21 February 2015

WASHINGTON DC – The hostess of our elegant Georgetown dinner party was breathing fire. We had been waiting for over an hour for the guest of honor, renowned journalist Arnaud de Borchgrave.

Suddenly, the door burst open and a modestly sized man with a deep tan bowed to our enraged hostess and proclaimed, “a thousand pardons! I was on the phone to Paris with President Chirac, and I had Henry Kissinger on hold.”

That was vintage Arnaud, a mixture of outrageous chutzpah and burnished charm. Even our red-faced hostess had to laugh and forgive his tardiness.

De Borchgrave died of cancer on 15 February, aged 88, still full of élan and sharp as a bayonet. We were just about to begin a video biography of his swashbuckling career.

Arnaud, one of America’s most famous and envied journalists, was born in Belgium in 1926 to Count Baudouin de Borchgrave d’Altena, chief of Belgian military intelligence. His mother, Audrey Townshend, was the daughter of the British general Sir Charles Townshend who gained notoriety in World War I for having been defeated and captured by the Ottoman Turks in Mesopotamia at the siege of Kut.

For some reason, Arnaud and I used to joke a lot about poor old Townshend. Curiously, the night of Arnaud’s death, there appeared on TV a documentary featuring Townshend and the Kut disaster.

Arnaud had covered 18 wars; he teased me for only having covered 14 conflicts. He carefully read my columns on foreign affairs, critiquing with wit and affection.

As a boy, De Borchgrave fibbed his way into the British Royal Navy in 1942, landed in Normandy with Canadian troops at Juno Beach, and was wounded in action.

After the war, Arnaud became an international journalist, then bureau chief and senior editor for Newsweek magazine. Arnaud had found his perfect career. Urbane, charming, multi-lingual and deeply educated, he quickly began interviewing heads of state and inserting himself in the middle of major world events.

During the Vietnam War, Arnaud did combat reporting from the field for Newsweek, barely escaping death a number of times. His reports from the battle of Hill 400 are some of the finest war reporting we have. Arnaud was wounded again.

Where there were wars and conflicts, there was Arnaud – always in the front lines, and always with great style. He used to quip that he kept two outfits for war reporting in his Geneva apartment: combat fatigues and a tuxedo. For he moved effortlessly between high society and Third World chaos. His social connections opened doors for him everywhere.

For example, our dear old mutual friend, soldier, wrestler, aviator, film star, smuggler, rescuer of Jews, Foreign Legionnaire Charlie Fawcett, another great soul and adventurer after my own heart.

When I told Charlie I was going somewhere, say to Morocco or Afghanistan, he’d dash off a note to the King of Morocco or to a warlord in Afghanistan, “please offer ever consideration to my dear friend Eric…”

Arnaud interviewed almost everyone important in world affairs: if you weren’t interviewed by Arnaud, you were not a first-rate leader or real despot. What made Arnaud different from the run of the mill American journalists was his profound knowledge of the regions in which he was working, notably the Mideast, Europe and South Asia, and his refusal to repeat the party line. At times, he became involved in the diplomacy of key international events.

We swapped funny stories about our interviews of Libya’s Muammar Khadaffi, and mysterious meetings in safe houses with the head of Pakistani intelligence, Gen. Hamid Gul. Arnaud had interviewed Taliban’s shadowy leader, Mullah Omar, and was convinced that Omar was ready to deport Osama bin Laden and hand him for trial to a Muslim country.

Arnaud passed this information to the Bush White House but it simply ignored him and pressed ahead to invade Afghanistan, at a cost of over 2,500 American dead, 20,000 wounded and $1 trillion wasted – for nothing gained.

We spent many hours talking about South Asia, sharing a fascination for wild and crazy Pakistan. Arnaud knew the region better than anyone I’d met in Washington. Up on Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier, Arnaud’s name was legendary.

We also swapped intelligence stories, our other passion. My favorites: my visit to KGB HQ in Moscow and interview with the then head of French intelligence, Count Alexandre de Marenches who told me how he’d been ordered to assassinate Libya’s Khadaffi when France and Libya were battling over northern Chad by planting a bomb in his aircraft. He was then ordered to remove it when Paris-Tripoli relations improved – much harder, Marenches told me with a smile, than planting the bomb in the first place.

De Borchgrave hugely enjoyed telling me how Marenches would sneak over to Geneva solo to visit so he and Arnaud could see the latest James Bond film.

Arnaud – like me – was a lusty Cold Warrior. But after the Soviet Union collapsed and the United States assumed many nasty attributes of the USSR, his views (and mine) became more nuanced. He wrote two fine, best-selling books with Robert Moss – “The Spike” and “Monimbo”.

After Arnaud left Newsweek, he worked for UPI and then the Washington Times newspaper that was owned by South Korea’s controversial Rev. Moon. Critics howled that South Korea’s spy agency, KCIA, was really running Moon and the paper. But Arnaud, by then no spring chicken, soldiered on. His weekly columns went to an exclusive list of world leaders.

When we look at today’s North American media, we see too much party line and sycophancy – and too many outright lies masquerading as news. Arnaud used to say to me, “I envy you. You are free to write what’s really going on. Here in Washington, we can’t.” He was right but that’s why my writings are no longer in the NY Times and Wall Street Journal. Arnaud managed to play on the sharp edge.

De Borchgrave was a titan among today’s pygmies of American journalism. They, in part, disliked or envied Arnaud. Of course. He was a real foreign correspondent unlike today’s media public relations hacks.

I was privileged to call Arnaud my friend and mentor.

Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2015

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  1. I’ve been following Eric’s work for the last 18 years and want to thank people like him and Arnaud for providing such a unique dimension to journalism.

  2. My condolences on the loss of your friend and mentor…
    From the manner in which the world is ‘evolving’, he’s probably gone to a much better place.
    Sincerely, Dik

  3. Ah for the days when reporters actually knew something. Something not wanted in today’s world of the motto “The only truth about today is the only times we are not being lied to is when we are being deceived.”

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