She won the Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on Bosnia; got bounced out of the Obama campaign in 2008 for calling the candidate-elect’s then rival Hilary Clinton a “monster,” but remained a darling of the left for her outspoken views on U.S. foreign policy, while appearing in Men’s Vogue as a sophisticate’s ultimate redhead — beautiful, contrarian, and brainy. The headline facts about Samantha Power, awaiting Senate confirmation as the new American ambassador to the U.N., are fascinating enough, but so are the lesser known details of her background, particularly as they relate to her Irish connections and perhaps very Irish penchant for occasionally sweeping and at least once fearlessly righteous rhetoric.
Contrary to the perception of many Americans, Power’s liberal activist views are not break away by modern Irish standards but in keeping with those of some of the most prominent female politicians Ireland has produced lately. Prominent among these ardent new style Catholics are Mary Robinson, the seventh president of Ireland (1990-1997) and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights until 2002, when the Bush administration grew furious at what they viewed as her divisive commentary, sometimes about capital punishment in the U.S. A long-term prosyletizer for causes like fair trade, women’s and homosexual rights, Robinson now has her own “Foundation for Climate Justice.”
The eighth president of Ireland was another redhead, Mary McAleese (1997-2011), widely celebrated here for her passionate work to diminish sectarian strife in Northern Ireland, but sometimes derided for her heavy rhetoric on behalf of various liberal causes. The question of what are Catholic views in Ireland is changing fast. The current president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, is a poet and nearly as outspoken as his predecessors.
Samantha Power attended the same all-girls primary school in Dublin as Mary Robinson – Mount Anville of the Sacred Heart, which until recently was run by nuns who with often strong points of view about social inequality in Ireland as well as globally. Power, now 42, left Ireland at the age of nine after her physician mother, Vera Delaney, separated from her father to join Edmund Bourke (from the same family as former Irish president Mary Robinson and a likely descendent of the famous 18th century philosopher on the American Revolution and the rights of man, Edmund Burke). Bourke’s career ladder as a nephrologist would first take him to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, and then the Emory School of Medicine in Atlanta, where Vera Delaney (now an adjunct professor in urology at the New York College of Medicine) practiced medicine in the same field.
All freckles and red hair, Samantha Power arrived in America in 1980 wearing a red, white, and blue Stars and Stripes T-shirt. She later said, “But I quickly came to learn that to find opportunity in this country, one didn’t actually need to wear the flag, one just needed to try to live up to it. For the next three months, I came home from school every day… and I sat in front of the mirror for hours, straining to drop my brogue so that I, too, could quickly speak like and be an American.”
She graduated from Lakeside High School in Atlanta (where she starred on the girls’ cross country and basketball teams), then Yale University. In the mid 1990s she reported on humanitarian crises in Kosovo, Rwanda, and the Sudan for US News and World Report, Boston Globe, the Economist and New Republic. She became aghast at the West’s slowness in responding to genocide abroad, and wrote four books on this subject. During George W. Bush’s first term, she wrote of her adopted homeland, “U.S. foreign policy has to be rethought. It needs not tweaking but overhauling. We need a historical reckoning with crimes committed, sponsored or permitted by the United States.” In A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocideshe argued that the U.S. “had never in its history intervened to stop genocide and had, in fact, rarely even made a point of condemning it as it occurred.”
She graduated from Harvard Law School in 1999 and became a lecturer on human rights at that university’s Kennedy School of Government. There she became enthralled by that other Harvard law grad, Barack O’Bama, and moved to Chicago in 2005 to become a staff advisor as he made his presence known in the United States Senate. That allegiance brought another — a romance with powerhouse University of Chicago law professor and O’Bama insider Cass Sunstein. Both became key players in O’Bama’s first presidential campaign, until Power shot herself in the foot, as Irish people do, with her March 2008 comments about Hilary Clinton’s status as “monster.” Those observations got Power bounced, at least officially, out of the rest of the campaign.
On July 4, 2008, Samantha Power nonetheless married Cass Sunstein in the far from Chicago ward of County Kerry, where her parents have long maintained a holiday home. (The parents’ primary residence is in a Yonkers house overlooking the Hudson River Palisades that was formerly owned by NY Jets NFL super bowl- winning coach Weeb Ewbank.)
A Cork uncle drove her to the Mary Immaculate Church outside Waterville in a champagne-colored Lexus bedecked with silk roses. Samantha wore a cream all-lace dress. According to the Irish Independent, prayers of the faithful included one “for the victims of cruelty and injustice, for those who protect wildlife and animals and those who are poor and prosecuted.”
A week later both Power and Sunstein were awarded honorary doctorates of law at University College, Cork, her mother’s native city. Patching up the Hilary rift, Power became “special advisor on human rights” to the Obama administration with its many apologies for America’s past behavior abroad. The New York Times has reported that she was influential in provoking the U.S. intervention in Libya.
Power is no stranger to controversy. For her frank expressions of outrage, in the case of Israel heavily retracted, she has earned the enmity of many on America’s political right, with conservative talk show host Glenn Beck blasting, “Mrs. Cass Sunstein is probably the most dangerous woman in America.”… Not exactly what one might expect after arriving in Pittsburgh from Dublin at age nine kitted out in a Stars and Stripes T-shirt.
During her confirmation hearings before the U.S. Senate, Power’s testimony has been carefully modulated and expertly delivered, few pundits think she will not be confirmed. But do they know how Irish this “Harvard brianiac” (Men’s Vogue) with the voice of Lauren Bacall truly is?