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Kevin Cullen

The education of an empathetic policy maker

Samantha Power File 2019

Woody Allen said 80 percent of life is just showing up. It was 100 percent the year I spent at Harvard on a mid-career fellowship.

If they awarded degrees for goofing off, I would have been valedictorian.

In 2003, I took a human rights class taught by journalist-turned-academic Samantha Power. I knew of Power only through my friend and colleague, the great Globe foreign correspondent Elizabeth Neuffer.

At a Sarajevo cafe in 1998, Elizabeth explained Samantha Power thusly: “She’s unusual in that she really, really cares about the people she writes about.”

You could have said the same about Elizabeth, whose reporting from the Middle East, the Balkans, and Rwanda ached with empathy for the people who suffered and died while powerful governments did too little or nothing.


Power was just 32, a neophyte teacher, but her passion for the subject matter was infectious. Like Elizabeth, she cut her teeth as a foreign correspondent in Bosnia, and what she saw there, how human suffering was made worse by government inaction, had a huge impact on the kind of policy maker she became, eventually as UN ambassador for the Obama administration.

What I didn’t know, until I read her memoir, “The Education of an Idealist,” and listened to her Tuesday at the Irish American Partnership’s annual women’s Christmas breakfast, is that her empathy was shaped long before she got to the Balkans.

She grew up in Dublin. Her mother, Vera Delaney, rebelled against a patriarchy that would have had her go no further than the kitchen. Undaunted, Vera went to medical school.

Samantha’s father was a dentist who rarely worked. Instead of seeing patients, Jim Power beat a daily path to a pub called Hartigan’s, often bringing his daughter along. While her father drained pints and droned on upstairs, young Samantha read books in the empty basement bar.


To a little girl, this didn’t seem odd. On the contrary, she idolized a dad who always wanted her around.

The adults saw it differently. Vera went to a judge, asking for permission to take Samantha and her brother to America. The judge, Samantha recalled, bellowed, “What right has this woman to be so educated?”

But Vera got her court order and soon Samantha was a schoolgirl in Pittsburgh, obsessed with baseball. Jim stayed in Dublin.

The first visit back was a disaster. Jim Power got drunk and threatened to kidnap his kids. Vera hustled them back to Pittsburgh and thereafter ignored the part of the court order that stipulated annual visits to Ireland.

Jim Power eventually died from the drink. Samantha, just 14, blamed herself, thinking if only she had continued to visit him, he’d be alive.

Somewhere in her teenage consciousness, she vowed to never feel such regret again, to always show up, to always be there, when someone was hurting. It is a sensibility that drove her as a journalist, an academic, and a diplomat.

Toward the end of my Nieman fellowship, Elizabeth Neuffer was killed in a car accident while covering the war in Iraq.

After Elizabeth’s funeral, a bunch of us crammed into a car for the drive back from Connecticut and Samantha started talking about Elizabeth’s empathy. What she said about Elizabeth was almost identical to what Elizabeth had said about her years before in Sarajevo.


Samantha Power is back at Harvard now. She and her husband, Cass Sunstein, live in Concord, raising a son and daughter.

She is 49 years old. It seems likely that, when a Democrat next occupies the White House, she’ll get a call. She’d be a good adviser. She’d make a fine secretary of state.

Not just because the young idealist who wanted to save the world has evolved into a wizened realist.

But because she remains the most empathetic of policy makers, a woman who understands the human condition in all its fragility, and, forever, the little girl who wished she could have saved just one man: her dad.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.