Diplomat and writer Samantha Power was recently picked to lead the United States Agency for International Development — and as she told PEOPLE in December, "To have the chance to give back again, I would absolutely answer the call"

By Morgan Smith
February 01, 2021 12:04 PM
Samantha Power
| Credit: Stephen Kelleghan

As Joe Biden settles into the White House for the second time, a familiar freckled face is planning to join him in Washington, D.C.

Samantha Power, an ambassador to the United Nations under President Barack Obama, was nominated by Biden in mid-January to lead the United States Agency for International Development. The federal government's aid agency oversees tens of billions in money for assistance and growth in other countries; as such, USAID is a key diplomatic arm of any administration.

Power, 50, has the resume for the work: A Pulitzer Prize-winning human rights activist and writer, she was involved in the U.S. response to the Ebola outbreak and the Syrian civil war. 

Diplomacy after Donald Trump is another kind of challenge, given how the former president focused on upending traditional alliances he argued did not best serve America — while affronting many of those same countries. Biden campaigned in part on restoring those international relationships.

Speaking to PEOPLE in December weeks before she was named as Biden's pick at USAID, Power, an Irish transplant, said she was excited about the prospect of working with him.

"As an immigrant to this country, when the president calls, yours is not to question why, as the old poem goes … it says 'do or die,' but in this instance, yours is to serve," she said then. "We're in a period of national and international emergency, so to have the chance to give back again, I would absolutely answer the call."

Power's memoir, The Education of an Idealist (recently released in paperback), traces her journey from the streets of Dublin to the White House Situation Room. It's a story of lessons learned, both easy and hard.

Power's mother, Vera, decided to immigrate from their native Ireland to the U.S. with Samantha and her brother, Stephen, after a bitter divorce from their father, Jim. Power was 9 years old.

Her parents — and "the diversity of humanity that came through the door of the pub" where she was often with her dad — influenced her worldview and the moral conscience Power carried with her into the White House, she says. 

"I think by spending so much time in the pub with my dad for the first half of my childhood, watching people not able to get a word in edgewise unless they could tell a good story and watching people who were very removed from grand global events still have strong opinions, I learned that it didn't matter if you were a doctor or a barman or a kid or a soccer player, your opinion is worth something," she says.

After moving to America, she slowly grew apart from her father, who battled alcoholism for years. He died when she was 14. Power says the loss was "excruciating" and even still she feels the touch of those twin experiences: "being an immigrant and feeling a sense of guilt on my part not to have been able to do more for my dad."

Writing The Education of an Idealist, however, led to new discoveries about her dad and allowed Power and her mom to talk through some painful family history, she says. As she was researching for the book, Power discovered her father was found dead lying on her childhood bed.

"It's like stirring up a hornet's nest," she says. "You may get stung, but the hornets will go away. And I think in [writing the book], all of us feel not necessarily closure, because I'm not sure that ever really comes, but now it's all out there."

Power credits mom Vera, a kidney doctor, with teaching her the importance of being an empathetic listener. "She'd always bring home the stories of her patients, and she'd describe them in ways that made them feel that they were sitting at our dinner tables," Power says. "The quality of attention she gives everyone is what makes her an incredible doctor, and that kind of empathy is really uncommon." 

A former war correspondent who reported from the frontlines of far-flung places like Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda, Power — who became an American citizen at 23 — joined President Obama on the campaign trail, serving for four years as a human rights adviser.

In 2013, she became the youngest American to assume the role of the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. 

Working for Obama drastically changed the course of her personal life, too: She met her husband, Cass Sunstein, while working on the campaign and she gave birth to their children, son Declan and daughter Rían, during Obama's first term in the White House.

There were bumps. Power found herself in the spotlight — and then sidelined from the Obama team — for a time during the 2008 campaign when, during an interview with The Scotsman (a popular newspaper in Scotland), she took a call from a fellow Obama aide. Within earshot of the reporter, she called his primary challenger Hillary Clinton a "monster."

The paper printed her remark and controversy ensued.

"It was a reality check for me," Power says looking back on that experience now. "I had such admiration for her and she'd always been nothing but kind to me. And yet in the context of a cutthroat American political campaign, we were so competitive — I mean, [the campaigns] were just at each other, and you can really just lose sight of all you have in common and get blinded by the competition." 

She continues: "I'm embarrassed and ashamed of it, still. But the reason I write about it in my book is that it led to an important realization for me: investing relationships with people who are going to be with you when you fall, not who's with you just when you're on top of the world. Cass, who I had just started dating, my friends and my family were so good to me, even though I'd just done something that I thought was so terrible."

Indeed, that blunder did have a silver lining, with time. She jokes: "Out of that experience, I ended up with a husband and two children. So the greatest parts of my life are rooted in that great professional implosion."

The former president was actually the first person to call Power in the hospital after each time she gave birth. "He is so intelligent — and I've seen him likened to Spock, but the one thing about him that I've been most struck by and doesn't get as much attention is just his heart and how much he cares," she says. 

In her PEOPLE interview in December, before her next role was officially announced, Power nonetheless looked ahead, drawing on her years in international relations.

She said then that political polarization worried her "more than anything."

"It's our biggest national security liability and vulnerability. It's why, for example, Russia is able to interfere in our elections," she said. "But also, can we come together on anything? On infrastructure, on jobs, on COVID-19?"

That division damages our ability to lead abroad, Power says. 

"When President Trump, for example, undoes the things Obama has done — like on climate change or the Iran Nuclear Deal. Whether you agree with President Trump or President Obama with what the policy should be, in ripping an agreement up it has made it really difficult for President Trump to lead and will make it really difficult for President Biden, because there has been a longstanding bipartisan tradition that you respect the agreements in foreign policy that have been forged by your predecessor," she says. 

She continues: "When you don't [respect those agreements], it makes it harder for you and for those who come after you to negotiate agreements, because other countries are like, 'Why should we take the political risk of doing this when someone else can come along and rip it up?' " 

According to Power, the COVID-19 pandemic has only widened such divisions. "How America is faring at home, within our own borders, is by far the most important variable in how the world views us," she says. "So the fact that we have been so divided on the COVID-19 pandemic, and we have one of the highest infection and death rates in the world, makes it really difficult for us to go to other countries and [advise] them [on] what to do. Not just on public health matters, but on many matters."

Despite the challenges that would await Power at her new post — when she is almost certainly confirmed by the Democratic Senate — one sight gives her hope: watching thousands of people take to the streets in recent years to protest against political brutality, racism, sexual assault and a litany of other issues. 

"It's a sign of people saying, 'If there's going to be change in my life or my community or my country, we're going to have to claim it, enough waiting on the government," she says. "There's a real opportunity in 2021 to speak to these aspirations people have for accountable governance, and for this next administration to also say, 'We're back world! Let's roll our sleeves up and work together on problems that cross borders.' "