The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power

Samantha Power was a writer before she went into public service. And even though she’s been America’s ambassador to the United Nations, and is now serving as the chief of the US Agency for International Development, it’s possible — maybe even probable — that she’s a better writer than anything else. Which means that even after I have read The Education of an Idealist, it’s difficult to pick up the book, look at the quotes I had flagged for writing this review, and put it down again in anything like a reasonable amount of time.

Here’s a case in point from early in the book where she’s talking about her time at Lakeside High School in suburban Atlanta, a few years after her mom had brought her and her younger brother to the United States from their native Ireland. (It’s also one of several locations that make me think that Power and I very likely have mutual acquaintances.) Court-mandated desegregation brought a fair number of Black students to Lakeside in the mid-1980s when Power was there. She reflects on what that meant in practice.

By the time I arrived at school in the morning, rolling out of bed around 7:30 a.m. and taking a quick ten-minute walk to school, most of my black peers had been up for several hours—first waiting for a neighborhood bus that would take them to a transit hub, then catching a second bus that brought them to Lakeside. I played on the school basketball team and ran cross-country and track. Due to afternoon practice, I started on homework “late”—after six p.m., when i would arrive home. The African-American students on my teams, however, had to wait around for an “activity bus” that did not even leave Lakeside until seven p.m., ensuring that they were rarely home and able to start studying until after nine p.m. Crazily, students who sought out extra help from a teacher or stayed after school to use the library weren’t even permitted to ride the activity bus and had to find their own way home…
To this day, when I hear people judge students on the basis of their test scores, I think of my sleep-deprived African-American classmates as we geared up to take English or math tests together. We may have been equal before God, but I had three more hours of sleep, vastly more time to prepare, and many more resources at my disposal than those who were part of the busing program. (p. 35)

It wasn’t just schools.

Mum and Eddie [Power’s stepfather] saw similar bigotry at Emory University, where they had taken up their jobs as nephrologists. When Eddie attempted to recruit a talented Haitian-American doctor who had graduated from Harvard Medical School, one of his colleagues expressed his opposition, telling Eddie, “Down here, they park cars.” (p. 36)

Power has taken a large and difficult issue — racial discrimination in American schools and workplaces, legacies of a past that is far from passed — and shown how it works in daily life, and implicitly challenged readers to think about how it may have played a role in their lives, what roles it is probably still playing. The whole book is like that. It’s engaging, it’s full of great and funny stories, but it’s also clear throughout that Power sees many ways in which the world could be better, and she’s dedicating her life to helping bring some of those ways to fruition.

The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power

Power got a big career break when, after graduating from Yale in 1992 (another place we may well have mutuals), she went to work for Mort Abramowitz who was then president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She wanted to work for Foreign Policy, Carnegie’s prestigious journal, and was disappointed to wind up an intern in the president’s office. She feared a gopher role, not quite realizing that she would have a close-up view of the intersection between think tanks and policy in Washington.

Mort was the first person I came to know who had helped make foreign policy at such rarified levels, and over time he would drill into me a simple truth: governments can either do harm or do good. “What we do,” he would say, “depends on one thing: the people.” Institutions, big and small, were made up of people. People had values and people made choices. (p. 52)

During her time at Carnegie, she also encountered Fred Cuny, a legendary operator whose achievements included the establishment of a safe zone in northern Iraq that prevented a massive Kurdish refugee problem and enabled hundreds of thousands to remain in their homes. When Power first met him, he was hatching an audacious plan to break the siege of Sarajevo by restoring water and natural gas service to a large share of the city’s residents. (Cuny disappeared, never to be seen again, in Chechnya in 1995 during Russia’s invasion and bombardment of that region.) Power also came to know Jonathan Moore who

was the first person I met who talked about public service with boundless delight—as a source of camaraderie and fun. To him, even government officials who got themselves into trouble were objects more of fascination than of judgment. “He was so devious, it was neat to watch!” he would exclaim. Jonathan keenly weighed the moral ambiguity in high-level decision-making. (pp. 58–59)

Her road to public service was not short — she was a freelance correspondent in the wars in Yugoslavia, then a law student, then the author of A Problem from Hell a book on genocide that won her a Pulitzer — but her personal ambition, acknowledged in the book, and more than that her drive to right wrongs, to be useful to people in bad situations, pull her toward public work. Her early connections with people like Abramowitz open doors.

In November 2004, Power was commiserating about the re-election of George W. Bush with someone she had profiled in A Problem from Hell. He urged her to do something constructive. “What would you have me do?” she asked, “Go work for Barack Obama?” (p. 143) He knew a good friend of Obama’s, it turned out, and could get Power’s book into the hands of the newly elected Senator. Little did she know it was exactly his kind of thing. Five months later, she got “an e-mail from Obama’s scheduler saying that the senator was interested in meeting for dinner the next time I was in Washington DC.” (p. 143) Their forty-five minute talk wound up running nearly four hours and led her into government.

It would be a mistake to think of The Education of an Idealist as a straightforward tale of policy and the people drawn to it. Her stories of her early life in Ireland and then the move to America are so vivid that, looking back, I was astonished to see that they take up just the first 33 pages of a 550-page book. Likewise her time as a war correspondent in the Balkans, how she bluffed her way in, how the women journalists of those days looked after each other in what was very much a boys’ club, how they all coped with the everyday dangers, and how she finally chose to stop being a war reporter. She recounts anecdotes like someone who has grown up in the Irish storytelling tradition, and ties them to larger themes like someone who has mastered policy processes and the fine arts of persuasion. Which of course she is.

Throughout the book, she shares stories from her life: early on how her father’s alcoholism fueled the boisterousness she so admired and also put him into an early grave, stories from school like the one quoted above, a trip to Europe with a college boyfriend; later her deepening relationship with her eventual husband Cass Sunstein, life with both of them in government work, raising two boys in a most unusual environment. Governments are made of people, and Power shows people in many different settings, in their many different facets. During her time as US Ambassador to the UN, she forged an unlikely friendship with her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin. Though their respective governments often compelled them to take opposite stances, that never hardened into personal enmity, and their personal good relations led them to look for common ground as much as possible within the instructions given by their governments.

Power also made a point of personal visits to many other UN missions, especially those of smaller countries, most of which had never hosted the American ambassador. She illustrates for readers how much America matters.

I was struck on many of my visits by the extent to which the UN-based ambassadors and their citizens back home were intertwined with the United States. The ambassador from Eritrea, then the most isolated country in the world aside from North Korea, had been educated at Bowdoin College in Maine and American University in Washington, DC. The Somali and Bruneian ambassadors had attended the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts. I heard constantly about connections like these A half dozen of my fellow ambassadors began our meetings expressing “personal thanks” to the United States for educational support they had received through various State Department programs, which they said had made it possible for them to become diplomats. (p. 397)

And then there were the ambassadors’ personal stories: The Cypriot ambassador was a Chicago Bulls fan, and he had fled the Turkish invasion of the northern part of the island when he was ten years old. The Zambian ambassador had been a pediatrician, treating children with HIV. A program initiated by the George W. Bush administration had cut new HIV infections in half since 2003. The Somali ambassador had been a BBC journalist and survived a double car bomb in 2015. He decided to leave journalism and “join a fragile government to help fight terrorism.” The Lao and Vietnamese ambassadors had both lost close family members in wars with the United States. (pp. 398–399)

One of the biggest surprises came when I met Mamadou Tangara, Gambia’s ambassador. Tangara reported to Gambian president Yahya Jammeh, a vindictive dictator who had been in power for more than two decades. When I dropped into Tangara’s office, he told me he had never been paid such a visit and quickly opened up.
“I’m worried,” he confessed, explaining that Jammeh was growing increasingly erratic. “Things are getting worse every day,” he said. “He is pushing away anyone who tells him the truth.”
A few months later, I saw Tangara at the annual Fourth of July reception I hosted on behalf of the United States at the Central Park Zoo. After posing with him for a photo in the receiving line, I pulled him aside and whispered, “Mamadou, I’m starting to think your president is a bit crazy.” When his face darkened, I worried that I had crossed a line.
“That’s not true, Ambassador,” he said, his voice rising. “My president is not a bit crazy. My president is completely crazy.” Tangara became a friend…
When Jammeh was unexpectedly defeated in elections in 2016 and refused to give up power, Tangara took a stand. Risking his life and that of his elderly father back home, he declared allegiance to the legitimate, newly elected president … [U]nrelenting pressure from African leaders, the United States, and the broader international community forced Jammeh to recognize the election results. …
In June of 2017, after I had left office, I received a text from Tangara informing me that he had just been named foreign minister by the new president. “Your support and friendship gave me the courage to stand strong in defense of truth and justice,” he wrote. What was striking to me was how little it had taken to make him feel that way. (pp. 399–400)

More idealists could use that kind of education.

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