The Magazine

Little Big Man

Richard Starr remembers Omar Bongo.

Jun 22, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 38 • By RICHARD STARR
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"Africa's longest-serving leader," as Reuters put it, died last week. President Omar Bongo of Gabon, the man in question, was being treated for cancer at a clinic in Spain when his "four decades of tight control over the central African oil-producing nation" (Reuters again) came to an end.

"Longest-serving" is probably not the right adjective. To tightly control any country for four decades, much less an OPEC outpost in central Africa, a ruler is more apt to be served by his people than to be of service to them. And the spectacle, not infrequent, of a kleptocrat winding down his days in a foreign hospital raises the uncomfortable question of why none of the billions of petrodollars that passed through his hands endowed a medical facility in his own country capable of--well, being of service to him.

But I'm being slightly ungenerous to the late deceased sovereign. He had a magnificent name, for one thing. Bongo is one vowel shy of being a perfect anagram for Gabon, and thus neatly symbolic of the blurred lines between the state and the head of state. And for another thing, I owe him a debt of gratitude for the memorable afternoon in 1987 on which I've been dining out ever since.

Bongo came to see President Reagan and spend a week in Washington in early August 1987. The only problem was, no one wanted to see Bongo. So Selwa "Lucky" Roosevelt, chief of protocol at the State Department, prevailed on her friend Arnaud de Borchgrave, then editor in chief of the Washington Times, to interview the visiting big man.

Knowing that I had a bit of schoolboy French, Arnaud gathered me out of the newsroom to be his wingman. We cabbed down to the old Hotel Washington, where Bongo and his retinue had reserved a floor.

Upon being ushered into his suite, the first thing I noticed was that the big man was actually a big little man--he was wearing the tallest platform shoes I've ever seen, maybe five or six inches, and was still diminutive. The second thing I noticed was that the air conditioning seemed to be on the fritz. This turned out not to be the fault of the hotel, which wasn't the swankiest address in the nation's capital, but did boast functioning AC. But it couldn't keep up with the klieg lights set up by Gabon state TV in the adjoining room, in which a makeshift stage had been prepared to showcase the proceedings.

Under the lights were risers of different heights, not unlike the Olympics medal platforms. Unsurprisingly, Bongo, seated in the middle on the highest platform, was the gold medal winner; Arnaud to his right, was the silver medalist; and I, on a short chair on the shortest platform, was the bronze. On camera, Bongo must have towered over me by at least a couple of feet, even though when we had shaken hands a moment before he had been gazing straight ahead at a spot two or three inches below the knot of my tie. Thanks to the lights, we were all sweating like athletes.

Arnaud, who was born in Belgium and thus a perfectly fluent French speaker, offered a flowery welcome to President Bongo and asked an anodyne question about his meeting with President Reagan. Bongo ignored the question and launched into a ten minute prepared speech on the evils of apartheid, the shame of America for propping up the South African government with a policy of "constructive engagement," and a probably fictitious account of how he had lectured President Reagan at length on all of the above. Arnaud tried a second question, also anodyne. Bongo repeated his sermon, at length, and we all sweated some more.

At that point, Arnaud, a bit red in the face, made reference to President Bongo's Muslim faith, asked about the progress of Islam in Gabon (where it's a distinct minority), and inquired when Bongo, as a pious believer, was going to make his pilgrimage to Mecca. Whereupon Bongo, again ignoring the question, shut down the cameras, and had his minions see us out.

I was a bit mystified. Arnaud was as miffed as I was at having been turned into a stage prop for Bongo's propaganda footage--after doing him the favor of feigning interest in his Washington trip. Albert-Bernard Bongo, Arnaud explained, had converted in 1973, becoming El Hadj Omar Bongo, upon receipt of a seven-figure emolument from fellow OPEC leader Muammar Qaddafi. Bongo was therefore sensitive to questions about his faith. And after what he had put us through, it was only fair to make him sweat a little bit more. RICHARD STARR