In her new biography “Madame President,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Helene Cooper dodges the pitfall of idealizing her subject, Liberian leader Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. That’s no small feat: After all, Johnson Sirleaf is Africa’s first democratically elected female president and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a battered wife and mother of four by age 22 who went on to study at Harvard and make a name for herself in international finance.
Cooper offers a nuanced, intimate portrait of her flawed protagonist, inflected with the rhythms of West African speech and firmly rooted in Liberia’s brutal recent history. At the same time, out of Johnson Sirleaf’s unlikely rise, out of the moxie of Liberia’s “market women” and the resilience of its civil war’s rape survivors, Cooper weaves a triumphant feminist manifesto. To the heightened drama of her protagonist’s story, Cooper wisely brings a subtle writerly touch.
“Madame President” is Cooper’s follow-up to her critically acclaimed “The House at Sugar Beach,” a memoir about her childhood in Liberia. She is a longtime New York Times correspondent who won journalism’s top prize for her coverage of the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa.
Cooper’s deep knowledge of her homeland — “a country of almost impossible social, religious and political complexity” — is crucial in placing its most famous daughter into illuminating context. The book doubles as an unflinching primer on Liberia’s history, from its founding by freed American slaves, to horrific civil war, to a faltering march toward democracy.
To the image of an international icon, Cooper adds depth and complexity. At times, Johnson Sirleaf, who spent most of her career at the World Bank and other financial institutions, comes across as more of a calculating bureaucrat than an inspirational firebrand. We glimpse an opportunistic streak, as in her decision as a Liberian government minister to quickly sidle up to the leaders of a 1980 military coup who had summarily executed many of her colleagues. She was an early supporter of Charles Taylor, who set out to snatch power back in the 1990s, blazing a trail of unspeakable atrocities across Liberia. Among her first hires when she comes to power on an anti-corruption platform are her sons.
But in a land that offers its girls few opportunities and does not punish sexual violence against women, Johnson Sirleaf’s determination to follow her ambition without apologies takes on a deeper significance. Her bravery in speaking uncomfortable truths to powerful men doesn’t just land her in jail; it shakes Liberia’s unchallenged patriarchy to its core. “How do people come back from that?” Cooper asks in summing up the horrific legacy of Liberia’s civil war. In the feminist energy and hope galvanized by Johnson Sirleaf’s rise, she discovers an answer.
Mila Koumpilova covers issues of immigration for the Star Tribune. 612-673-4781
By: Helene Cooper.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 320 pages, $27.