Tuesday 15 October 2019

The Education of an Idealist: Brilliant self-portrait as an outsider turned insider faces her challenges

Memoir: The Education of an Idealist

Samantha Power

William Collins, €17

Close bond: Samantha Power and Barack Obama
Close bond: Samantha Power and Barack Obama
The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power

Frieda Klotz

The most infamous moment in Samantha Power's career occurred when she was in Ireland. She was on a break from her job as a senior adviser to Barack Obama's presidential campaign to promote her second book, when Obama's foreign policy coordinator called to ask why she'd been saying "crazy shit about Hillary" [Clinton].

She was mystified until she remembered that she had vented to a journalist as a side note in their interview, dubbing Clinton with the fateful insult "monster."

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Obama's opponents went into a feeding frenzy, and Power was asked by the Obama campaign to resign.

The event became notorious, and falls in the aptly titled Monster chapter in her memoir. It was a devastating blow that threatened to destabilise Obama's primary campaign.

In fact, for Power, it was just a temporary bump - one that bore a valuable lesson - on the rocky road of American politics.

The trauma was compounded when she bumped into a woman who had known her late father, a heavy drinker who died of alcoholism when Power was a teenager. She asked why her dad, of all drinkers, was one who would succumb to the addiction. "Because you left," the woman replied simply, but tactlessly.

The dissolution of her parents' marriage had landed the family in court, when Power's mother decided to take her children to America so she could pursue her medical career.

Power is a master storyteller, giving due credit to both her parents and tracing the map of her personal history as it moves from Ireland to the prosperous suburbs of Pittsburgh, college at Yale, and ultimately, via the White House, to her most recent role as America's ambassador to the UN.

It's a wild ride.

Although she frames her successes modestly ("I had pulled my grades up at Yale") it's apparent that she won the esteem of influential figures at an early stage in her career. Mort Abramowitz, a US ambassador, and Fred Cuny, a specialist in disaster relief, gave her career advice and direction, as did Richard Holbrooke, an ambassador under Bill Clinton.

Later, she would form a close bond with Obama, as the two chatted over dinner about Harvard, basketball and writing. Indeed the book's insights into Obama's witty rebukes and wry support give the memoir a fascinating and unique dimension.

Power's professional life has been bookended by the issue of genocide, which she first encountered early in her career. After completing an internship at Foreign Policy magazine - and aged only 23 - she went to cover the war in the former Yugoslavia, writing pieces for multiple publications as a freelancer, and trying to get America's politicians to take heed of the conflict. She would later win a Pulitzer Prize for her analysis of the US's response to genocide, A Problem from Hell, which probed the question of why officials so often turned a blind eye.

Later, when she was US ambassador to the UN with access to Obama's inner circle, the Syrian conflict unfurled, and it quickly became apparent that the decision maker's chair was extremely uncomfortable, leaving Power sometimes disgusted at her own impotence. She is hyper-aware of the gap between her analysis of genocide policy and her administration's inability to prevent it from happening in Syria.

Inevitably any book by Power will be compared to the gripping Problem from Hell, and this memoir is very different, both more introspective and self-evaluating.

But it's a brilliant self-portrait of an outsider turned insider, who is forced to grapple with the challenges that brings, and does so honestly. In its final lines, Power tells us that people who care enough may not be able to change the world, but they can change many individual worlds. It's a more modest ambition than she might have earlier held, and whether her younger self would have been satisfied is a question she may still be in the process of answering.

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