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(Book Review) The Education of An Idealist: A Memoir

Samantha Power has led a remarkable life.  She immigrated to the United States from Ireland when she was nine years old with her mother (a doctor) and young brother.  She went to Yale University and then became a war zone correspondent, with a focus on the conflict in the former Yugoslavia in the mid 1990's.  Power then earned her J.D. from Harvard Law, wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book called A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, and she eventually became a foreign policy adviser to an up-and-coming U.S. senator named Barack Obama.  The future president later appointed Power to the National Security Council, and she eventually became the United States Ambassador to the United Nations in Obama's second term.  Wherever Samantha Power went, she brought a strong commitment to human rights to her work.

Any one of those items could have been the subject of its own book, but they're all included in Power's recent memoir, The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir (now available in paperback.)  She brings her reporter's eye to the subjects, whether it's an honest discussion of how her father's death impacted her,  a look at the challenges of reporting from a war zone, or the intricacies of negotiating a resolution in the United Nations.  Power breaks down complicated subjects into an easy-to-understand and engaging format.

She also lays out the challenges of trying to move the levers of this country's government to promote human dignity.  That might mean stopping  genocides across the globe, or better yet, trying to prevent them from happening in the first place.   It can also mean other things like promoting gender equality, LGBTQ equality, or freedom of religion. These are all important objectives, but there can often be obstacles which make the "right" decision hard to determine and/or execute, as she explains throughout the book.  Power has a long list of successful campaigns to her credit, but there were also others that fell short, such as the Obama administration's handling of the war in Syria.  Even when the results are disappointing, her determination to never give up the fight is inspiring.

Power has had her share of detractors, and she addresses them in this memoir.  Among other things, she was forced to step back from the 2008 Obama presidential campaign after thinking she was off the record when she referred to Hillary Clinton as "a monster."  She discusses that scandal with remarkable frankness.  Also, Power was accused of being to eager to use the military to deal with possible/definite genocides.  She writes that's a misinterpretation of her position, saying she believes there are times where the military is an appropriate response, but it's just one of the available tools.  There are clear conflicts between her advocacy before entering the government and her adoption of the party line as a public official.  Trying to resolve the tensions between the two as much as possible is what gives The Education of an Idealist its title.

Power also goes into detail about challenges in her personal life, including finding her eventual spouse law professor Cass Sunstein (who also worked in the Obama administration), their experience with IVF as they tried to get pregnant, and her never-ending quest to find a comfortable work-home life balance as the mother of two young children.  She tells many of these stories with humor, and they will likely resonate with many women reading the book.  It's a frank look at the sacrifices that were made to be a public servant fighting for her mission.   She also talks about the importance of being a female role model in a largely male-dominated realm.

The Education of an Idealist is a compelling, candid, and thoughtful read.  Some may find the notion of a 500+ page book daunting, but Samantha Power's writing skills make it worthwhile.  She does a wonderful job of pulling in the reader, whether she's talking about her personal life, professional life, or larger abstract goals.  The book hammers home the point that no matter what obstacles we face, there are always ways to promote the cause of human dignity.  Samantha Power is returning to government as President Biden's nominee to head the United States Agency for International Development.  After the country took a detour for four years, hopefully her message is once again being heard in the federal government.  This memoir should serve as an inspiration for others who also want to work to improve the world around us.


The Education of an Idealist An insightful, candid, and inspiring reflection on a fascinating life.  (pic via


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