This reading group guide for Madame President includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Helene Cooper. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.Introduction
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When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was born in 1930s Liberia, one elderly Monrovian man prophesied: “This child is going to lead.” Yet for all the felicity of this omen, no one could have predicted then that Sirleaf would one day become the leader of her country’s women’s movement, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and the first democratically elected female president in Africa. Sirleaf, the mother of four sons, decided she had suffered enough abuse at the hands of her husband. She seized an opportunity to study economics at Harvard, unleashing her potential as a businesswoman and a leader. She quickly found support from powerful influencers on Wall Street, at the IMF, and at the World Bank. But full recognition of her abilities and achievements in her native Liberia proved harrowingly difficult when a violent coup led by Samuel Doe left Sirleaf the sole female representative of the old guard. Then a second bloody transfer of power left Charles Taylor in control of Liberia; his militant rule ushered the country into a thirteen-year civil war.
Enduring exile, imprisonment, and threat of execution for questioning the murderous policies of her leaders, Sirleaf became a worldwide symbol of peace and an icon for the Liberian women’s movement through aiding their national economy in the street markets of Monrovia. These women would eventually help bring Sirleaf, with all the sacrifice and subterfuge of true revolution, to the highest office in their war-torn state. But it would be Sirleaf’s incredible aptitude for policy and development, honed over years of service on the international stage, that would guide her people through the faceless brutality of the Ebola epidemic to emerge as the first West African nation to overcome it.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s light-skinned mother and upwardly mobile Gola father allowed her to grow up “firmly in the ruling Congo class, except when she didn’t want to.” The few Gola words she was able to speak proved a mixed blessing when reciting them to her Krahn captors saved her life, but failed to protect her from being terrorized and witnessing the brutal rape of a younger cellmate. Where else do you see Sirleaf’s ability to move freely between the Congo and native worlds complicating her life?
2. Liberian culture prior to the women’s movement clearly permitted violence against women, as demonstrated by Sirleaf’s personal experience with her husband, as well as an institutional unwillingness to prosecute rapists. Discuss author Helene Cooper’s explanation that in Liberia “jail, for some reason, is a step too far” in the treatment of women, or that “women were for raping, not for killing.” Does this remind you of boundaries put on the bodies of women you have seen or experienced elsewhere?
3. Cooper notes that Sirleaf made a conscious decision to put her continued education ahead of full-time motherhood, a topic often hotly debated in the West. Later, in the public eye, she came under greater scrutiny over possible nepotism. How do you compare these two reactions to one woman’s relationship with her children? How much responsibility do you think Sirleaf bore for her sons’ professional success and how they conducted their lives?
4. When first meeting with Samuel Doe after the execution of her friends and colleagues, Sirleaf “told herself that she could do more to help the new government from the inside than if she ran back to her World Bank cocoon in America.” Once she met the Gio girl who was raped while imprisoned, she resolved that “taking that Senate seat would mean sanctioning what those soldiers had done to that Gio girl at the Schiefflin barracks.” How do you interpret her transforming views on the ability to enact change from within the Doe government? Did the eventual hopelessness of the situation in this case affect the way she subsequently navigated the Taylor regime?
5. On the eve of Liberia’s civil war, Cooper writes that “there were no good guys. . . . Doe was gone, but the two men left vying for the presidency were just as bad, if not worse. Johnson had gained a reputation as a cruel man, but Taylor was even worse.” Civil war generally blurs the line between good and evil so effectively because it pits countryman against countryman. How did tribal alliances contribute to the extreme brutality of the Liberian civil war specifically? In what ways do you think Samuel Doe, Prince Johnson, or Charles Taylor felt they were working towards a greater “good” for Liberia?
6. Cooper posits that during her first presidential run Sirleaf “came across as too international, too sophisticated, too Western.” How does this judgment by the people compare to the outrage felt at seeing an Italian advertisement of George Weah as the naked object of white female desire?
7. Despite extensive media coverage abroad of Taylor’s child soldiers, the push for the United Nations to indict him came only after he became involved in the civil war in Sierra Leone. How do you interpret that “while the West was willing to overlook atrocities against [Taylor’s] own population—these were internal affairs—the international community wasn’t willing to overlook cross-border outrages”? What interest might the United States in particular have had in preserving the Taylor regime?
8. The fact that “the press, both international and local . . . described [Sirleaf] as ‘the sixty-six-year-old grandmother’” while “Taylor, who had numerous grandchildren from his fourteen children . . . was never described as a grandfather” makes plain a double standard society applies in thinking about women in positions of power. Do you think that this double standard exists universally? Can you think of a situation in which the media would experience more pushback for characterizing a female leader in this way?
9. Cooper cautions that there are “two worlds” in politics: “the aspirant world, where leaders talk about good governance and anticorruption and spout platitudes about the importance of staying clean and walking the high road . . . and then there is the real world, where aspirant leaders—even one who cut her teeth at the World Bank and the United Nations—offer cash under the table to a warlord for his vote.” Do you agree that cash bribes were necessary for Sirleaf to put her country on the right track? Do you draw a distinction between this strategy and that of the market women buying up or stealing the voter ID cards from Weah voters?
10. Rather than an avenue for victims of the Liberian civil war to seek justice, Cooper describes the Truth and Reconciliation Commission put into place during Sirleaf’s first term as “not about crime and punishment. It was only about crime: a way to talk about crime, to discuss how it affected you, but with no avenue for punishment.” Compare this commission to tribunals or hearings following other wars. Do you think the sheer number of citizens involved in perpetrating bloodshed contributes to the Commission’s repentant approach?
11. Consider Cooper’s portrait of Mary Broh in her role as mayor of Monrovia. Given Broh’s polarizing reputation, do you feel that her plan for urban renewal would have been beneficial in the long term had she not been dismissed for her role in helping Grace Kpaan resist arrest? How might her efforts to control the spread of Ebola in Monrovia have helped to justify her methods as a city official?
12. Although Sirleaf viewed the United States as an important resource for Liberia in its search for debt relief and identified Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as an ally for the future, asking the United States for aid during the Ebola epidemic brought with it a “Small Shame better than Big Shame.” Describe how you interpret this folk expression in the context of disease outbreak, as well as the unwillingness for the presidents of Sierra Leone and Guinea to make such a request of President Obama.Enhance Your Book Club
1. Helene Cooper’s knowledge of Liberia and its political turmoil come from personal experience, fleeing the danger that followed the 1980 coup in her native country to spend her teenage years in America. Read Cooper’s memoir, The House at Sugar Beach
, as your next book club pick. How do her insights about Liberia and her relationship to it from a place of exile compare to those she chronicles of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf?
2. Alternatively, consider picking Sirleaf’s own memoir, This Child Will Be Great
, for your book club. How does her telling of her experience compare to that of an objective journalist?
3. Research the handling of the West African Ebola virus in Sierra Leone and Guinea, the other two nations hit severely by the disease. Considering the challenge of quarantining a panicked population experienced in these countries. What alternatives, if any, can you think of to Sirleaf’s quarantine in West Point? Discuss with your book group.A Conversation with Helene CooperIn Madame President you return, among many subjects, to the class rift between Congo people and native Liberians you explore so personally in The House at Sugar Beach. Did Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s need to navigate between these two worlds inspire your thinking about how you would approach her biography? Or how you think about your own life?
I think the two worlds that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf learned to navigate are part of the picture I was trying to paint. But I view them more as background colors than the primary portrait.When did you first decide you wanted to write this book? What professional or logistical hurdles did you have to clear to begin the project?
I knew I wanted to write this book soon after the 2005 elections, when I heard about what the women in Liberia had done. I put it aside for a while as I went about my normal job, but it was always there, in the back of my mind, as something I knew I needed to do.The personal experiences of civil war from women to whom you give voice in Madame President are truly powerful. How did you find the interview subjects you include who are not public figures?
It is heartbreakingly easy to find women in Liberia who went through hell in the war. Virtually every person you meet on the street is a survivor.Between your coverage of the Ebola crisis and your interviews with the president, you must have experienced firsthand much of the first half of her second term. How did you decide to end the biography, with the very human relief of being able to touch another again after the end of the epidemic?
Once Ebola happened, I knew that it would have to be the ending of the book. It was by far her biggest challenge, and how she navigated it would determine the course of her presidency.You cover a great deal of time and a great deal of difficult truths in this book. What kinds of obstacles did you face researching it and how did you overcome them?
At the end of the day, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a living human being with all of the flaws that come with that. My biggest struggle was finding a way to show those flaws without losing the overarching point of the book—that of a woman overcoming huge odds to do something no one had done before. It’s a balancing act.You mention the mutual respect between Sirleaf and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. What impact do you think Clinton’s loss in the 2016 presidential election will have on Liberian politics, symbolically or otherwise?
I think it shows the Liberian woman—if they needed it—just how extraordinary their wins in 2006 and 2011 really were.How has the process of writing the book shaped your writing or your journalistic practices?
Writing a book has made me a better journalist. It has forced me to go behind the “he said this, she said that” level of journalism, with its false equivalencies, to look at what things mean. It’s also forced me to try to look beyond the day-to-day minutiae of news reporting and to try to view things from a higher altitude. The day-to-day is important, but you have to also try to see things from a long-term perspective. That’s something that’s easy to lose in journalism, but that you need to keep track of when writing a book. Don’t get sidetracked by the shiny object; keep your focus on what things mean and what is ultimately important.Has your thinking on the postwar period in Liberia changed as a result of completing Sirleaf’s biography?
Working on this book made me spend a ton more time in Liberia, after staying away for more than two decades. The result is that Liberia once again feels like home to me. The new Liberia is now familiar to me in a way that it was not before I started to work on this book.Although Sirleaf was able to draw inspiration from the American civil rights movement while studying at Harvard, violent upheaval seemed to quickly preempt any opportunity for much discussion about race and privilege in Liberia. Do you think there is still room for a debate about prejudice—for example, regarding historical hatred between the tribes—in Liberia’s current political climate?
There will always be a need for these debates.In the final chapter of the book, you choose to include yourself for the first time since the author’s note. What inspired you to make this intimate turn in your narrative style?
This is a tough one. I went back and forth on that and I’m still on the fence about whether going first person in the last chapter was the right move. It’s hard to explain why I went that route since I’m not sure myself. I just started writing it that way, thinking that if it didn’t work, I would change it. And then I never changed it.