Diamond: I was going to ask how, in a country with such widespread violence against women, and such a strong patriarchal background, she ascended to the presidency. You kind of answered it a bit already. It’s the combination of an extraordinary woman and the force of the women on the ground.
Cooper: They could vote. Almost every Liberian woman that lived through the war became a market woman. My sister, who was there, was selling caustic soda soap on the side of the road. Because they have children and they have mouths to feed. It took them until 2005 to realize that that power—that entrepreneurial power—could be translated into political power. Once they realized that the country was going to have democratic elections, [that] they had the right to vote and they could exercise it, they could say: We’re gonna vote for a woman, because a woman is not going to bring war in the country. It’s a very simple rationale, but [there was a] whole “Vote for Woman” slogan, all about, “we’re not going to vote for war, we’re going to vote for woman. Woman isn’t going to take the country back into war.” It’s simple, but it became really, really effective.
Diamond: I’m curious if you saw a parallel between her having to campaign against a football player with very little experience…
Cooper: I’m going to let you finish that question yourself.
Diamond: Well, I’ll just say this: Do you see any similarities between Hillary Clinton and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf?
Cooper: Yes, I do. Hillary Clinton is a global bureaucrat, isn’t she? She’s the ultimate technocrat. Ellen has a lot of the same rap as Hillary—she’s not necessarily that politically exciting, she’s a technocrat, she’s got a whole lot of experience, she’s done everything. Nobody, even the Hilary-haters out there, can say that the woman isn’t qualified to be president. But the difference was that, in the case of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, she had 80 percent of female vote in Liberia—whereas most of the men voted for a football player, and then they said that the women were being sexist. But anyway, men don’t vote for women, you know? And that’s still very much the case here in the U.S. The majority of men were going to vote for Trump, and Hillary didn’t win. The difference is that Hillary didn’t win a majority of the white female vote. She won the majority of the female vote, but not the white female vote. So I think what we’ve learned is that [for female politicians] you need all the women to vote for you because the men are not going to vote for you.
Diamond: One of Sirleaf's most recent challenges was the outbreak of Ebola in Liberia, which she initially seemed to ignore at her country’s peril. What caused that lack of leadership and how did she make up for it?
Cooper: I think she was afraid that [acknowledging it would mean] she was going to lose all her foreign investment. You don’t want to say, “We’ve got this pandemic here,” [you’re] hoping that it’ll go away. But she lost all that foreign investment anyway, because the response was so slow. It was partly denial, because nobody wants to believe that this horrible thing is happening. But then she got to acceptance pretty quickly, which is why Liberia came out of it faster than Guinea or Sierra Leone, even though it was hit harder. And that’s, I think, in large part because of her leadership, not because she was particularly fantastic but because she had created an open atmosphere, with the free press and freedom of speech in Liberia. So you have people losing their shit on the radio, criticizing the government—“Why [are] you guys being so slow about this?” Really demanding answers. Whereas in other countries, people screaming like that—there would be political reprisal.