Author, professor, ambassador and former member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet Samantha Power visited ANU. Jo White reports.
"I have one gift as a writer: knowing the difference between something that’s interesting and something that isn’t."
“I have one gift as a writer: knowing the difference between something that’s interesting and something that isn’t.”
If the line of people snaked around Harry Hartog waiting to purchase a copy of her book is any indication, Ambassador Samantha Power is right – she does have this gift.
Visitors to ANU are usually very accomplished; we welcome ambassadors, world-leading academics, award-winning writers and high-level public servants most weeks. We rarely welcome all of the above in just one person.
Ambassador Power is a Pulitzer Prize winner, Harvard professor, former US Ambassador to the United Nations, member of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet and National Security Council, and as a journalist spent several years reporting from former Yugoslavia during the Balkan War. She’s also a mother of two, with her seven-year-old daughter Rian joining her for the visit to Australia.
Ambassador Power was on campus to deliver the Inaugural Gareth Evans Oration on Tuesday 26 November 2019, but also took time to meet with ANU academics, students and members of our community in a number of events during her visit.
A flight delay, unfortunately, cut short a roundtable with ANU academics who have research interests in international politics and security. However, once underway, the conversation was lively and informative, where Australia’s relationship with China was the hot topic, as it was around the country that week. Ambassador Power was also interested to learn more about the developments in geopolitics playing out in the Pacific and Australia’s role in ensuring security and stability in our region.
Taking a quick backroad tour of campus, Ambassador Power and then ANU Chancellor Gareth Evans hurried to their next appointment after the roundtable – an “In Conversation” event at Harry Hartog, discussing Ambassador Power’s memoir The Education of an Idealist. Long-time friends, the Ambassador and the Chancellor comfortably joked with each other about the rush of the morning: “getting stuck in a flight delay with Gareth Evans is not something I recommend. As Gareth said in his own memoir, ‘my temperament is not of the cloth from which Zen masters are cut’,” Ambassador Power said, to the Professor Evans’ amusement.
The two went on to discuss key themes in Ambassador Power’s book, specifically how she balanced her idealism with her pragmatism during her time in government, referencing her advocacy for President Obama to acknowledge the Armenian genocide while she was his Special Advisor on Human Rights, and similarly her advocacy for US military intervention in Syria in 2014. The Education of an Idealist is a deeply personal memoir, with Ambassador Power also discussing the struggle to balance her parenting responsibilities with her professional responsibilities, retelling a story about her son Declan interrupting a phone conversation with Secretary of State John Kerry to ask the score in the Nationals’ baseball game.
The captivated audience at Harry Hartog then waited patiently for Ambassador Power to sign their copy of her book; worth the wait as Ambassador Power was so generous with her time for the people who had come to meet her. She chatted with students, staff and public servants who all had a personal experience she wanted to hear about – giving her personal email address to several people, imploring them to send more information about their work or issues they knew interested her.
Luckily, the next stop was just across Kambri – a student Q&A forum at the Marie Reay Teaching Centre, moderated by Dr Jill Sheppard. As about 30 students listened intently to her advice and stories, Ambassador Power insisted the questions being thrown her way were the first time she’d been asked such things, including, “How do you learn?”
Holding up her phone, Ambassador Power said, “These are the enemy of learning because they are the enemy of sustained attention.
“In professional life, reading and immersing yourself in something is a luxury; you can lose the muscle memory of slowing down and reading something in depth. So you need to be intentional about learning.
“In any silo, you can get drunk on your own good intentions. Insecurity is a great motivator. There’s a vulnerability in questioning things.”
Her final piece of advice to students may have come a week too late after the end of the exam period, but was: “Preparation, preparation, preparation.”
After another quick stop in at Harry Hartog to sign several boxes of books ahead of that evening’s Oration, Ambassador Power returned to University House to put the finishing touches on her lecture “The Future of Democracy”.
A packed Llewellyn Hall warmly welcomed Ambassador Power as she was introduced to the lectern by Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt.
“On the occasion of being recognized with this once in a lifetime opportunity to speak at such a remarkable university and to kick off an annual tradition that will carry forward the spirit of relentless engagement and inquiry that Gareth embodies, I do not have any desire to come all this way to be boring,” Ambassador Power said.
And if the line of people that snaked around the Athenaeum waiting to purchase a copy of her book in Llewellyn Hall is any indication, Ambassador Power was right again.