On one of the rainiest days of this rainy season, Samantha Power arrived at her home city of Dublin and was greeted in Trinity College Dublin’s Regent’s House to rapturous applause. Maybe it’s because of her Irish roots, or maybe it’s her warm and affable nature, but there is a real sense of pride for Power’s achievements in the room. The students who managed to secure tickets are upright, hoping to imbibe some of her career secrets. 

I have not long finished reading Power’s political memoir The Education of an Idealist, which tells the story of her incredible career to date. After emigrating to Pittsburgh from Dublin at the age of 9, Power attended Yale before becoming a war correspondent, based in Croatia and Bosnia during the Siege of Sarajevo. After her journalism and research won her a Pulitzer Prize, she taught at Harvard Law School and Harvard Kennedy School. In 2006, she joined Barack Obama, then a newly elected Congressman, as an advisor. Soon, Power left Harvard to work with Obama on his election campaign, and when he became President of the United States, worked as his Human Rights Advisor for his first term and as the United States Ambassador to the UN from 2013-2017. 

Although Power is perhaps best known for her government career in diplomacy, it is her staunch moral compass and dedication to humanitarian issues which have underpinned her career, and do so again in her memoir. She writes about how witnessing the Tiananmen Square protests as a nineteen year-old completely swerved her career path. Some of the most colourful sections of the book come from her time as a freelance journalist during the Balkan war, and the close-calls she faced in trying to help victims. She campaigned for victims in Darfur and spent time on the ground in West Africa at the height of the Ebola crisis in 2014.

Much of The Education of an Idealist centres on the tensions between acting on human suffering and the bureaucracy that dictates government action. This is especially climactic in the ten days in August 2013 after the news of a suspected chemical weapons attack in Damascus, Syria, broke, where the Obama administration had to decide whether to respond with military intervention. The nitty-gritty scenes in the White House Situation Room, and Power’s rallying cry to Obama to respond in honour of the suspected 1,429 dead from this one attack, reads like a thriller novel but with all the more poignancy, because it raises questions about what could have happened in Syria in the ensuing years if Obama had intervened (or at the very least, asks the reader to consider if he was right to not intervene). Power is asked during her interview in Trinity College Dublin whether she believes one can achieve more progress through activism or government, and while she pays homage to both forms of action, she is loyal to the achievements possible in a government structure.  

Overall, The Education of an Idealist is a political memoir with heart. Power does not attempt to use the platform as political ammo to prop up the decisions of Obama’s administration, nor does she use it in a game of one-upmanship against those she has disagreed with throughout her career. Instead, Power offers a warm, candid and gripping read. She tells her story her way, with a touch of self-deprecating humour which feels quite uniquely Irish. 

Standing in line for Power to sign my dog-eared copy of her book, I am struck by the nerves in my stomach. I tell her of my time in Sarajevo this summer, and how I especially enjoyed her descriptions of the camaraderie between correspondents there.  The ambience in the room is one of hope for a safer and better future, of political stability and action on climate change, and so it feels particularly fitting when I realise she has signed my copy ‘With hope, Samantha Power’.

 

Picture by Gerald R. Ford school on Flickr

 

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