Arnaud de Borchgrave: Visionary genius

Listen to this article

Arnaud de Borchgrave, the legendary Newsweek foreign correspondent and head of The Washington Times and UPI who died Sunday at the age of 88, knew all about the violence and madness of the world. He started his first war at age 14 when, with his mother and sister, he fled the invading Nazi armies across Belgium to escape to Britain, where he promptly lied about his age to join the Royal Navy. Four years later, he commanded a U.S.-built Higgins boat that landed British Royal Marines on the shore of Normandy on June 6, 1944, D-Day. He was still at an age when American kids today are still at high school.

And he was through Vietnam, the worst of it and all of it. Back in 1954, when not one American pundit in 10,000 of them could have spelled the word Vietnam, he was evacuated out on the last French helicopter to escape from Dien Bien Phu, the battle that ended the age of European colonialism in Asia.

Arnaud de Borchgrave (Oct. 26 1926 – Feb. 15, 2015) (YouTube)

He never slowed down. In 1979, a quarter century later, he learned from his best friend, the head of the French Secret Service, over an expensive dinner at the Hotel Georges Cinq in Paris, that “something interesting” was about to happen in Afghanistan. On the basis of no more than that, Arnaud (he had been chief correspondent of Newsweek for more than 20 years by that point) immediately booked urgent flights through to Kabul. He went straight to his hotel, had a good night’s sleep “and I awoke next morning to the rumble of Soviet Main Battle Tanks moving through the streets of Kabul.” As the only senior Western journalist in town, once again, he scooped the world.

He experienced more than his share of jealousy, false accusations, intrigue and pettiness in his life. He despised all of it. Growing up with aristocratic hauteur has many advantages.

I was his go-to man on the Soviet Union and Russia for nearly 30 years. On one occasion when we were dining at the Metropolitan Club a couple of years ago, late in the evening, he let slip that he had only returned from a conference in Singapore earlier that day. Embarrassed, I immediately offered to cut short our session so he could get home and rest. He waved the idea away as ridiculous and ordered up the port. “Oh no, I never bother with exhaustion, Marty.” I well knew the truth of it by then.

As with Churchill, his brilliance could be capricious, outrageous. Once, he ordered me back to Washington from Moscow over my protests because he felt I was urgently needed to help produce a “collapse of communism” special supplement for The Washington Times. Then, while I was in midair above the Atlantic, he changed his mind. And when I got home it was to receive an apologetic message from my foreign editor that Arnaud now wanted me to turn around as soon as I got back and take the next flight back to Moscow after all. And I did.

On another occasion in 1990, when I had been on the road covering the emergence of the new democracies of Soviet power across Eastern Europe for a couple of months, I got home to Washington late one night to discover that Arnaud had decried I should be up at 7 a.m. to cover a breakfast press conference given by visiting Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. When asked by my foreign editor whether that wasn’t a bit much, since the newspaper had many fine foreign correspondents in those days, Arnaud simply replied it had to be me. “Marty is a pro. He’ll understand.”

And after turning the air blue with Irish expletives, I did.

He was a Belgian aristocrat on his father’s side, and on his mother’s, he descended from a British military family. His maternal grandfather, he liked to joke, was a general who had lost an army in Mesopotamia, modern Iraq, during World War I. It was true. It may account for why he so presciently foresaw fiasco and disaster in 2003 when the United States charged into Iraq to create a “stable, Shite, pro-American democracy” there. Instead, we opened the way for jihadi extremists to sweep half the country instead: Arnaud expected that too.

But most of all he was American all the way through. He loved advanced technology and always had the most advanced iPods, blackberries and smart phones before anyone else. Through his eighties, he still had the same pure joy in the latest wonders from Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as a 12-year-old boy.

Arnaud foresaw the shriveling of print journalism and the rise of the digitalized world. When our older daughter was 16, he advised her to focus on nano-technology and the new universe in brain research and biotech it was opening up.  Wise words: She is planning her second degree in the field now.

This was a Man. We shall not see his like again.

Please read Part 1: HERE