Peter Arnett has moved from war to lecture circuit

January 12, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

"Weren't you scared?"

"What's Saddam Hussein really like?"

"What's the inside scoop on Ted and Jane?"

Wherever Peter Arnett goes, the same three questions are fired at him with the inevitability and precision of smart bombs.

He fields them at interviews, during speaking engagements, through the umpteenth handshake from fans and well-wishers, as he recounts the Persian Gulf war -- the event that propelled the Cable News Network correspondent from veteran war reporter status to genuine celebrity.

Now a year since the first bombs began exploding around the Al Rashid Hotel in Baghdad, Mr. Arnett is stateside, after gaining national attention -- and some scorn -- as the only Western reporter to remain in Iraq during all of Desert Storm, and the only one to score an interview during the conflict with President Hussein.

What does one do after a war, exactly?

"It's been a unique year," says a good-natured Mr. Arnett, 57, who has taken time off from CNN to travel, write his memoirs and, yes, answer those questions.

"I certainly haven't had time to laze around; I've been talking a lot about [the war] and writing about it. I've given interviews every day practically. The celebrity is a challenge. I find it as challenging as my job, speaking to live audiences and answering questions with any kind of authority. It's not easy, but I feel it is just another aspect of my career."

So, apparently, is collecting awards. Mr. Arnett, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1966 for his Associated Press coverage of the Vietnam War, will be on hand tonight at the 13th Annual ACE Awards (9 p.m., TNT), cable television's answer to the Oscars. Scheduled to help Mr. Arnett accept ACE honors given to Ted Turner's network for its Desert Storm coverage are fellow "Boys from Baghdad" Bernard Shaw and John Holliman, who, with Mr. Arnett, provided CNN's arresting account of the first night of Allied bombing.

Although giving speeches and accepting kudos might sound dull after chewing the fat with Mr. Hussein, Mr. Arnett is happy to oblige.

"I guess it's my turn to talk about the eternal verities of the news business," he says, likening his current authority on media to that of Woodward and Bernstein, David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan. "Every now and then some of us are shot up there to talk about what's important [about the profession]. Sooner or later I'll get back to doing what I love most, which is reporting, and someone else can talk about it."

He attributes his overall hero status to the public's perception of the war. "There were no press heroes out of Vietnam," he says. "When you cover a losing war it's like fighting a losing war."

In contrast, he says, Desert Storm "was quick, brutal and relatively clean, and it left everyone here with a positive feeling about the use of force . . . for a good cause. All those who participated got a high profile out of it."

Mr. Arnett certainly seems comfortable with the glamorous aspects of fame: In Vanity Fair's December gallery of war heroes, alongside the imposing uniformed figures of H. Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin L. Powell, Mr. Arnett shows up in a decidedly non-serious pose -- lounging by a hotel pool with his fiancee, Kimberly Moore (they plan to marry this summer; she, also a journalist, is currently job-hunting in Washington).

As for Mr. Arnett's colleagues, Mr. Holliman, scheduled to return from a December trip to Baghdad in time for the ACE Awards, remains a general-assignment reporter at CNN and also does his share of public speaking, regaling audiences with tales of running through the Al Rashid in his underwear. Mr. Shaw,

CNN's Washington anchor, takes a different view of his heightened fame.

"It's given me the problem of trying to salvage as much privacy as possible," Mr. Shaw says. "I get speaking requests from all kinds of groups, and I decline 99 percent of them. I can't possibly do my job, be a father and a husband and meet the needs of groups to come and make speeches to them."

But Mr. Arnett, at least, feels the war got the public engrossed in the news, which has continued through such events as the Clarence Thomas hearings. "It's not just the stories, it's that people seem to be tuned in to [news]. It reinvigorates us as professionals," he says. "That is part of what makes me popular on the lecture circuit."

Well, that and the fact that he might know some dirt on Ted and Jane.

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