Helene Cooper - Telling the Story of Liberia's First Female President in "Madame President"

March 28, 2017 - Helene Cooper 03/28/2017 Views: 14,143

Helene Cooper discusses her book "Madame President," which details how the women of Liberia fought to elect Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the country's first female president. (6:21)

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Please welcome Helene Cooper,everybody.

(cheers and applause)

-Thank you so muchfor being here. -Thank you.

First of all,let's get into the why.

I mean, it seems pretty obviouson the surface

why you would write aboutAfrica's first female president,

but why was the storyso close to you?

Well, I'm from Liberia,so I grew up there,

and I moved... my familymoved to the U.S. as immi...

as refugees, actually, in 1980,

and I was workingin the New York Times office

in New York in 2005on the editorial page

when Liberian womenstaged this democratic coup

and actuallygot a woman elected president

for the first time everon an...

you know,on the African continent,

and I knew right away thatI wanted to write about this.

This is something that Iinstantly wanted to write about.

And so for years after that,I sort of put it aside

and thought, "When am Igoing to get around to this?"

And I eventually did,so I've been really excited.

What made it really special,as well,

is that this was nota foregone conclusion.

You know, not only was ita woman running for president,

but the circumstancesthat she faced in the race.

I mean,people were calling her names.

They were like,"She's a grandma.

She's boring.She's out of touch."

She was running againstsomeone who was really popular,

and, like you said,it was a democratic coup.

What... What does that meanwhen you say that, though?

Well, because what the women didwas so extraordinary.

First of all,you have to remember

that Liberia had just come outof 14 years of civil war,

and we're talkinghorrific civil war.

I mean, the kind of stuffthat would make

what you guys do here--now, I'm saying you guys--

here in Americalook like child's play.

We had soldiers dressed upin wedding gowns and blonde wigs

kidnapping childrenfrom their mothers

and turning theminto child soldiers.

It was horrific.

And at the end of this,the women of Liberia

who really had carriedthis country on their backs

during this entire civil warwere so fed up

that they determined thatthey were not going to tolerate,

you know, having another...

And they blamed the menfor the war,

and so they were going to votefor a woman president

any way that they could,which meant for them

that they were going to getas down and dirty

as the men had been in the past,

-and they were gonna... Yeah.-And they...

Yeah, they really got downand dirty, because, I mean...

(chuckles): There... There aresome stories in the book here

where you saythey would go to bars,

and thenthey would trade the men beers

for their voter I.D.s.

(chuckles):Yeah, because why not?

Um, we had... The Liberian...

-The Liber... -That's a prettyslick next level of being like,

"Yeah, we're goingto disenfranchise these people.

That's what we're gonna do."

But that's not...That's not all they did.

There were moms who stoletheir sons' photo I.D. cards.

'Cause they're...You got to understand.

Ellen Johnson Sirleafwas running against George Weah,

- Yes. -a foot...a professional football player.

-Huge star.-This is a Harvard-educated IMF,

uh, worked for the U.N.,was a minister of finance.

She had experience oozingout of every pore,

67 years old at the time,

versus a football player,George Weah,

who had never workedin government before,

had never really run a businessor anything,

but he had been a very big star

for the Italian team A.C. Milan.

So all the... So manyof the young boys in Liberia

were so excited the idea of afootball player as president,

whereas their moms were outraged

that after this countryhad gone through this war,

you're going to now turn around

and give this countryto a football player?

And so they said, "No,we're not gonna tolerate this."

I talked to one woman

who actuallywent into her son's bedroom

in the middle of the night,stole his wallet out...

took his walletout of his pants,

took the voter I.D. card out,and buried it in the yard.

(laughter, applause)

One of...You know, one of, uh...

I mean,it's a pretty insane story

that they went to these lengths.

One of my favorite moments

was one of the...the grandmas in the book

when... you know,when you're talking about it,

and you know these grandmotherswho say...

If you say,"Why would you do that?"

and they go, like, "Well, I...I raised my kid for nine months.

"I know better than them.

-They don't need an I.D."-Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

She said... She said it to mein straight Liberian English.

(Liberian accent):You would take elephant here

and give it to a child to carry?

-Now, did you understand that?Oh, well. -No, I didn't.

-See, you've lost your wholeAfrican... -What-what is that...

Oh, no... But we have-we havea different...

Africa's not a country.Why would you do that to me?

We have a different accentwhere I'm from.

Um... the parallels.

You cannot deny the parallels

between Ellen Johnsonand Hillary Clinton.

Other thanwinning the presidency,

you have someone who spent

her entire lifein public service,

someone who wasplagued by scandals,

someone who was seenas being too old

-and, you know, too weak to bepresident. -And too boring.

-And too boring to be president.-Not charismatic.

Yeah, and how has thatworked out since?

Well, she's done...Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

-has smoked all the menthat came before her. -Mm-hmm.

but that's not hard to do,because the men, who were, like,

Charles Taylor, uh, Samuel Doe,uh, indicted on war crime...

convicted of war crimes trials,

so it's not... it's a pretty...it's a pretty easy comparison.

Uh, as a president,she'd had issues.

Uh, there's still...She hasn't done enough

to crack down on corruptionin Liberia.

There have beencharges of nepotism,

'cause she put her sonin high government offices.

But at the same time, peop...

they prosecute rape nowin Liberia,

-which is something that wasnever done before. -Wow.

There's so muchfreedom of speech

and there's so muchfreedom of the press

there in Liberia now thatyou're not having dissidents

thrown in jailand that sort of thing.

And the countryis making enormous progress,

especially when you compare itto where we were in 2005.

So, she's gone... you know,she's had an uphill battle,

but she's weathered itreally, really well.

If-if an American personis reading this book going,

uh, you know,"I-I love the idea,

but what am I going to getfrom it, specifically?,"

what would you like someoneon the other side of the world

to get from reading this book?

I would love for somebody fromthe other side of the world

to look at this book and say,

"Wow, 11 yearsbefore Pantsuit Nation

"became a secret Facebook group,

"the women of Liberiastaged a master class

on how to get a womanelected president."

-This is how you do it.-This is how you do it.

(cheering, applause)

-Thank you so much forbeing on the show. -Thank you.

Madame President is available now.

Helene Cooper, everybody.

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