This is a wonderful book ... It’s an unusual combination of autobiography, diplomatic history, moral argument and manual on how to breast-feed a child with one hand while talking to Secretary of State John Kerry on a cellphone with the other. The interweaving of Power’s personal story, family story, diplomatic history and moral arguments is executed seamlessly — and with unblinking honesty ... The older Power is not at all a cynic, but she is less ramrod straight ... Always tilted toward using American power to defend the defenseless, moderate the tyrannical, rescue the needy and inspire and strengthen the forces of decency — but when she loses the argument to do so in one country, she doesn’t resign. She looks for somewhere else to fix. Does that sound like an idealist selling out to hold onto the perks of power, or one who keeps looking to fight another day another way? You decide. And you can — because Power is unstinting in giving you all the ammunition you need to denounce or defend her.
Amid the flood of memoirs from Obama administration veterans, Powers’ stands out as worth reading. For starters, she’s a better writer than a lot of them—she was a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author long before she got into government. She’s also done more that’s worth reading about. Like the best journalists, Power has a gift for finding the perfect anecdote to illustrate a larger idea or theme, and this is the rare political memoir where you definitely shouldn’t skim the 'early years' chapters ... Powers writes movingly ... Also fascinating is Power’s account of her unlikely friendship with her Russian counterpart at the U.N., the late Vitaly Churkin ... She certainly did learn something.
Power’s apologia is insistent—and unexpectedly compelling. She cannot justify every administration policy, and she flays many of its most cynical decisions, such as Obama’s broken campaign promise to recognize the Armenian genocide. This tale is filled with half-measures, disappointments and bureaucratic defeats (a far cry from the usual autobiographical victory tour) ... Power writes with heart about her upbringing—in Ireland, Pittsburgh and Atlanta—and she is especially poignant when recounting a few traumatic episodes ... Still, the book is suffused with humor, and the president furnishes the funniest anecdotes that don’t come from her charming children ... A few issues, though, receive a more muddled treatment ... Even so, The Education of an Idealist is a moving account of how to serve righteously, or at least how to try. It’s true that Power never travels any kind of character arc; she does not meaningfully change, even as she accepts the exigencies necessary to govern—and that is to her credit. Her education is not about compromising her ideals for influence but about figuring out how to deploy them to move a bureaucracy.