Looking for Trouble: One Woman, Six Wars and a Revolution
By Leslie Cockburn
274 pages; $24.95
Globe-hopping reporters Leslie and Andrew Cockburn were jetting off to still another combat zone when their 8-year-old daughter Chloe inquired, "What happens if you both get killed?"
It wasn't an idle question. By the time Chloe pops it on page 110, Leslie Cockburn has described being arrested for spying in Gambia, confronting Libya's Muammar Qaddafi during a midnight interview, sneaking past military roadblocks in a Nicaraguan war zone, and fleeing M-16 bullets during Haitian street fighting.
Still to come are death threats from a Colombian drug lord, tiptoeing with Peter Jennings past mines in Cambodia and (in the late stages of a pregnancy) angrily facing down a Somalian militiaman aiming a bazooka at her.
Asked after all this if she wanted an assignment to war-racked Afghanistan, Cockburn replied, predictably, "I can't think of anything I'd rather do."
She is, without doubt, one intrepid producer and correspondent, and her rapid-fire book hurtles from one exotic escapade to the next. It is witty and charming, but also frustrating, because Cockburn raises and then sidesteps an array of serious issues.
Chloe's question presents a chance to stop and dwell on a theme hinted at several times: the impact on family life of the peripatetic correspondent's life. But Cockburn kisses off the matter with a glib response: "We'll be fine."
When Chloe asks, "Don't you know there's a war there?" her mother quips, "Well, yes... Just a little war."
With this hint-and-run technique, Cockburn rushes past several other provocative issues, including the special problems female foreign reporters face and declining TV news standards.
Still, what we are left with is good stuff, a rollicking portrayal of resourcefulness and derring-do. Cockburn delivers one memorable set piece after another. She enjoys tea with the Khmer Rouge, fends off marriage proposals from a Kurdish feudal lord and gossips with Saddam Hussein's son about then-candidate Bill Clinton's love life.
In a scene almost too good to be true, Cockburn and Diane Sawyer smuggle videotape out of Afghanistan by stuffing them into their clothes. "We emerge buxom and veiled," she reports. "The Taliban [fundamentalist enforcers] are unlikely to body-search us."
Cockburn has served as a producer for CBS and ABC, a correspondent for PBS Frontline and a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, with a passion for foreign affairs that dates to a trip at age 18 to study women's roles in Kenya's Akamba tribe.
Her strength is fearlessness. "I could feel at ease with Colombian hit men, Khmer Rouge guerrillas, members of the Saddam family or Afghan fundamentalists," she writes. "I was comfortable anywhere."
She also shows skill at phrase-making and insight. Commenting on antagonism between the Reagan administration and Nicaragua's Sandinistas, she observes, "It was generational, a continuation of the war between Lester Lanin and Mick Jagger, neat Scotch and rolled joints, the domino theory and sit-ins. The Nicaraguan leaders..wrote magical realist poetry and danced the frenzied Palo de Mayo... They scorned TV dinners, Frank Sinatra, face-lifts, and B movies, the staples of Reagan style."
Her award-winning reporting made her unwelcome in places as disparate as the Pentagon and Iraq. Cockburn helped expose "the dirty war" in Nicaragua, covert U.S. funding for disreputable forces in Cambodia and Patriot missile failures during the Persian Gulf War.
Her book tells us little about the actual stories she filed or their impact. From its evidence, she seems to love nonstop adventure for its own sake. Although proud of her journalistic achievements (she has won numerous awards, including an Emmy), she seldom pauses long enough to discuss mundane professional matters like organizing and analyzing the colorful and controversial material she keeps bagging.
And she ends with another cryptic quick hitter. The book's final anecdote finds Cockburn drinking wine with a spymaster in Prague. "I'm thinking of getting out of this line of work," he confides. "So am I," Cockburn replies.
Shy? She never says. The book ends abruptly, with another glimpse into deeper water, one of the few places where Cockburn won't take us.