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'Madam President' - Helene Cooper Captures EJS Extraordinary Journey in New Book

'Madam President' - Helene Cooper Captures EJS Extraordinary Journey in New Book

New York – Pulitzer Prize winner Helene Cooper has made her mark well as a reporter for the New York Times. She covered the White House during the reigns of the last two Presidents of the United States of America – George W. Bush and most recently Barack Obama.


Report by Rodney D. Sieh, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


“I don't think of this as a legacy book. From my distance in the United States, I saw Liberian women do something that I never thought could happen in an African country in my lifetime. I wanted to pay respect to that.

That's the main reason I wanted to do this book--to mark, in some way, what the women of my country, who I believe carry the country on their backs, had managed to accomplish. They did something American women still haven't managed” – Helene Cooper, Author

But even amid her high-profile status as one of America’s leading journalists, something kept pulling her back to her homeland, a story, deep down, she knew she had to tell.

A story, she says is just as ground-breaking as the election of the first black President in America, the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia and the role market women and ordinary women played in cementing Sirleaf in the history books.

The end result is Madame President: The Extraordinary of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

Unlike the Liberian President’s autobiographical account captured in This Child Will be Great, Cooper explores the prophecy of an old man who predicted Sireaf’s rise to greatness intertwined with an intriguing narrative breakdown of the Liberia colloquial rarely portrayed in books for a mainstream appeal.

Madame President pays homage to Sirleaf’s historic 2005 Presidential election, which saw her break the barrier by becoming the first woman to lead an African nation. It tackles her struggles to balance her political life from her family, particularly as a Liberian mother of four boys and her early days as an international banking executive.

It also ventures into Sirleaf’s personal struggle as a victim of domestic violence to a now prominent world leader who assumed leadership of Liberia after a brutal civil war and her honor as Nobel laureate.

Much of the book captures Sirleaf’s life through her own eyes and that of her supporters, many of whom were interviewed for Madame President.

Madame President follows the critically-acclaimed “House on Sugar Beach” but Cooper dismisses the comparisons.

“The two are pretty different books. The first one was very personal, a memoir, about my own experience growing up in Liberia, running away, and then going home again.

Madame President, while still told from my own point of view, is not a personal journey. It's a biography that looks at the first woman elected President of an African country, and the women who put her in power.”

The uniqueness of the story is that author’s grasp of her homeland which very few international authors have been able to capture. For Cooper, it is more than just her knowledge of her homeland but her care for country she still calls home despite describing herself as a “daughter of two homes” – her adopted America and her homeland, Liberia.

“I don't know that I would say easier, but I like writing about Liberia, because I care about Liberia. It's where my heart is. So I approach it differently then I would my other writing.”

The book four years in the making, is filled with some witty explanation of Liberian parables although the avid Arsenal fan takes a subtle jab at rivals Chelsea in breaking down, “Fanti man won’t say his fish rotten” – Do you seriously expect a Chelsea fan to admit that they are an awful football club?

Antonio Conte may have something to say about that as his new and improved side inherited from Jose Mourhino appears to be running away with the English Premiere League title while Cooper’s Arsenal have been slipping down the ranks lately.

Wittiness aside, Madam President delves much into the historical backgrounds of earlier settlers in Liberia in giving some deep background into Sirleaf’ lineage, a young woman born into two deeply divided societies linked by religion.

She writes: “On the outside, Ellen looked like a Congo baby, but she did not have a single drop of congo blood. She was a native Liberia, a point that would become hugely significant in the coming decades when the congo people were finally brought low. Her father’s father was a Gola chief named Jahmale. He had eight wives ensconced in the picturesque village of Julejah in Bomi County.

He and one wife did what so many Liberians do routinely; they sent one of their sons- Ellen’s father, Karnley- to Monrovia to become a ward of a Congo family.

There Karnley could go to school and acquire the refinement that, in early twentieth century Liberia was becoming acknowledged as necessary to make something of yourself. Karnley’s name was westernized to Carney Johnson, beginning the slow Congolization of the family.”

Sirleaf’ maternal lineage of her Kru mother, Juah Sarwee, a market woman from Greenville who married a German trader who was in Liberia named Heinz Kreuger is also deeply explored as the author details how Liberia, eager to show its loyalty to Liberia expelled all Germans in Liberia at the time, including Sirleaf’s dad.

“He left his family behind and was never heard from again.”

With so much historical background into the Sirleaf’s family, Cooper acknowledges that getting the President to open up was a bit difficult.

“Four years from start to publication. The hardest part? There were many, it's hard to pick one. Getting Madame to open up to me took probably two years. The writing was painstaking--I'm not an effortless writer, I actually find writing very difficult. My first drafts are awful. My tone is usually too flip.

So there's a re-writing to fix mistakes, and bad phrasing, etc. I'm one of those people who needs editing help. And then, after I thought I was done, Ebola happened. So I had to put the book aside and see how Ellen Johnson Sirleaf navigated that.”

The book comes as Sirleaf, in the last year of her presidency, is facing questions about her legacy although Cooper says her book shies away from that.

“I don't think of this as a legacy book. From my distance in the United States, I saw Liberian women do something that I never thought could happen in an African country in my lifetime. I wanted to pay respect to that.

That's the main reason I wanted to do this book--to mark, in some way, what the women of my country, who I believe carry the country on their backs, had managed to accomplish. They did something American women still haven't managed.”

Nevertheless, Cooper says it was difficult separating the ongoing politics from Sirleaf’s personal experience from a literary perspective.

“There's politics in there. And there's personal. And history. And my point of view. It would be boring if it were just one.”

Cooper who now covers the Pentagon for the Times is unsure what the future holds – after two books under her belt and a stellar career in journalism. “I still enjoy being a journalist, although we are in a really shaky time right now. Whatever I end up doing, I would like to keep writing.”

She does acknowledge that the US media is under siege with the election of Donald Trump – a far cry from the Bush and Obama White House she covered in the past.

“It's been hard. The press is so under siege. The Trump administration has labelled us the opposition party. President Trump lies constantly, and so do his top aides. Kellyanne Conway actually used the phrase "alternative facts." I'm not sure how you prepare to cover people like that--I guess you just keep doing your job as best as you can. It's never been more important, so that has to keep us going.”

Asked what her fondest moment covering the Obama White House was, Cooper recalls the day the Navy Seals killed Osama Bin Laden.  I'm not covering the Trump White House, I'm covering the Pentagon. So, I can't compare covering the Obama White House to covering the Trump White House.

My most memorable night on the Obama White House beat was the day the Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden. I broke the story, and for a few minutes, before other reporters confirmed it, I was the only byline out there, hanging on the New York Times website, by myself, with this huge headline that said something like "U.S. Official Says Osama bin Laden Killed in Raid.

" I was terrified that i had somehow screwed up, and that my source was wrong, and that I would be fired. And so relieved when other news agencies started reporting the same thing. When Obama finally walked out and announced it, I wanted to cry with relief.”

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