs podcast. Every week I ask my guests to choose the eight tracks book and luxury they'd want to take with them if they were castaway to a desert island. And for right reasons, the music is shorter than the original broadcast. I hope you enjoy listening. My castaway this week is the author and academic Samantha Power, once labeled the conscience of President Obama.
She was a key player throughout both terms of his administration, first as an adviser on foreign policy, then as America's youngest ever ambassador to the U.N., born in London to Irish parents. She spent her early life in Dublin before the family settled in Atlanta. Her first ambition was to become a sports broadcaster until one day she saw live footage of the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and that changed everything. By the age of 23, she was reporting on the war in Bosnia, where she was described as a breath of fresh outrage by her colleagues.
Her experiences inspired a book interrogating the American response to genocides throughout the 20th century. It won the Pulitzer Prize and placed her on the then Senator Obama's radar. She went from criticizing government policy to working to shape it. She's currently professor of global leadership, public policy and human rights at Harvard. She says the road to hell is paved with good intentions, to be sure. But turning a blind eye to the toughest problems in the world is a guaranteed shortcut to the same destination.
Samantha Power, welcome to Desert Island Discs. So glad to be here.
So let's get straight into it with Joe Biden's arrival at the White House. Rumors are circulating that you might be returning to front line politics. Have you had a call from Joe Biden yet?
I don't know honestly what the what the future holds. But I will say that having been a journalist and activist and academic, a diplomat, a staffer, nothing has been more rewarding in my career than and more meaningful, really, than getting to represent the United States, getting to be a public servant. So if I have the chance to serve again, I think I'd leap at the opportunity.
Of course, he spent the last few years in academia.
How would it feel going back to politics and leaving that behind where in a moment of such crisis, it's kind of a national international emergency, I mean, in a literal sense with the pandemic and the economic crisis, but in such a deeper sense, with human rights in retreat in so many parts of the world, that I think this is a moment where we need all hands on deck. So I don't think I'd be conflicted about leaving the classroom. I would miss my students.
I would miss the lifestyle, which is a little more luxuriant than that of the 24/7 national security job.
But there are moments where when the call comes, I think you don't really have a choice.
I know you're listening to the program. So, you know, we're here to get a sense of the person behind the politics, too. And a journalist friend of yours once said of you she's either intense or asleep. Would you say that's a fair assessment?
It's not untrue. I don't have a middle gear. I think that's that's fair to say. But I certainly you know, I love music. I love sport. I love to dance.
I may be intense in how I do all of those things to a fault, but there's a lightness that comes with not taking myself too seriously.
We're going to get started with your first disc right now. What's it going to be and why have you chosen this today?
I have chosen Dancing Queen by ABBA.
This is a song that just reminds me so much of my beloved mother who grew up in Cork City Cork, the daughter of a policeman. She longed to become a doctor when she was a kid and was deterred from pursuing medicine because she was a girl, but in her mid 20s went back and got her medical degree. Talk about intense. My mother was intense, is intense. But amid that intensity, just this joy, this desire to dance and.
Dancing Queen by ABBA dedicated Samantha Power to your mother, Vera. And you were born in London in 1970 and your mother and father were both Irish. They took you back there when you were very small. So your mother, Vera, is a nephrologist that's kidney doctor and an avid sportswoman, too. Apparently, when you were growing up, the only time you saw a sitting still was when Wimbledon was on, is that right?
Yes. Sitting cross-legged face pressed up to the TV as she would urge me never to do, watching every point of every match that was broadcast in Ireland.
She sounds like a woman determined to follow her dreams and with bountiful energy to do it. Yes.
I mean, only when I myself became a mother did I sort of reflect on just the the bravery and the brazenness in some ways of the of the choices that she made.
And what about your father? Tell me about him.
My dad was a brilliant thinker. He professionally became a dentist. But as my mother's career and as her sporting conquests progressed, I think he began to feel a little shut out or a little left behind. And he had always been a straightforward Irish drinker, someone who liked to go to the pub.
But as he began to retreat a little bit from his marriage to my mother or as my mother was off banging squash balls and and taking courses in transplant nephrology to learn more about the kidney, he began spending more and more time at the pub. And it was there was one pub in particular called Cardigans in downtown Dublin, and I was his sidekick probably between the ages of three and nine. I'd have been there with him, with my Fanta and my planter's peanuts.
So what now, of course, seems like exactly the wrong environment for a child to be in. At the time, it was the only environment I really knew.
So it sounds like there was a lot going on in your parents relationship, did eventually break down your your mother won custody of you and your brother Stephen. She took you with her to start a new life in the U.S. in 1979. A really big change for you at that point. You did go back one Christmas to stay with your father that Christmas. Later that year, you and Steven and your mother came to collect you on Christmas Eve. What happened?
Yeah, this is a very dramatic and very sad evening. I mean, it shouldn't have been. It was it was Christmas Eve. But my dad with us back in his company, hitting the tennis ball in the cul de sac outside the house, he said to my mother, I'm keeping them. And my mother said, no, you're not. The courts have made clear I have custody and you can come visit them and they will come and visit again very soon, but you can't keep them.
And he said, no, I'm keeping them. So she just swooped in on Christmas Eve and picked us up and brought us pretty soon thereafter to the airport. And that would prove the last time I saw my dad in person.
Let's take a break for some music. This is your second disc today, and I think it is connected to your dad.
My dad was a magnificent piano player and one of his favorite songs was Cat Stevens Morning has Broken and I have such fond memories of lying next to the piano stool on the carpeted floor and watching his feet on the pedals as he played this this beautiful song. And it ended up being the song that I had played as I came down the aisle for my wedding in County Kerry Morning has Hasbrouck.
Like the first morning. For the sea. Praise for them springing. Mourning has broken by Cat Stevens, so Samantha Power, you settled in Atlanta, Georgia, with your mother, your brother Steven and your stepfather Eddie, and you developed a passion for team sports. I'm imagining that that made it a bit easier to fit in at school when I came to America.
We initially moved to Pittsburgh. And when I arrived there, I was in my I had my Irish Catholic girls school uniform. We didn't have a lot of money. So I was wearing my tartan skirt and my black patent leather shoes to this American public school. And I just, you know, I felt like a real oddball.
And then I heard that what people were talking about was Major League Baseball in the Pittsburgh Pirates. The team that belonged to the town was marching toward the championship. And, you know, I kind of looked around and thought, OK, I think if I can figure this out, I'll have at least something to talk about. I may have an Irish accent, a double and accent, and I worked on losing that as quickly as I could. But this is all the rage.
And so like any kid wanting to fit in, I think that was it.
So you were 14, Samantha, when a call came and you received some terrible news from Ireland. What do you remember about that day?
I remember sitting in my bedroom in Atlanta, Georgia, and hearing my mother come home from the hospital early, and that didn't happen often. Probably some radar was going off in me that that something was amiss. But I wasn't prepared for my mother coming into my room and sitting me down and telling me that my father had passed away. He was 47. The one detail that I that was seared into my soul was that he died alone.
And I remember overhearing that he had been found days later in the in the house, in our house only as a mother now.
And seeing my own children and just how young they are when they're young, do I realize that my childhood sense of having superpowers, you know, if I were stronger, if I had been more worth it, you know, my dad would have been able to get it together. Only when you get older do you understand what what addiction is and what alcoholism is and how much bigger it is than than one person's will or one family's will. But again, I was 14.
All I knew was this large, charismatic, very loving father had vanished in an instant. Got to go to the music, Samantha Power. What are we going to hear next and why have you chosen it? So this is a song by one of my favorite bands, The Pogues. It's a song about immigration coming across that big Atlantic Ocean, the hardship of coming to a new land, the longing for what you've left behind and the determination to dance.
But it doesn't, so I lied and the threat of. The man's footsteps lie just down the streets, the Pogues and thousands of sailing, so Samantha Power, in 1988, you went to Yale University to study for a liberal arts degree and you had set your sights on becoming a sports journalist.
But not long into your course, you changed your mind. What happened?
Well, the summer after my first year at university, I worked, unsurprisingly, at the CBS Sports affiliates.
And as I was sitting in the booth, the video booth taking notes on a routine Braves game. The CBS News feed was up next to me.
And on it came unfiltered footage from Beijing, China. And the footage captured what was the beginning of the Chinese government's crackdown on democracy. Protests and the tanks rolled in. And as I sat with my clipboard in hand, I watched students my age fleeing onto their bicycles out of the line of fire. And it was a devastating scene and made me think, OK, I could probably get the balance a little bit better between how much time I'm spending, learning about sport and what's actually happening in the world around me, the tree, the east, a mock up the newspaper and test yourself.
And afterwards, indeed, yeah. I began subscribing to The New York Times, the hard copy. The New York Times have come to my dorm room every day and I would read it and I would underline the name of the head of state. And then I finished the article. I'd quiz myself to know who it was.
And I didn't quite make flashcards for myself, but it was almost that bad.
And so you would set on a different course. And by 1992, you'd taken up an internship at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. That's a foreign policy think tank. And now you learned about the atrocities that were taking place in Bosnia. You decided to become a war correspondent. Why did you feel at such a young age that you had to go there yourself?
In the period where I was coming of age in America, the Holocaust was getting heightened attention. There was a museum opening up on the Mall in Washington with America's cherished monuments.
It was taught in great detail in American schools and the idea of never again had gathered significant force.
I think so. Fast forward then 1992. I've just graduated from college. The Berlin Wall has fallen just a few years before, and there's a great sense of promise that peace is at hand and that the world can come together. But at the same time as Yugoslavia collapsed, you see the savage war in Bosnia break out this horrific ethnic cleansing and such suffering.
You wanted then to put your journalistic skills to good use, but you were a sports reporter, so getting a press pass was going to be tricky. How did you manage it?
Carnegie Endowment at that time put out an academic publication called Foreign Policy, and that editor's office was a few doors down from mine. And so late at night, when the cleaning staff had finished hoovering, I crept into the office and took a piece of stationery and wrote a letter on my own behalf.
But unfortunately, in the name of the editor of Foreign Policy urging the U.N. to grant Samantha Power all the necessary credentials she would need in order to contribute to the publication, I was just consumed with this objective of getting over to Bosnia and I was going to do whatever it took, even if it meant doing something I shouldn't have done.
Time for some music.
Samantha Power, your fourth desk, if you would. What's it going to be?
Crazy by SEAL. An Australian journalist took this song and spliced together video of the carnage in Bosnia. And so this song and those images that this journalist captured will always go together in my mind.
And just how war can scar you for forever. I see you, my friend, and touch your face again. Unless we get a little crazy. SEAL and crazy Samantha Power, you taken great pains to get there, how did covering conflict in Bosnia first hand shape your own thinking? It has left me certainly with a desire to be out in the world talking to people who are affected by our decisions, affected by the decisions of their governments, that that is a perspective that is invaluable and too often lacking, honestly, in in the bubble of policymaking.
President Clinton refused to intervene in the conflict at that stage.
What were your personal feelings about what you saw as a lack of direct action by the U.S. and NATO at the time to see the kind of chaotic and dispersed diplomacy that didn't seem to be well leveraged and to know that the effects of diplomatic failure was going to be more bloodshed and more kids killed while jumping rope and in playgrounds, it tore me up inside and it tore many, many journalists up inside. So as a citizen, I think of the world and a citizen of America, I really wanted President Clinton to prioritize this conflict.
In September 1995, President Clinton changed his mind and NATO launched airstrikes against Serb forces. You left Bosnia by then, but how did you feel when you heard the news?
Because it involved bombing? I was scared. You know, I kind of lived in suspended animation for that week or two as events unfolded on the ground and when Sarajevo was liberated, when it was clear that military force was going to work and a peace agreement was going to be forged, an imperfect one, but nonetheless a peace agreement. It just was the greatest sense of relief I think I've ever felt.
And on the professional side, I wonder about your experience as a war reporter. I mean, many people who pursue that career talk about the camaraderie, the adrenaline. Did it seep you?
I think it did suit me. I think it's an incredibly stimulating line of work. The ability, if you're a curious person, to go out and talk to people, whether people who had survived unimaginable crimes against humanity or even to talk to the perpetrators of those crimes and get inside the head of people who are doing things that a year before or two years before that would have been inconceivable to them. But at the same time, I felt its limits.
I felt that what we were writing was not landing in a way that was affecting the calculus of of people with power.
It's time for desk number five. What are we going to hear next? And why have you chosen it today, Samantha?
So this is a Bob Dylan cover, boots of Spanish leather, and it is performed by a wonderful group called Mandoline Orange. This is a song that reminds me of my husband, Cass, who, in addition to being the most original person and having the most original mind that I have ever encountered, and being the author of dozens and dozens of books, he is someone who has a Bob Dylan lyric response to anything that happens in one's life.
So no matter what news I bring in a given day or what crossroads I find myself at or what lamentation I am making. He's got a Bob Dylan lyric for it was a little.
From across the sea. Boots of Spanish leather written by Bob Dylan and performed that by Mandolin Orange Samantha Power in 1995, he took up a place at Harvard Law School.
You had intended to become a prosecutor, but you ended up writing a book instead. A Problem from Hell was published in 2002. It would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize. What was its central thesis?
That America, despite making grand promises and despite believing itself a country that would stand up in the face of genocide by and large, look the other way when genocide happened and it was that book that ended up on the nightstand of a man that was then a young senator, Barack Obama.
Later he'd gone to work in his Senate office. And then in 2007, you joined his election campaign. How would you describe your working relationship?
We have an understanding, put it that way. I think he puts up with me.
There would be occasions when I was at the White House or when I was in his cabinet as U.N. ambassador, where he would just say, straight up, Sam, you're getting on my nerves, or in one occasion when I think I was going on too long, which is a tendency of mine in the Syria context, you know, he snapped.
We've all read your book, Sam.
We've all read your book. You know, I'm thinking I'm not I'm actually not sure everyone here has read my book. I'm not convinced that, Mr. President.
But he has a really uncanny ability to kind of look around a room and say, I don't have all parts of myself here.
And what I mean by that is if he looks around the room and says, OK, I have a lot of people here who are going to be arguing for providing more military assistance to the Sisi government in Egypt. Get that. But where, Sam? Like where's the person who's going to tell me why this is a bad idea?
Yeah. Didn't he used to prompt you occasionally for a bit too quiet by asking you sick power? Yeah, exactly.
And of course, I have no poker face. My forehead would be all coiled up and and he'd be like something on your mind, Samantha.
And and so he was immensely decisive, but never wanted. Yes. Men that happy talk as he as he described it, that would get you nowhere.
Samantha Power, we've got to take a moment for your next desk. It's number six. Why are you taking it to the island?
So this is Nina Simone's Why the King of Love is Dead. And it's a song written a few days after the assassination of Martin Luther King.
I think it captures some of the anger that we see today, given that so much injustice persists, particularly racial injustice.
I think Simon, who was radicalized in her later years, meant it as a song of despair, as a as a lament.
I find it immensely motivating folks. You'd better. Cause we're heading the free. He was high quality. Why the king of love is dead, Nina Simone, Samantha Power, as we've heard, your career has had many highs, but it has had its lows to one of which occurred during Obama's 2008 election campaign. You're forced to resign after referring to Hillary Clinton, who was then a presidential candidate in the race to the White House as a monster in print.
How do you look back on what you said now?
Well, even at the time, I couldn't believe that I had said it, I it's hard to be convincing in this regard since the words came out of my mouth, but I got way too caught up and it was my first presidential campaign. You know, the mud was being slung from one campaign to the next. And I regret it to this day. I did have a chance to apologize to her in person. And and I'm very glad about that.
And of course, I had a chance to work with her in when she was secretary of state and I was President Obama's human rights adviser. And so we've come a long way.
But I you know, it's a reminder of just how one can lose perspective. It can feel like the center of the universe. But you have to stay true to treating people and talking about people with with respect. And I didn't do that.
And in the short term, of course, it cost you dearly. You went from being at the heart of the campaign to being a complete outsider. Is it that you resigned or that Obama asked you to go?
Initially, he rejected the idea that I would have to resign. Then he realized that it was potentially going to be costly for the campaign. So he said, I'm going to put you in the penalty box.
And of course, my Irish cousins would say the sin bin had to go to the sin bin.
So I was in the sin bin for quite a while there until he locked up the nomination. And then I came back for the the general election.
Time for desk number seven. Samantha, what's it going to be and why have you chosen this?
This is a Leonard Cohen cover. Tonight will be fine by my dear friend Teddy Thompson. I had long had this sense because of my father's death when I was young that nothing great can last.
And when I had kids, of course, my fear of something bad happening was always with me when I had Declan just thinking, will he be OK?
And this song kind of calms me and just says, you know, we can't predict the future, but tonight, let's enjoy it tonight. We'll be fine.
Sometimes I find I get to thinking of this. We swore to each other that I loved last. You can read all of them now on a fast. No time to think your love is too fast.
Tonight will be fine, written by Leonard Cohen and performed by Teddy Thompson. So Samantha Power, after President Obama was elected, he brought you back into the fold, appointing you to the National Security Council. In his second term, you served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Now, as we've heard, you are unafraid to speak your mind. How did you take to being a diplomat?
The short answer is I loved every minute of it.
The longer answer is that I wasn't known for being the most diplomatic person before becoming a diplomat.
But I think that authentically being curious about my colleagues from these other 192 countries playing soccer with the Latin American ambassadors, joining the Korean, Danish, Serbian and Thai ambassadors in a amateur rock band, you know, building, just seeing all that we have in common.
We love we all love music. We all love soccer.
And as a diplomat, you would often have meetings at home. How did that change the dynamics of the conversations that you were having?
I think four ambassadors from other countries to just see the chaotic humanity of somebody barely hanging on, you know, in this period, you know, taking phone calls from John Kerry, the secretary of state, and from my daughter's daycare. I mean, that's life, right? Yeah.
But in one instance, I was on a call with Secretary Kerry around, I think Russian sanctions. And Declan came up looking to get my attention. And in this instance, I shoot him away, I think, one too many times.
And he marched off saying, Putin, Putin, Putin, Putin. When is it going to be Declan, Declan, Declan, Declan?
Well, Samantha, I am, of course, about to cast you away to our desert island. And I know that you're going to miss your family. And you've also thought a lot about the idea of leaving family behind in real life. I read the letter that you wrote to Declan when he was just six months old. You were going away on your first trip to Iraq. What did it say?
I just was, again, afraid that something bad would happen, that I'd be in Iraq and wouldn't come home to my boys. And so I just tried to convey to Declan the the love that I felt for him at that time. And and don't give me talk about the letter.
I I'll lose it here at the end of the program.
Whenever you hear thunder, that will be me. Whenever the Red Sox win the 9th. That would be me.
Yeah, it was very hard to write, is very hard to read. And right now it's very hard to keep that book away from my son because he's 11. And once he's heard about the letter and he wants to read the letter and I'm absolutely determined for him not to read the letter and I hope never to have to read the letter.
Well, one more track, Samantha, before we send you off to your island. What's it going to be your last disk today? So.
Well, it did take Cass and me a few years to conceive our our second child, our daughter Rian, who's now eight. It was after many rounds of IVF and and miscarriages. And so this song I heard not long after Ryan was born by Alexander Ebert, and it's called A Million Years. And the key reason in line for me is a million years full of tears.
But I found my girl. I found my girlfriend.
My notion of love, devotion, the girl. I still feel that I feel is just fine, like explode in space. A million years, Alexander Ebbetts, Samantha Power. It's time to cast you away. So I'm going to give you the books to take with you. As you know, the Bible, the complete works of Shakespeare and another book of your choosing. What would you like?
Colum Tobin's Irish Times book of favorite Irish poems. So Cullum's, a great friend of mine, brilliant Irish writer, poet in his way. And for him to choose the poems that I'd be cast away with I think makes a lot of sense. It's yours.
You can also have a luxury item. What would you like?
I have wanted to learn the guitar my whole life. I thought I might do it in the pandemic period. I have failed the guitar and me on the island. It will happen.
It's time. And finally, which of these eight tracks would you rush to save if there was only time to rescue one from the waves? Teddy Thompson's take on Leonard Cohen's tonight will be fine. Samantha Power, thank you so much for sharing your Desert Island Discs with us.
Thank you. I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Samantha, I'm sure that she'll find many ways of brushing up her baseball skills on the island. Of course, we've cast many diplomats away, including Sir Nicholas Henderson, Sir Crispin Tickell and Rory Stewart. And you can hear their programs via our website and BBC Sande's. Next time, my guest will be the astronaut major topic. I do hope you'll join us.
Hello, I hope you've enjoyed the podcast you just heard there's another podcast available as well as called The Infinite Monkey Cage with me, Robin and me, Brian Cox.
And it's going to be, I think, more educational than whatever it is that you just listen to, because we're going to consider subjects such as the nature of reality, which encompasses whatever it is that you just listen to. So, yeah, Jan 11, Eric Idle. Frank, we'll check Sara Pascoe, Ross Noble, Chris Jackson, Alan Davis. David, there was a huge number of people talking about many big ideas. There won't be that many equations.
There might be one equation, right.
The behind the wheel and also Erica McCalister, Lady of the Flies, very 2021. And you can hear The Infinite Monkey Cage on BBC Sounds.
Yeah, there's hundreds of them, actually, and loads of them. And we just thought you could do over 100 episodes about everything that's in the universe. It's a lot more than I first imagined. While you're a comedian, not a scientist.