Sunday, March 9, 2008

The on-going trivialization of U.S. politics

Samantha Power is a brilliant person. She is affiliated with The Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. She is the author of the book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 2003. A Problem from Hell is one of those must read books on current world concerns. She has also written a forward to a 2004 edition of Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism. Her most recent book, Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World, was published on 14 February 2008.

Powers is in her late thirties and representative of a new generation of thinkers. Until this past Friday she was Senator Obama's leading foreign policy advisor, though working in an unpaid capacity. The reason for her resignation are some unfortunate, intemperate, and no doubt emotion-driven comments she made during a recent trip to London, one of which was calling Sen. Hillary Clinton "a monster". The context for the "monster" statement, however, was Power referring to Clinton's campaign tactics, as this Times Online report shows:

“Ms Power made the offending remark during a trip to London this week in which she was apparently too candid about the problems facing the Obama campaign.

“‘We f***** up in Ohio,” she told the newspaper. ‘In Ohio, they are obsessed and Hillary is going to town on it, because she knows Ohio’s the only place they can win.

“‘She is a monster, too – that is off the record – she is stooping to anything,’ Ms Power added. The newspaper described her as ‘hastily trying to withdraw her remark’.

“Scotsman editor Mike Gilson tonight stepped in to defend his use of the ‘off-the-record’ quotes.

“He said: ‘We have no opinion on whether Ms Power was right to quit and perhaps politics should be able to retain people with talent who are prepared to learn by their mistakes but we are certain it was right to publish. I do not know of a case when anyone has been able to withdraw on the record quotes after they have been made.’”
Samantha Power

So, on 7 March she offered her resignation with these words: “With deep regret, I am resigning from my role as an advisor the Obama campaign effective today. Last Monday, I made inexcusable remarks that are at marked variance from my oft-stated admiration for Senator Clinton and from the spirit, tenor, and purpose of the Obama campaign. And I extend my deepest apologies to Senator Clinton, Senator Obama, and the remarkable team I have worked with over these long 14 months." It is important to note that her resignation and apology were delivered without any apparent coercion and without her making any excuses, not even invoking her attempt to hastily withdraw the comment from the record.

I certainly do not agree with Ms. Power’s comment on Sen. Clinton. At the end-of-the day, whether her remarks were on or off the record is immaterial to me. I agree with the editor of The Scotsman, though not with his decision to publish the remarks, which I still see as a violation of journalistic ethics as well as blatant sensationalism, regarding allowing people to make amateur mistakes without it being fatal. She is a talented, smart, committed woman with a lot to contribute and a few things to learn, especially about politics. Should Obama become president I certainly hope Ms. Power will be on-hand in some advisory capacity or even in an official position.

I think candidates who seek to sell themselves as uniters and reconcilers, which both Democratic candidates certainly do, need to take opportunities to show us that they are. Senator Clinton could begin by publicly accepting Ms. Power's public apology and forgiving her, instead of contributing to the on-going trivialization of presidential politics. For his part, Obama, as one commenter suggested over on Talking Points Memo , could refuse to accept her resignation while acknowledging the wrongness of her statement, thus upping the ante and the moral tone of the campaign.

As I wrote elsewhere, if all this makes me a naïf, then I am content to remain one. "I beg to dream and differ from the shallow lies", even if I fail at times to rise to such a high standard.


  1. Very interesting background. I didn't know anything about Powers. It's ridiculous the way one misstatement gets you dropped like a hot potato.

  2. What I find really troubling is all the attention paid to one word, the word "monster", which has been completely ripped out of context.


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