Monday 23 September 2019

The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power: Vivid tale of lofty values triumphing over brutish forces

Memoir: The Education of an Idealist

Samantha Power

William Collins, hardback, 416 pages, €28

High-flyer: Samantha Power was admitted to the inner sanctum of the Obama administration
High-flyer: Samantha Power was admitted to the inner sanctum of the Obama administration
The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power

At the end of a perfect day in 2008, Samantha Power got a phone call that threatened to bring her perfect career to a jarring end. She'd just delivered a triumphant guest lecture at UCD, applauded by politicians, academics and a big turnout of family members basking in the reflected glory of 'Jim and Vera's daughter' who'd become a stellar mover in US politics. When the call came through, she was rounding off her "glorious evening" over drinks with Bono, who was now bidding farewell.

The call was from a top helmsman of Barack Obama's bid for the White House and he was hopping mad. Obama was locked in a bitter struggle with Hillary Clinton for a tilt at the most powerful job in the world, Power was one of Obama's brightest backroom recruits, and now she'd gone and spoiled it all by saying something stupid like Hillary's "a monster".

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Trembling, she protested that she'd never uttered any such words. Reassured, the caller told her he would "snuff it out" and demand a retraction from the Clinton campaign. Call ended, she blurted her distress to her remaining companion, who happened to be Brian Eno, U2's guiding light and all-round visionary genius. Perhaps unexpectedly, Eno's response was to ask if she was absolutely sure she hadn't called Hillary Clinton a monster? "I couldn't have said those things," she replied earnestly. "It's not what I think."

It wasn't what she thought but it was what she'd said, in a stressed-out, unguarded moment to a reporter who had it on tape. The days that followed were filled with "dread", and she worried away half a stone between the call from the blue, the dreaded vote of confidence from Obama telling her "you are absolved", and the inevitable visitation from the campaign's "executioner" dispatched to fetch her head on a plate. The happy ending came months later with newly installed President Obama welcoming the Dubliner back into the fold and the inner sanctum of the White House, before going on to become the youngest-ever US Ambassador to the United Nation.

Samantha Power has called her autobiography The Education of an Idealist and she insists: "Some may interpret this book's title as suggesting that I began with lofty dreams about how one person could make a difference only to be 'educated' by the brutish forces that I encountered. That is not the story that follows."

Some readers will concur, others will beg to differ. Plucked from Irish schooldays to start a new life in the States by a mother fleeing a disintegrating marriage, Power flitted effortlessly from one challenging job to another. A stint as a war reporter gave her the ammunition to attack US foreign aggression as naked self-interest dressed up as community policing. After witnessing the craven failure of the Western powers to prevent the slaughter of civilians in the Balkans, she wrote A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. It brought her fame and infamy, amid accusations that her words furnished post-9/11 hawks with a human rights fig-leaf for their war on Iraq.

Some attempted to link her book's 2003 Pulitzer Prize win with Bush's invasion one month earlier. Obama preferred to see the "yes we can" idealist in Power and invited her on board with the daunting challenge to square the circle of human rights for all, while feeding the most muscle-bound military machine in world history. Obama's critics delight in charging that he abjectly failed that challenge himself, and that with Power playing Florence Nightingale to the Pentagon's Light Brigade charging recklessly about during his tenure, both Obama and Power did end up, as she put it, being "educated" by the brutish forces of realpolitik.

Power says her ability as a storyteller helped her fit in as a youngster transplanted to the States, and in later life to gain the ears of those who mattered. Part The West Wing and part Who Do You Think You Are?, her memoir is equally vivid on "Presidential speed-dating with heads of state", and on a fondly recalled Irish childhood (mostly fondly, anyway).

Her gift for storytelling may have been endowed by her bon viveur father Jim, an infinitely more charismatic version of Norm from Cheers who'd be greeted by the regulars of Hartigan's pub with cries of "Jimbo!", and had his designated bar perch punnily dubbed 'the Seat of Power'.

From her "intensely emphatic" mother Vera she picked up the ancillary art of listening. She writes: "Mum gave people she met a quality of attention that I would come to associate with the most gifted politicians. When making a new acquaintance she would cock her head to the side and peer earnestly... digging for details and drawing connections across time and space."

That inherited sense of empathy gives this book its strength. Like every memoir ever written, it's shot through with self-justifications, but it succeeds in presenting its author as someone who's at least tried to do the decent thing.

This is a tale of lofty dreams versus brutish forces, and in Power's telling, the underdog wins - a moral victory anyway.

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