White House reporter returned to her 'House at Sugar Beach'

Helene Cooper, correspondent for The New York Times, cannot leave Liberia behind

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As a child growing up in Liberia, Helene Cooper lived with her family in a 22-room mansion on Sugar Beach. The family had a vacation home in Spain. Ms. Cooper, a descendant of Liberia's founders, attended an American school that included the children of foreign diplomats.

Helene Cooper
Where: Ten Literary Evenings Monday Night Lecture Series at Carnegie Music Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakand.
When: 7:30 tonight.
Tickets: $15, $25, $35. 412-622-8866 or pittsburghlectures.org.

Her privileged world shattered in April 1980 during a revolution that featured endless bloodletting and firing squads. Ms. Cooper was 14 in May 1980 when she fled Liberia with her feisty mother, Calista, and younger sister, Marlene, and immigrated to Knoxville, Tenn. Later, she earned a journalism degree at the University of North Carolina.

A former Wall Street Journal reporter who has traveled the world and reported from war zones, Ms. Cooper turned her early experiences into a 2008 memoir, "The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood."

She will speak at 7:30 tonight at Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland, as part of Ten Literary Evenings Monday Night Lecture Series, presented by Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures.

Since 2008, the 47-year-old author and journalist has been a White House correspondent for The New York Times, covering President Barack Obama's administration. On the night of Mr. Obama's election, she was especially proud of being an American citizen.

"A Luo man became president of the United States before one could ever become president in Kenya," she said, naming the African tribe to which Mr. Obama's late father belonged. "This is the only country in the world where he could exist and actually do what he did."

She knew if Mr. Obama won, her editors would assign her to cover the White House.

"I was very nervous about it as well," Ms. Cooper said in a telephone interview.

The women's political movement in Liberia fascinates her, so last year she researched and wrote a book about Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman president of Liberia. Ms. Sirleaf took office in 2006 after the country's war-weary women mobilized and voted for her in droves. Due out next year from Simon and Schuster, the title is "Madame President."

"It's a story about women taking political control in Liberia. I was there doing reporting for months," Ms. Cooper said.

Ms. Sirleaf shared the Nobel Peace Prize with two other women in 2011 for their nonviolent efforts to secure women's rights and participation in peace negotiations in Liberia and Yemen.

"The first collectively smart thing Liberians have ever done was electing her," Ms. Cooper said, adding that Ms. Sirleaf used her connections at the World Bank, the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund to obtain forgiveness of Liberia's $4.7 billion debt. That allowed the country to borrow money and invest in roads and education.

In some ways, covering American and Liberian presidents is quite different.

"I was riding around in the motorcades with her. I was sitting next to her in her SUV and got an up-close and personal view of Liberian politics," Ms. Cooper said, adding that the White House press corps rides at the back of the presidential motorcade.

But both leaders, she said, "know how to play a big, big audience. Barack Obama knows how to turn it on when he needs to turn it on," she said, adding that when Ms. Sirleaf talks to a large crowd, she uses plenty of colloquialisms, Liberian English and American English.

Liberia, Ms. Cooper said, is better now but still plagued by corruption, poverty, open sewers and a lack of running water.

"The hole that we still have to get out of after 20 years of war is so deep," she said, adding that to Western eyes, "It still will seem like the worst place you've ever been."

Liberians endured horrific cruelty, loss and privation.

"Everybody you meet who is above the age of 10 is like a survivor," Ms. Cooper said.

Like Mr. Obama, Ms. Sirleaf is in her second term and, Ms. Cooper said, "People are now getting sick of her."

More than 20 years had elapsed before she returned to her homeland for the first time in 2003.

"I just wasn't ready. I was in denial. I was so focused on trying to make myself American. I thought Liberia was a place where you died, not a place where you lived. I thought that if I just killed off everybody in Liberia, that when they died, I wouldn't be hurt," the author said.

During that visit in 2003, she reunited with Eunice, an adopted sister who lived with her during childhood but returned to her other family when the revolution started.

Ms. Cooper is deeply grateful for the opportunities she has had in America.

"We didn't have anything when my family moved here from Liberia. I was able to get to the top of The New York Times as a black woman from Africa. There's no other country where that could have happened," she said.

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.

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