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Beginnings: The Breakthrough Moment

Samantha Power, Ambassador

"It made me question whether or not, you know, I should continue taking notes on the Braves-Padres game."

I had actually wanted to be a sports reporter. While I was in college, I was working at this CBS affiliate in Atlanta, which is where I’d gone to high school, and I was taking notes on a Braves-Padres game, and the footage from Tiananmen Square came down on the CBS live feed. And I was just totally sickened — just horrified, basically, by what was happening in Tiananmen Square. I was seeing it live so it was uncut footage and just very rough and brutal — I mean a lot of it was like camerapeople getting knocked over and their cameras going black. It made me question whether or not, you know, I should continue taking notes on the Braves-Padres game.

Out of college, I had an internship in Washington for a guy named Mort Abramowitz who ran Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was a longtime U.S. ambassador and secretary and was consumed with what was happening in Bosnia. It was the height of the war, and in doing his research and getting more and more consumed and learning more and more about what was happening on the ground, I decided to leave Washington and move to the former Yugoslavia. I was very overcome by seeing these images of concentration camps again in Europe, these emaciated men behind barbed wires, there were reports of rape camps. These were horrifying images, and so I wanted to do something. My initial thought was of something concrete. I didn’t know what that meant — feeding people or sheltering people or working for the U.N. or something, but being newly out of college I didn’t have any skills or any experience. The Carnegie Endowment was in the same building as U.S. News & World Report, so I then decided that maybe journalism was the right way to get over there. I approached the foreign editor, and they had a chief of correspondence, and I kind of stalked him — literally kind of pacing around outside his office. I needed one agreement: I didn’t have the money to both get over there and be calling this guy who was trying to avoid me. So he agreed to take my collect calls, which was the best a would-be stringer could hope for.

I spent two years there as a reporter, and then I decided while I was there that I was interested in describing what was happening but for the single purpose of trying to influence the U.S. government. That was my abiding instinct. Maybe somebody would read my article and want to do something about, you know, the fall of Srebrenica, for instance, which I covered for the Washington Post — a safe area where all the men and boys were who ended up in custody were murdered. But I knew it felt a little imperfect insofar as it was a bank shot to getting somebody to do something. I had to just hope that my article would kind of land at a good moment where someone had the bandwidth to read it. And, of course, in writing pieces about kids who were killed on playgrounds or people going to fetch water and dodging sniper fire, it wasn’t as if I was writing, “And here’s my five-point plan for you should do something about it.” I wouldn’t have known exactly what to do, but even as I was working as a stringer, I kept sending memos — these wonky, I’m sure naive but very earnest policy memos to Mort Abramowitz. So I was already schizophrenic.

After a couple years doing that, that instinct of wanting to influence the policy process really overcame me, and so I decided to go to law school. And so I came back to America and went to law school and then while there I wanted to understand better why the U.S. government responded the way it did or didn’t respond over a series of episodes of mass atrocity and genocide. And so for a paper for a class I posed that question. That paper became the nucleus for the book that I would go on to write called A Problem From Hell. And then I wrote that book and Obama called me years later, this was back in 2005, when he was Senator Obama. He seemed so eager to, you know, think freshly about U.S. foreign policy and had a bunch of ideas of his own about things that could be done differently. As I engaged with him I thought, Wow, I could learn so much from seeing the Senate side of things and I could learn so much from him, and I also had some ideas. And a year after that, he decided to run for president.