Buy NowAmazonBarnes & NobleGoogle PlayiBooksIndieboundKoboZola
USA TODAY Rating
In Madame President (Simon & Schuster, 336 pp., ***½ out of four stars), the journey of Liberian leader Ellen Johnson Sirleaf unspools like a novel, fitting for a life that is nothing short of mythic.
Author Helene Cooper, Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times, is also Liberian by birth, and both of those attributes figure strongly in this biography.
It's filled with details that emerge from dogged reporting as well as an intimate understanding of Liberia's complexity and culture, which perhaps could come only from being a native daughter. (Cooper is also author of The House at Sugar Beach, a memoir about her childhood in Liberia and fleeing to America after the 1980 military coup.)
Sirleaf's greatness was foretold by a local wise man when she was born in 1938, but to an onlooker, the future president's destiny would not have appeared so certain. She married in her teens, had four sons in short order, and for many years was the victim of domestic abuse.
Sirleaf was also, simply, a woman in Africa, which meant laboring — to raise children, to provide for the family — without glory, without reward, and with little chance to lead a major institution, let alone a nation.
Author Helene Cooper. (Photo: Leslie Cashen)
But like the market women who left their stalls where they sold fish and kola nuts to campaign and vote for their country's first female president, Sirleaf was stalwart and determined. She earned a degree from Harvard, succeeded in the world of international finance, and survived nearly a year in prison after crossing Liberia's brutal dictator Samuel Doe, before becoming the now-iconic figure who eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize as well as the presidency.
Cooper's prose, witty, blunt and peppered with the Pidgin English spoken by the peoples of Liberia, immerses the reader in the fabric of that small, West African country. We learn about the caste system that divided the "Congo People,'' an aristocracy made up of descendants of freed American slaves, from the indigenous groups that had called Liberia home for centuries.
The biography also has harrowing notes that are the stuff of nightmares. We learn of the brutalized boy soldiers forced to murder their own mothers, the rampant rape of women and young girls, and the murders of thousands at the direction of corrupt tyrants.
Sirleaf is not entirely spared. Cooper notes that Sirleaf, to her regret, once supported Charles Taylor, yet another of Liberia's twisted leaders who eventually was indicted for committing war crimes.
Liberia's president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf looks on during the inauguration ceremony for the start of Gambian President Adama Barrow's presidency at the Independence Stadium in Bakau on Feb. 18, 2017. (Photo: SEYLLOU, AFP/Getty Images)
But for most of her life, Sirleaf was a fierce critic of the regimes that terrorized and nearly destroyed her country. She contemplated running for president for years before getting her opportunity in 2005. She had used her position as a commissioner in the transitional government, put in place two years before, to travel the country, winning the support of women from the cities to the countryside. Female leaders and volunteers encouraged women to register. "Vote for woman!'' became their rallying cry.
At age 67, Sirleaf made the presidential run-off. Her opponent was George Weah, a famous soccer player. The election was safeguarded by observers from around the world, and on Nov. 23, 2005, Sirleaf learned she would become the 23rd president of Liberia.
Sirleaf is still in office, Liberia continues to rebound from its wrenching civil war, and so the story continues. Madame President is a fascinating read to enlighten those who may know little about this woman and the nation she leads, and who will undoubtedly be left wanting to know much more.
Goodreads reviews for Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
photo of How Liberia made history and elected a 'Madame President'
- J.D. Power & Associates 8 most dependable cars, minivan
- Wake up to this crazy good Goo Goo barbecue biscuit from Holler & Dash
- Muscle Shoals Swampers, Jimmy Hall appear in Bayside Academy music showcase
- New York City Ballet dancer returns to Alabama for "The Sleeping Beauty"
- Who should replace Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump on 'SNL'?
- Jimmy Buffett to return to The Wharf in Orange Beach
- Beer garden in the works for downtown Montgomery
- Weekend box office: 'Logan' tears up opening weekend with $85.3M debut
- Resumes are more art than science
- How to open a resume: Objective statement vs. qualifications summary
- Don't confuse a resume with an autobiography
- Do I really need a cover letter? Plus more common resume questions
- Tim Tebow stalked by Colorado woman at Mets spring camp: cops
- KING: The Democratic Party doesn't get why it's so unpopular
- Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy Obamacare replacement should be called ‘Abominable Care’
- Fisher’s finish leads to Match Play and a shot at Masters
- Robinson, Lind ready for a spring training job fight
- World Baseball Classic failing to draw interest of American fans
- Ben Carson confirmed by Senate as HUD secretary
- Proposed $54B jump in defense budget won’t help economy much
- Are baby boomers too old to ski? Probably not.
- With allergy season around the corner, educate yourself now
- Butter or olive oil? Eggs or no? New nutritional review cuts through the myths.
- Every traveler’s eternal question: ‘It’s 2017, why don’t we have WiFi on all planes?’
- These activists want greater home-school monitoring. Parent groups say no way.
- Tired of people asking where you’re going to college? Here’s what to say.
- Perspective | Ask Amy: Woman reels from memories of tough childhood
- Perspective | Trump’s first D.C. dinner as president: An overcooked, $54 steak. With ketchup.
- Review | Colada Shop in D.C. reviewed: Little Havana done right, and an $8 daiquiri
- Amal Clooney Demos How to Perfectly Pull Off a Skirt Suit While Pregnant
- Jennifer Lopez Made The Entire Audience Blush When She Answered This Question About A Sex Tape
- There are six styles of love. Which one best describes you?
- 9 reasons why every Canadian should own a canoe
- Switzerland Is The Best Country In The World, According To A U.S. News Survey
- A police officer’s wife wants people to remember his service — not the gruesome way he died
- This Café Only Serves Cereal And It's Incredible
- Future of B.C.'s grizzly bears at risk, according to new report
- Bullbaiting, squirrel busting: Terms used in 'My Scientology Movie' explained
- Scarlett Johansson's custody battle: What happens next?
- Review: Make time for this sensational, intense season of 'American Crime'