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Fraying Yellow Ribbon : FORGOTTEN: A Sister's Struggle to Save Terry Anderson, America's Longest-Held Hostage, By Peggy Say with Peter Knobler (Simon & Schuster: $22.95; 303 pp.)

February 24, 1991|Bob Sipchen | Sipchen is a Times staff writer currently working on a book on gangs and law enforcement for Doubleday

On March 16, 1985, three men with automatic weapons dragged Terry Anderson into a green Mercedes and drove off into the chaos of Beirut. Anderson was chief correspondent for the Associated Press in Lebanon. Six years later, he remains America's longest-held hostage.

From the moment Peggy Say received the 4 a.m. call informing her of her brother's kidnaping, his release became her obsession. Anderson was the smart and aggressive kid brother who transcended the mundane constraints of a small town and troubled family to range the world, reporting on the complexities of international politics. In comparison, Say was sedentary--a mother, wife, late-blooming student, and a bit of a hick, truth be told.

On her first reluctant flight to D.C. after Anderson's kidnaping, Say tried to check into a hotel with a gold card from the Fingerhut catalogue company; she had no idea what the flashing red light on the hotel room phone meant; she was intimidated by authority. It didn't take long, though, until she was taking limousines to nightly news appearances and hammering hotel phones in an endless barrage of calls to anyone who might be able to help her brother.

"After a while," she writes, "I developed some moxie." But that seriously understates the transformation of a woman from a cook at a country-western restaurant into a renegade gadfly who unflinchingly stood face to face with Yasser Arafat and Pope John Paul II.

That she would wind up meeting with a succession of world leaders as one official hostage-release strategy after another failed strikes Say as absurd. It soon became her opinion that the United States doesn't know what it's doing in the Middle East.

The Iranian hostage mess had destroyed Jimmy Carter's presidency, and Ronald Reagan was not happy to find himself so quickly facing a similar crisis of his own. Reagan refused to acknowledge that he even knew who the kidnapers were--although everyone else had fingered Imad Mughniyah, a Shiite fundamentalist with the Hizballah--and maintained a firm policy, at least in public, of refusing to negotiate with terrorists.

This was, however, an administration in which truth and honesty were entangled with playacting and euphemisms such as "plausible deniability." So even as the President feigned ignorance of the situation, Say was meeting in the Executive Office Building with a lieutenant colonel named Oliver North.

After the Iran Contra scandal broke, Say belatedly wrote a letter to USA Today applauding the arms-for-hostages effort. Reagan sent her a warm note of thanks. Then his administration "devalued" the hostages and retreated back to its posture of "quiet diplomacy." So Say redoubled her own not-so-quiet maneuvering.

In her book, as in her life, she is refreshingly reckless about where her verbal punches land. California Congressman Robert Dornan, for instance, is "an idiot"; New York Senator Alfonse D'Amato is "no help whatsoever"; Senator Edward Kennedy comes off as an opportunistic buffoon in Say's portrayal. Her knack for knocking the wind out of posturing big shots as they spout the macho rhetoric of geopolitics is wonderful.

Occasionally, as her globe-trotting intensified, Say would stop and think in amazed horror: "They send housewives to mediate hostage swaps, they make deals in private, deny them in public, and then renege on the whole thing. . . . These are the people who are running the world. "

This sort of underdog iconoclasm is the stuff of legend. Many would argue that Say is an American hero. Unfortunately, Say doesn't do herself justice in this book. Her saga cries out for a forceful narrator who can step back and see the drama and irony that have steered Say's life for the past six years, while putting her campaign into a clear political, historical and cultural context. Instead, the first-person conversational style of "Forgotten" has a fresh-off-the-microcassette feel. Say's assignations with shadowy leaders come across with no more tension than if she were buttonholing Chamber of Commerce folks for a PTA rummage sale.

There are other reasons why "Forgotten" is dissatisfying. Early on, Say reveals that she "never really did know Terry that well." Readers never learn much about the man either, so there is little depth to our empathy. Similarly, Say offers little insight into her own complex character. Naturally, the author has steeled herself against the pain her brother still suffers. She also decided early on that public displays of emotion were counterproductive. But a book is an intimate medium, and Say often sounds as if she is once again on the Donohue show or Nightline. The sound-byte superficiality is annoying.

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