Arnaud de Borchgrave, swashbuckling Newsweek foreign correspondent, dies

The Washington Post/February 15, 2015

By Emily Langer

Arnaud de Borchgrave, who interviewed statesmen and despots across time zones and war zones as a swashbuckling foreign correspondent for Newsweek magazine, and who later led the Washington Times as editor during the newspaper’s early years, died Feb. 15 at a hospice in the District. He was 88.

The cause was cancer, said his wife, Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave.

Born a Belgian count, Mr. de Borchgrave was reported to have been 13th in line to the throne in his native country. He gave up his aristocratic title, although perhaps not the air of influence and access, and became a U.S. citizen and high-profile, globe-trotting journalist.

He began his career shortly after World War II as a reporter with the United Press wire service and quickly made the leap to Newsweek, then owned by Vincent Astor and later purchased by The Washington Post Co. under the leadership of President Philip L. Graham.

Mr. de Borchgrave became Newsweek’s Paris bureau chief in 1951 and went on to a career as a roving correspondent, parachuting into hot spots and sending dispatches from Africa, the Middle East and Europe at the height of the Cold War.

Ever flamboyant, he told Esquire magazine that he kept “the starched combat fatigues of 12 nations” at his pied-a-terre in Geneva, Switzerland, where he lived conveniently near the airport. By his estimate, he covered at least 17 wars.

In Vietnam, Mr. de Borchgrave accompanied French paratroopers at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, according to a New York magazine profile. He was credited with doing seven tours in Vietnam and reportedly sustained two wounds in the Southeast Asian war.

In the Middle East, he covered Arab-Israel conflicts including the Six-Day War of 1967, where he said he donned an Israeli uniform and rode in a lead tank, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when he reached the front line sporting Egyptian camouflage.

He cultivated the connections to score interviews with world leaders including Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin of Israel, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat of Egypt, King Hussein of Jordan, Hafez Assad of Syria and Moammar Gaddafi of Libya in his barracks.

While many journalists preferred to keep a certain distance from their subjects, Mr. de Borchgrave seemed to nurture extraordinarily close contacts. He said he devised a secret code with future king Juan Carlos of Spain that would give Newsweek a heads up on the death of longtime and long-ailing dictator Francisco Franco.

“The message that he would send me,” the journalist recalled, was, ‘Charlie is on his way to Rome and wants to see you.’ ”

His exploits — at times recounted as lore — made Mr. de Borchgrave the subject of news profiles that explored his cachet and reputation for extravagance. A self-described “sun worshiper,” he quipped that he was “lucky that most of the world’s crises have been in tropical climates.”

“People were always talking about ‘the tan’ and the way I went to the best parties. But black tie, white tie or combat fatigues, I was working,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1985. “I’d come up with an excuse to go to the bathroom every 30 minutes at a party to make notes on what I’d been told. . . . Sure, there were pictures in fancy magazines with the Aga Khan on his yacht off Sardinia. But, my god, I was working!”

Newsweek rewarded Mr. de Borchgrave for what was, by all accounts, his prodigious output. “There were three reporting budgets: foreign, domestic and Arnaud,” a former correspondent once said, according to an account in the New Yorker magazine.

He once submitted an expense report for new suits to replace old ones that, according to the story, had been damaged when a bullet entered his hotel room and penetrated his suitcase. Another time, after reporting on the Indo-Pakistan conflict, he said he charged Newsweek several hundred dollars for “sherpas for manhandling our Jeep across a landslide.”

Mr. de Borchgrave maintained his elite status despite an uneasy personal relationship with Katharine Graham, who succeeded Philip Graham, her husband, at the helm of The Washington Post and Newsweek after his suicide in 1963.

Mr. de Borchgrave “played a large and useful, if ambiguous, role abroad for Newsweek,” she recalled in her memoir, “Personal History” (1997). “He was a dashing figure, a charmer of sorts who knew many of the monarchs, rulers, and leaders, and a fine reporter. And he was good for the magazine,” she wrote, adding that “he also lived very well off it.”

In 1980, Mr. de Borchgrave was fired from Newsweek in what was widely described as an editorial disagreement stemming from his coverage of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. When the magazine rejected his initial dispatch, which compared the incursion to Nazi Germany’s march into Czechoslovakia, he reportedly circumvented the top editor and complained to the company president.

After leaving the magazine, Mr. de Borchgrave teamed with Robert Moss, a journalist from the Economist magazine, to publish a newsletter, “Early Warning,” which reported intelligence news the two men considered under-covered in the mainstream media.

He and Moss co-wrote a bestselling novel, “The Spike” (1980), outlining a scenario — not entirely fictional, in Mr. de Borchgrave’s view — in which Soviet agents infiltrated Western media to disseminate communist disinformation. They followed that book with another cautionary bestseller, “Monimbo” (1983).

In 1985, Mr. de Borchgrave became editor of the Washington Times, the newspaper launched three years earlier with the backing of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, a religious group with millions of followers but often described as a cult.

While the Times trailed The Post in circulation, it had a loyal readership, particularly among Reagan administration officials and conservatives who welcomed it as an alternative to other media outlets.

Mr. de Borchgrave was credited with encouraging energetic reporting from his staff, but at times made unorthodox journalistic decisions. During his tenure, the newspaper helped raise funds, including $100,000 from its parent company, to support the Contra rebels fighting the leftist Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

A persistent charge — including from an editorial-page editor who resigned in protest — was that the Unification Church meddled in the newspaper’s affairs. On one occasion, the paper published an editorial in which Mr. de Borchgrave called on President Ronald Reagan to pardon Moon, who had been convicted of tax evasion.

Mr. de Borchgrave dismissed allegations of church interference as “twaddle.” In 1991, he stepped down as editor, later becoming chief executive of the wire service by then known as United Press International. In subsequent years, he was editor at large at the Times and UPI, which was purchased in 2000 by the Unification Church news affiliate.

Arnaud Paul Charles Marie-Philippe de Borchgrave d’Altena was born Oct. 26, 1926, in Brussels. Later, journalism colleagues dubbed him the “Short Count” for his unimposing physical stature. He said that he lied about his age to serve in the British navy during World War II.

In the later years of his career, in addition to his journalistic work, he was an adviser at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In 2012, Mr. de Borchgrave received unfavorable attention for similarities in his writing to other published sources. “Everybody makes mistakes and I take responsibility for mine,” he said in a statement at the time. “I will redouble my efforts to attribute with precision.”

Mr. de Borchgrave’s marriages to Dorothy Solon and to Eileen Ritschel ended in divorce. A son from his first marriage, Arnaud de Borchgrave Jr., died in 2011. Survivors include his wife of 45 years, the former Alexandra Villard of Washington; a daughter from his second marriage, Trisha de Borchgrave of London; a sister; and two granddaughters.

Mr. de Borchgrave bemoaned the lack of sartorial style among many journalists, adding that good taste was a professional asset.

“I saw this in Morocco once,” he recalled in an oral history. “I had a Chesterfield coat with a black velvet collar. Looked like a diplomat. Nasser was coming in his yacht to Casablanca and getting together with all these Arab heads of state, and the media was dressed, as you know, how the media dresses. I was dressed like an ambassador. And I managed to get in with the ambassadors. I did that over and over again.”

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