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Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Education of an Idealist: The Fascinating Life of Samantha Power

Samantha Power is a pretty impressive human. She's an immigrant, a journalist, a Pulitzer-winning writer for a book on genocide, and a diplomat who reached the pinnacle of her profession as President Obama's ambassador to the United Nations. It's not a surprise, then, that a life this fascinating translates to an equally fascinating memoir. The Education of An Idealist is Power's chronicle of her life (so far...she's only 49 years old!), and it's as inspiring as it is engaging.

Power, born in Ireland, emigrated to the US when she was nine, partly to escape her alcoholic father. But this wasn't an Angela's Ashes-like story — her father was never abusive, and in fact, she has fond memories of being plopped down in the pub to read for hours while her father drank and held court. But her mother, had had enough, began a relationship with another man, and went with him to Pittsburgh.

Power worked hard, went to Yale, and began working for an NGO after college. Horrified by the atrocities of the wars in the former Yugoslavia republic, she forged a letter from a magazine editor to gain press credentials, and went to Bosnia to cover the genocide occurring there.

She came back, went to Harvard Law school, and began writing a book, A Problem From Hell, about the history of genocide, which won the Pulitzer in 2003. In 2005, she met then-Senator Barack Obama, and joined his staff as a foreign policy advisor. But she was immediately turned off by the "politics of politics" — that even in a progressive senator's office, there was still largely an "old boy's club" atmosphere, and she still suffered people talking behind her back, diminishing her contributions and expertise because of her gender.

Still, when Obama won the presidency in 2008, she joins his administration, first working in the national security council, then as the UN Ambassador. She deals with crises as wide-ranging and potentially devastating as Ebola to the Syrian leader using chemical weapons on his own people.

One thing that really struck me and has stuck with about this terrific memoir is learning how deliberative monumental decisions really are. When Obama was trying to determine whether to order airstrikes agains Assad, Power and the rest of his team, often with vastly differing views, and often with heated arguments, took painstaking measure to consider every angle — legal, humanitarian, political, etc. — of the impacts of this decision. That level of consideration and mental effort (and acuity) into decisions certainly doesn't seem to be the case anymore, and that's tragic.

The story ends, as all these Obama administration memoirs do, on an impossibly sad note. Power and her colleagues must leave government and make way for the new administration, knowing full well these people are about to undo all the progress they'd made. But reading Power's story is truly inspiring. As you'd expect from a Pulitzer-winner, she's a gifted writer, and this alternately reads like a thriller, a detailed policy paper, and a "how the sausage is made" look at government. It's a long book — one of the longer memoirs I've ever read, at over 500 pages — but worth every word. Highly recommended!

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