Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: Madame President

Helene Cooper’s duties as a New York Times reporter occupy most of her time, but about a decade ago, as a daughter of Liberia, she turned her head toward her homeland and was astonished by her native country’s new president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Here, in Madame President, published by Simon & Schuster earlier this month, she recounts the rise of a remarkable and transformative world leader. Cooper will speak at Politics and Prose next Friday, March 31, 2017, at 7pm. You can purchase the book there, or online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble. 

MY IMMEDIATE FAMILY had fled Liberia in 1980 after the first military coup, and I had lived in the United States since then, becoming a naturalized American citizen and journalist writing about the world—except Liberia. In September 2003, I finally returned home to Liberia, where I found a shell of the country I had fled twenty-three years before, and a sister, Eunice, whom I had not seen in two decades.

When I returned to the United States, I went back to my daily job as a reporter, covering the presidency of George W. Bush and following his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, to Jerusalem, Hanoi, and points between.When Barack Obama was elected America’s first black president, I was proud to be one of four New York Times reporters assigned to cover his first term. I traveled the world aboard Air Force One, writing for the most influential of newspapers about the presidency of Barack Obama.

But while I was writing about the seizure that was taking place on the American political landscape, the women in my home country were staging their own power play, one just as dramatic as the toppling of the racial barrier to the U.S. presidency that I was chronicling.

On October 11, 2005, Liberians went to the polls to choose the man who would take on the task of resuscitating the country. Voter turnout was 75 percent of 1.35 million registered voters.

Author Helene Cooper. / Photo by Leslie Cashen.

On November 23, 2005, after a runoff, the National Electoral Commission declared the winner of Liberia’s elections. Not a man. A woman.

Her name: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Somehow, while I wasn’t paying attention, the market women of Liberia, along with thousands of other Liberian women, had allied themselves with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated global bureaucrat, to upend centuries of male political dominance in one of Africa’s most devastated places. The women in my native country had managed something that still eluded their female counterparts in my adopted country.

Then, those women had simply returned to their tables and stalls and oranges and kola nuts and gone about their business making market, except that now they were a force in politics.

After spending four years writing about a historic presidency in my adopted country of America, it was enough.

It was time to look at my other president, and her historic presidency, an ocean away, in my native-born country of Liberia. It was time to look at Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

—Helene Cooper

Excerpted from Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf by Helene Cooper. Copyright © 2017 by Helene Cooper. Excerpted with permission of Simon & Schuster.

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