Journalist-turned-politician Leslie Cockburn—a progressive Democrat who just announced her long-shot campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives from Virginia’s rural, staunchly Republican 5th Congressional District—is the only candidate in the race who’s had dinner with both Mick Jagger and Uday and Qusay Hussein.
Not at the same time, of course.
“Andrew and I were over in Iraq for Vanity Fair, between the two Gulf Wars, and we were in the Rasheed Hotel in this little bistro having dinner with a friend from the UN and some others,” she told me concerning her winter 1992 meal in Baghdad with Saddam Hussein’s sadistic, homicidal sons. Andrew Cockburn (whose aristocratic Anglo-Irish family pronounces their surname “koh-burn”) is Washington editor of Harper’s magazine and her husband of 40 years.
“Suddenly everyone in the restaurant got up and left, and Uday and Qusay and their entourage came in and sat at a long table that was very close to our table,” Leslie continued concerning Saddam’s late, unlamented progeny. “One of their people was dispatched to our table and asked me if I would join them. I said… yes!”
Andrew was not welcome at the Hussein brothers’ table, but warily watched from several feet away.
“It was completely surreal,” said Leslie, a willowy blond who is accustomed to attracting male attention. “I was seated across from Uday and Qusay. It was a really sort of white trash dinner with Courvoisier and cigars, and their personal jeweler, who said he was a member of the Armenian mafia from Sacramento, and if I needed anything just ask him. And Uday was sitting there and saying he’d really wanted to be a rocket scientist, and ‘I’ve taken my SATs,’ and Qusay was asking if I’d ever heard the stories of the Thousand and One Nights and started telling me the stories.”
She added: “Uday had actually killed a woman’s husband when he was going after her—so I’m sure that was in Andrew’s mind.”
The 64-year-old congressional candidate, a mother of three (a son and two daughters, including actress Olivia Wilde) who grew up wealthy and privileged in the family of a San Francisco shipping magnate, is a treasure trove of such improbable yet factual and occasionally harrowing anecdotes.
“I have never thought about being a political candidate before because I’m a journalist,” Cockburn said. “That’s my whole background and perspective.”
Yet it arguably prepares her for a down-and-dirty line of work—politics—that might not risk life and limb, but has been known to jeopardize scruples and souls. (Full disclosure: I’ve been friendly with her and her husband for years.)
“Clearly, I’m a product of the Trump administration—I’m a Trump candidate,” she said. (By which she means her Democratic Party candidacy flows from Trump’s election.)
Last year, Cockburn supported Hillary Clinton (“I wanted to see a woman become president in my lifetime”) and has been shocked into the arena by Donald Trump’s conquest of the White House and Republican efforts, as she sees them, to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, remove regulatory safeguards restraining Wall Street and corporate wrongdoing, ration citizens’ access to quality health care, and generally shatter the American social contract.
Cockburn, who stopped actively practicing journalism in 2010 and began writing international thrillers—publishing her first novel, Baghdad Solitaire, in 2012, and later adapting it into an as-yet unmade screenplay with her pal Susanna (daughter of William) Styron—said she realized it wasn’t enough simply to dabble in the Resistance. She had to try and do something about it.
Running for Congress is no doubt less traumatic than some of her other adventures.
“When you choose to leave the country club and go off and do the kind of very difficult things I’ve done for 35 years,” said Cockburn, who grew up in the gilded San Francisco suburb of Hillsborough, “you’re sleeping on the ground in Somalia, and hanging out in really horrendous refugee camps and being in war zones. I’ve been under fire, and not just under fire, but under scuds and under thousand-pound bombs. I’ve had people firing anti-aircraft weapons on the ground next to me when I was in Afghanistan and the city of Kabul was literally being destroyed in 1993 and all the Mujahideen were fighting for control.
“I’ve been arrested several times. I’ve been arrested all over the place. I was arrested as a spy in Gambia and had to flee across the northern border to Senegal.”
If Cockburn manages to beat the odds and win the Democratic nomination next March against an increasingly crowded field of contenders, she will face Rep. Thomas Garrett Jr., a former prosecutor and first-term Republican who won his seat in 2016, over his Democratic opponent, with a 58 percent landslide. (While Clinton comfortably carried Virginia last year, Trump trounced her in the 5th District by 53 to 42 percent.)
“I’m up against our congressman, who is a member of the Freedom Caucus and very right-wing,” said Cockburn, who understandably prefers to focus on Garrett instead of her Democratic opponents, a list that is growing day by day.
“His views are very radical. When he came in, he voted immediately to get rid of health care reform, and then arrogantly said he didn’t read the bill”—a reference to Garrett’s much-derided May 4 appearance on MSNBC. “And then when journalists asked him about people who said they would be hurt because of his decision, he made the comment, ‘They didn’t vote for me.’”
Although Garrett is closely monitoring the Democratic race—and is well aware that Cockburn, if nominated, could raise significant money for a general election race and is personally rich enough to reach into her own pocket to hire the best strategists and media consultants—he declined to respond.
Cockburn predicted that health care will be a defining issue for 2018 in Virginia’s 5th District, much as it will be across the country. But she’s also guessing that, along with free community colleges, economic disruption and opiate addiction, the environmental consequences of fracking and the construction of natural gas pipelines, as well as the agriculture industry’s use of toxic sludge and carcinogenic pesticides, will also be prominent in her campaign.
Cockburn, who sits on the board of Virginia’s Piedmont Environmental Council, joined a successful 2012 campaign to kill plans for mining uranium in the state.
Her brand-new campaign slogan: “#GiveAmericaARaise.”
Since April, when she began seriously considering a race, she has been logging thousands of miles in her Volvo station wagon to learn what folks care about. The area covers a sprawling district that comprises 21 counties and two municipalities (including liberal Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia), and stretches from Maryland at its northern border to North Carolina in the south.
“I’ve been all the way down to Danville, where the first thing you see is the largest Confederate flag imaginable,” Cockburn said, noting that the town on the Dan River was the victim of a 39,000-ton coal ash spill in 2014, an environmental catastrophe for which Duke Energy paid the city a $2.4 million settlement last year.
“It’s where the Confederacy spent its last week before disbanding. You really get the flavor there, and you’re in a town where the major industries, tobacco and textiles, have totally fled, and there are trees growing up through the parking lot of the old textile factory. And it’s a segregated town.”
She added: “So I’m digging into each of these places, talking to people, hearing what’s important to them and what the problems are, and filling up notebooks. It’s a journalist’s dream, in a way, and you’re spotting things that you never read about. And I’m able to think about possible things that can be done at the congressional level to do something about it.”
Unlike Jon Ossoff, the Democratic House candidate in the recent Georgia special election who raised $23 million to lose to the Republican, Cockburn lives in the district—on a 400-acre organic hay and cattle farm dubbed “Firefly.”
As she tells it, she and Andrew—who own an elegant townhouse in Washington’s posh Georgetown neighborhood—grew to love Virginia’s Rappahannock County after regularly staying with friends there.
One weekend in 1999, Cockburn said, she snuck away, saw the property and simply bought it. In the years since the Cockburns have added acreage from neighboring farms, and 11 years ago they changed their official residency from D.C. to Virginia (although they kept the Georgetown house, which over the years has hosted one of Washington’s more fascinating and star-studded salons).
In a November 2010 interview with Britain’s Daily Mail to promote her role in the Disney sci-fi movie Tron, Olivia Wilde recalled an incident when she was 5 years old:
“Because my parents were well-known journalists, our house in Washington, D.C., was always full of artists, intellectuals and politicians. We had an extraordinary long table in our dining room that was always packed with people, and my mum would make salmon for them.
“Mick is a friend of my parents and came to the house when he was touring. He was sitting in what was usually my seat at the table. I came downstairs not caring who this person was and demanded that he vacate my seat. He just looked at me and said, ‘Go to bed,’ in a very sweet way… Everyone was laughing because I demanded that Mick Jagger leave the table.”
And here’s how Cockburn, returning briefly to journalism in July 2016, began a Hillary Clinton profile for British Vogue, writing about the then-first lady’s landing “on a sun-scorched airstrip in Haiti, somewhere near Pignon”: “In November 1998, I was standing with Mrs. Clinton’s advance Secret Service detail, watching the sky for her plane… I had flown into the country with George Soros, the financier-philanthropist, with whom I had been travelling in Ukraine, filming a story for the American broadcast 60 Minutes.”
Even if one dismisses her past “relationship” with George Soros, the globalist Great Satan of Trumpkins’ fevered imaginations, or discounts the fact that she has usually spent summers on her husband’s family’s baronial estate in East Cork, Ireland, it’s not hard to picture how Garrett might try to portray her as a card-carrying member of the out-of-touch Washington elite.
To which Leslie Cockburn would retort: “Let’s look at the fact that Mr. Garrett has hitched his wagon to a Queens billionaire who is also a reality show star with a star on the sidewalk in Hollywood. That kind of blunts his ability to talk about ‘elites.’ And anybody who isn’t working three jobs and isn’t a total debt slave is part of the elite, just as Mr. Garrett is part of the elite—for which we should be very, very grateful. We need free community college. We need to do something about student loan debt. We need to change the bankruptcy laws. And he’s not doing any of that. There’s no populism in his campaign rhetoric.”
Cockburn said that if nominated, she’ll be prepared to strike back at such attacks with television and radio ads across the districts nearly a dozen media markets. She seems, in any case, to have been irresistibly drawn to danger in some of the planet’s nastiest places.
Her 1998 memoir, Looking for Trouble: One Woman, Six Wars and a Revolution, recounts not only her meals with the Brothers Hussein and, the leader of the Rolling Stones, but also her midnight tea with Muammar (Colonel) Gaddafi, when she was a low-level staffer for NBC News, fresh out of Yale and graduate school in London.
“I think I was the only woman that Muammar Gaddafi didn’t lust after—his early comment to me was ‘You’ve got to meet my wife,’” she noted about Libya’s savage and eccentric ruler who was beaten and stabbed to death by a mob in October 2011.
“Our meeting happened to be at the same time when Idi Amin was visiting him as a guest,” she added—thus name-checking one of the few bad guys whose company she never had the pleasure of.