Lucille Levin, called Sissy, is a buttery-voiced, sweet-talking southerner with a strong conviction that women have "an innate sense of how to smooth things out" and no patience with "quiet diplomacy."
For months after her husband, Jeremy, the Middle East bureau chief for the Cable News Network, was kidnaped in Beirut by Islamic terrorists in March 1984, she sat and cried. But, alarmed that President Reagan would seek "retaliation" rather than "reconciliation," she defied State Department instructions to remain silent and raged publicly about U.S. indifference to the fate of her husband and the other "forgotten hostages."
She did more: she up and went to Damascus, lived in a convent there for a month, talked to everyone she met, helped hospitalized children with music therapy, made friends and expressed her disagreement with official U.S. policy in the Middle East.
On Valentine's Day last year, her husband escaped or, as she believes "with all my heart," was let go by his captors.
Seven months later, the Rev. Benjamin Weir, a Protestant minister and one of seven other kidnaped Americans being held in Lebanon, was freed. His wife, Carol, had also spoken out about administration indifference to the hostages.
Now, Sissy Levin is going back to Damascus -- to say thank you and to show good will to the Syrians, she says. Traveling with her will be Jackie Jackson, wife of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson; Patsy Collins, head of the King Broadcasting Service in Seattle; Sister Valerie Lesniak, a teacher of sociology and theology at Berkeley, and Rhona Fields, a Jewish psychiatrist who has worked with war-traumatized children in the Middle East and Northern Ireland.
Levin won't say she hopes to gain release of the four Americans who were held with her husband: Terry A. Anderson, chief Mideast correspondent for the Associated Press; David Jacobsen, administrator of the American University Hospital in West Beirut; the Rev. Lawrence Martin Jenco of Catholic Relief Services, and Thomas Sutherland, dean of the agriculture department at the university.
The other two hostages -- Peter Kilburn, a librarian at the university, and William Buckley, a Foreign Service officer -- were held separately.
When she went to Damascus the first time, Levin didn't talk about her husband. "They all had missing or dead husbands, mine was just one more," she said. "I talked to them about their problems, and finally they asked about him."
Obviously, she is hoping for another miracle.
She doesn't see why the United States is so hard-nosed about making a deal for the return of the captives. The extremists who hold them are demanding the release of relatives imprisoned in Kuwait for terrorist acts.
"We dealt for the hostages on the TWA flight" last June, she says. "Why are these any different?"
The Reagan administration has never been unduly embarrassed by the plight of the "forgotten hostages." U.S. officials are seldom queried about them by reporters and, as Robert B. Oakley, head of the antiterrorist section at the State Department, said candidly at a hearing, without questions, the administration does not feel pressed for answers.
Reagan, who benefited from Jimmy Carter's obsession with the American hostages in Iran, refused to meet with the families of the "forgotten hostages" until the TWA crisis last year.
In preparation for her return to Damascus later this month, Levin visited Rosalynn Carter in Plains, Ga. Asked by a reporter if she felt "sad on leaving the White House," Mrs. Carter responded: "Why no, we got our hostages out."
On his return, Jeremy Levin was critical of U.S. policy. He said this country has an obligation to understand the causes of terrorism, to seek evenhandedness in the Middle East.
"I think the administration doesn't want to hear any more voices all saying the same thing -- that violence is not the answer, that we have to change our policy," Sissy Levin says.
She thinks the hostage-takings resulted from a deep misunderstanding on the part of the kidnapers: "They thought they were taking the flower of American manhood -- teachers and journalists -- and there would be a great outcry. They were wrong. You have to be a fat tourist on a plane for America to care."
Of her cloudy mission, she says: "It can't do any harm; it's silence that's deadly."