Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
New York Times reporter Helene Cooper offers moving insight along with her signature reporting in MADAME PRESIDENT. Her biography of the first elected female head of state on the African continent is both a moving tribute to and a detailed analysis of the political life of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
The book begins with an author’s note that sets the tone for the biography and explains Cooper’s investment in her subject. She writes: “The women in my native country had managed something that still eluded their female counterparts in my adopted country…. After spending four years writing about the historic [Obama] 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.” With the care of a reporter and the nuance of a native, Cooper prioritizes bringing readers into the world of Liberia --- its customs, language and history --- to understand the country’s extraordinary vote for progress through Sirleaf.
"Cooper’s compassionate biography is a must-read for those reeling from 2016, those interested in international democracy, and those invested in the progress of the present."
Cooper’s investment isn’t strictly personal. For any American reader, MADAME PRESIDENT offers a compelling account of the shared history of Liberia and the United States. From its founding in the 1800s to its recent Ebola crisis, the countries are entwined indefinitely: “The country exists because of American slavery. It was founded by freed American slaves in 1822 who were sponsored by the American Colonization Society.” During the Ebola outbreak, Sirleaf “bluntly suggested that those same ties were hurting Liberia now in the fight against Ebola because other countries…were leaving poor Liberia alone in the fight, assuming its stepmother country would take care of it.”
But all of this serves as setting and backdrop to the extraordinary journey of Sirleaf. Within the first three chapters, Cooper covers what would normally constitute an entire biography. Sirleaf marries, has children, makes the heartbreaking decision to leave those children to pursue her education at the highest levels, divorces her abusive husband, and reunites with her children and country, ready to invest in the wellness of both. Because this story requires no narrative embellishment or imagining, Cooper fills the pages with reporting on an incredibly detailed level and colors in the setting with keen observations about Liberian life.
MADAME PRESIDENT is a portrait of a civil war, of international diplomacy and of feminism, but, most of all, of progress. The kind of progress Cooper depicts isn’t the sweeping, clean, agreed-upon progress of history books and energetic Broadway musicals. This progress is plodding and, at times, problematic because it is the progress of present times. For each step forward, there are two steps back. The telling of this story is incredibly timely as a generation of American women are being moved to resistance. After recalling the loss of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run, Cooper compares her native and adopted countries: “Perhaps that demographic [white women who voted against Clinton] hadn’t stared into the abyss that their Liberian counterparts had…. Apparently chaos and devastation is what it takes to upend centuries of male rule and roll the dice for a woman leader.”
Cooper’s compassionate biography is a must-read for those reeling from 2016, those interested in international democracy, and those invested in the progress of the present.
Reviewed by Allison Sharp on March 10, 2017