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The World : Was Reagan Focusing on the Hostages, or Just Acting?

February 24, 1991|Peggy Say and Peter Knobler | Peggy Say lives in Cadiz, Ky. Co-author Peter Knobler collaborated with Texas Gov. Ann Richards on "Straight From the Heart."

In 1985, Associated Press correspondent Terry Anderson was kidnapped in Beirut; he remains a hostage today. His sister struggles to make the U.S. government remember his plight. An excerpt.

We finally got word that President Reagan would meet with us in late November, 1985.

It looked like it was intended to be simply a photo opportunity. The President would breeze in, tell everybody how sorry he was and breeze out again. And that would be the end of that.

But I felt it was important that the government understand that we had a lot of credible people in and behind these families. We settled on Paul Jacobsen, the son of hostage David Jacobsen, to be our spokesperson at this meeting. We wrote down a list of what we wanted the government to do for the hostages, and we brought the President a yellow I knew I had only a couple of minutes with Reagan and I had to make a believer of him. I didn't want him to walk away from me not knowing who Terry Anderson is: He's not just a hostage, he's not an issue, he's a human being and he's chained to an iron cot, blindfolded, in a basement in Lebanon 24 hours a day.

We got the full treatment again. The Roosevelt Room, the ring of government personnel, the security detail with their walkie-talkies. We were served coffee in beautiful little china cups. It was all very impressive, very scripted.

Reagan came in, shook everybody's hand and then sat down at the table directly across from me. He started talking. "I want you to know that I really care about these hostages. We are doing everything in our power to get your loved ones home. We are working behind the scenes for their release. Please believe me."

Then he made some remark about Nancy waiting in the car and got up to go. It had been no more than four minutes since he made his entrance. I had to bite my lip to keep from blurting out that my brother had been waiting in a basement in Beirut for a very long time.

"Uh, excuse us, Mr. President," I said. "We have waited a long time for this meeting. Would you please listen to what we have to say?" The President seemed surprised. He sat back down in his seat as Paul Jacobsen read our list of requests and suggestions.

But Reagan wasn't listening. He had been primed, he knew exactly who I was: I was the troublemaker right across from him, and he was going all out with the eye contact, trying to appeal to me silently in spite of the fact that Paul was talking.

He knew he needed to get through to me and he did it with his eyes. Without speaking, he showed a real sense of compassion. I expected tears to roll any minute. I felt so sorry for him. I felt, "Oh, how badly I have misjudged this man."

I looked into his eyes and I believed him. This man, I told myself, really does care. And I wanted to believe him. I wanted to believe that my country and my President were caring and honorable and would be there when I needed them.

On the other hand, the man was an actor. This had always been his strong point. He was emoting so much he almost dissolved in tears. And for all his assurances, we still didn't have the foggiest notion of what he meant by "quiet diplomacy" and "working behind the scenes." We were to take that on faith.

I bought it hook, line and sinker. Again. I didn't want another disappointment.

Our yellow ribbon did go up on the White House door.

When Reagan left, the meeting was turned over to National Security Adviser Robert C. (Bud) McFarlane and his staff. The families were briefed, allowed to ask questions and given answers for well over an hour. I didn't know it at the time, but I was told later that this unusual largess was a deliberate attempt by the people who were running the show to miss the evening news. The whole White House press corps was waiting outside for us, but by the time we could speak to them their deadlines had passed. I still had a lot to learn about how the system worked.

McFarlane was an impressive man. There were a lot of family members present, and most were naive as to the international politics. That was OK; they didn't have to understand the Middle East, they only wanted their loved ones out of there and they wanted to know what anybody was doing about it. McFarlane didn't talk down to these people; he patiently explained everything.

He told us the government was involved in several "initiatives." He couldn't tell us the details, he said, because that might compromise their success. But he did say the government was pursuing all kinds of different avenues with many different countries, trying to bring diplomatic pressure, trying to encourage other countries to offer enticements the U.S. government could not.

Our government's policy was non-negotiation--"We do not negotiate with terrorist nations" was almost a password, a State Department mantra--but they were not above encouraging our allies to meet some of the captors' demands. It seemed like double talk to me, but the government employees around the table seemed to take it extremely seriously.

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