Home / Fashion & Style / Leslie Cockburn Interview — Leslie Cockburn Has Tackled War Zones and Bigfoot Erotica. Now, She Could Help Flip the House in 2019

Leslie Cockburn Interview — Leslie Cockburn Has Tackled War Zones and Bigfoot Erotica. Now, She Could Help Flip the House in 2019

Historically, women have needed to be convinced to enter politics. But within weeks of the 2016 presidential election, thousands of women announced they planned to run. And we want them to win. So we’re giving them a monthly example of a woman who has run. The point: You can, too.


Even if you don’t know her name, you probably know Leslie Cockburn. For one, she’s the mother of actress and activist Olivia Wilde. She’s also an award-winning investigative journalist who’s work has appeared on CBS, PBS Frontline, and 60 Minutes. But this midterm cycle, Cockburn is taking on a new challenge. She’s running as the Democratic nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives in Virginia’s 5th district, and she happens to be one of the Congressional candidates who could help flip the House in 2019. She’s currently going up against Republican nominee Denver Riggleman, and if that name sounds familiar, it’s because Cockburn went viral back in July when she went on Twitter and exposed Riggleman’s interest in “Bigfoot erotica.” (More on that ahead.) It’s been a long campaign, but it had to start somewhere. Here, Cockburn reveals why she decided to run and how she turned sexism into a battle cry:

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For 35 years, I was an investigative journalist. I covered stories in over 50 countries. I covered six wars, including in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was in Somalia, Colombia, Cambodia, Central America. I covered the Colombia cocaine cartel, I covered the Italian mafia. I covered some of the most dangerous and difficult stories of our time, really. I had a truly fascinating and award-winning career; I never had any idea that I would end up in politics. I never wanted to be a politician because as a journalist like that, every single story I’d ever done had some piece of it in Washington. And I would basically come home and hold somebody’s feet to the fire. So I got to see politics up close, both on the Hill and in the White House and all government agencies. I certainly didn’t imagine that that would be my future.

Really, of course it started with Trump. I was offended by him as a woman. I was offended by “pussy.” I was deeply concerned about him as a former journalist because he started talking about journalists as the enemy of the people, and I really felt that he crossed the line by doing that because you can’t have a democracy without journalists. I felt that Trump was really taking us on a course that was very, very damaging for this country and for who we are, for all of our institutions in Washington. That, I felt, was good reason to stand up. Local party chairs asked me if I would run, and I also, of course, had been [at] the Women’s March, which was very moving for me. And then there was a lot of discussion in my county in Rappahannock in Virginia about fake news, which really captivated everyone. It was kind of a cascade, but it started with Trump and ended up with my basically getting in the car and traveling around this district with my notebook trying to find out what was really going on here.

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I learned that the first and most important issue here is healthcare. People are rightly very concerned that it’s going to be taken away from them because they can see that the Affordable Care Act, the Trump administration is trying to dismantle it. They’ve taken away the subsidies from insurance companies, and they’ve taken away the individual mandates and what that does is it weakens the whole system. There are a lot of older people in the district that are on Medicare. And they’re very concerned.

Politics at this level is combat, so it’s very helpful to have spent a lot of time in war zones.

Running for the first time, particularly as a journalist, I thought I had quite a bit of knowledge about politics and how it worked. But once you’re inside, you really learn a lot more and realize that you really are starting from the beginning. And the fact that I’ve been doing it for 16 months really makes a difference because now, there’s not a lot of surprises at the moment. We’ve built an amazing campaign. We’ve built an army in this district.

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To do that kind of work that I was doing in journalism, it takes quite a bit of courage and a lot of stamina, and it takes a lot of courage and stamina to run a race like this because the Republican Party can be pretty vicious. Also, having had the investigative skills to really look at and dig into a problem. It’s speaking truth to power, giving voice to the voiceless. These things really have meaning when you’re talking about a district like the 5th in Virginia. Politics at this level is combat, so it’s very helpful to have spent a lot of time in war zones.

There was certainly a lot of discussion of ‘I don’t know if a woman can win.’ So we literally turned that to an advantage in our campaign because it became a battle cry.

My opponent had put on social media these extraordinary pictures of Bigfoot with genitals covered with a long censored sign, and it was interesting that that’s what he wanted to put out there on social media. He’d also written a self-published book on Bigfoot. So he clearly has a bit of an obsession, I would say. I thought, “Oh, is this what he’s going to be doing in Congress?” And so it was really just reasonable; all I did was retweet what he himself had put on social media. I hadn’t expected that [it would go viral], but I guess everyone needed the break from the usual political races.

I have three children, and Olivia [Wilde] has been very helpful. She’s done fundraisers, she’s been networking, she’s coming to Charlottesville soon for a big rally. Even though she’s incredibly busy—she just directed her first feature so, like my job, she has a seven-day-a-week job too. She’s taken time out of that to come on the campaign, which I’m really happy about. And my other daughter Chloe, who’s an attorney, who’s very involved with criminal justice reform, has come down. She came down for the convention period where we won the Democratic nomination. And my son Charlie works on the campaign. So everyone’s been involved.

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At the very beginning, I had five male rivals for the Democratic nomination. Two dropped out quite early and then there were three serious rivals. But there was certainly a lot of discussion of “I don’t know if a woman can win.” So we literally turned that to an advantage in our campaign because it became a battle cry. And by the end everyone was shouting, “Yes, a woman can win.” And we won by a landslide.

It feels great. And a lot of women made that happen. I think the blue wave is real, and 2019 is a phenomenal year and I can feel it at our campaign trail, so it’s pretty exciting.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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