Not least of the questions about Arnaud de Borchgrave was what was more remarkable: the stories he reported – or the life of the man himself, a Belgian aristocrat by birth who became one of the most brilliant (and surely the most exotic) US foreign reporters of his era, and later the editor of a brand new national newspaper?
He was born in Brussels in 1926, the son of count Baudouin de Borchgrave d'Altena, head of Belgium's military intelligence operations and Audrey Townshend, the daughter of the British general Sir Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend. At the time, by one reckoning, he was 13th in line for the Belgian throne.
Such considerations became irrelevant when Hitler invaded the Low Countries in 1940. Helped by the Royal Navy, the young Arnaud fled with his mother and sister to Britain. A couple of years later, when he 15 or 16, he enlisted in the Navy himself, thanks to the complicity of his grandmother who told recruiters he was 17. Two years after that he was shot and wounded during the Normandy landings, as he helped Canadian troops disembark at Juno Beach.
De Borchgrave's journalistic career began in London with United Press news agency. By 1949 he was head of UP's Brussels bureau, before joining the Paris office of Newsweek in 1951. Even then his knack of involvement with the famous or soon-to-be famous was evident.
The man he took over from in Brussels was Walter Cronkite, later to become American television's most celebrated news anchor. His successor at Newsweek in Paris, meanwhile, just happened to be a certain Ben Bradlee, future editor of The Washington Post – and as such arch-rival of de Borchgrave when the latter became editor in 1986 of The Washington Times , set up as a conservative alternative to the liberal, long-dominant Post.
Newsweek, then in its heyday and offering a generous expense account, was a perfect platform. During the 1950s, '60s and '70s, no war was complete without de Borchgrave's presence. By his own account he covered 17 of them, in Algeria, the Middle East, Vietnam and elsewhere, often with great bravery and ingenuity, and invariably with an unerring eye for the real story.
He himself became a story, too, with feats of derring-do – as when he got to the front lines of the 1973 Yom Kippur war in the garb of an Egyptian general. Indeed, he told Esquire magazine in 1981, he had "starched combat fatigues of 12 different nations" at home in his wardrobe, ready for action. Some of his exploits might have been embellished in his telling of them – but there was no quibbling with the end product, a rare mixture of vivid reporting and diplomatic analysis, peppered with a succession of exclusive interviews with kings and presidents, generals and prime ministers.
At 5ft 8in de Borchgrave was not physically imposing ("the short count", someone dubbed him). But with his European ancestry, old world charm and permanent tan – according to some sources he carried a sun reflector with him on assignments – he cut a dashing figure. If he also happened to be an inveterate name-dropper, so be it, given the eminence and number of his contacts.
Ideologically, however, he was parting ways with the liberal Newsweek. In 1957 he had became a US citizen, and his views grew steadily more conservative and anti-communist. The liberal media, he believed, allowed itself to be duped and manipulated by Moscow and its allies – a theme he developed in two best-selling novels, The Spike and Monimbo, written with the Economist's Robert Moss.
In 1980 he left Newsweek, but in Washington the ideological climate soon became much more appealing. Ronald Reagan, a fellow anti-communist whom de Borchgrave once described as his "personal hero", was elected president. The journalist is said to have turned down offers of two ambassadorships, first Tunisia and then France (which inducted him into the Legion d'Honneur in 2014). It was even rumoured that Reagan wanted de Borchgrave to head the CIA.
Instead he returned to full-time journalism in 1986, as editor of The Washington Times. Founded and largely financed by the Korean evangelist Sun Myung Moon, this upstart conservative competitor to what de Borchgrave described as the "incredibly arrogant" Post, was at first not taken seriously. But it found a niche in conservative Washington, often beating the Post to national security scoops.
De Borchgrave was a tireless editor, often spending the night on a couch in his office – and always flatly denying that Moon's Unification Church interfered with editorial policy. Though he stepped down as editor in 1991 he continued to feature as a witty, astringent columnist – a role he continued in his final journalistic incarnation as president and then editor-at-large of United Press International, today's much diminished descendant of the old UP.
To the end he argued that America must remain an assertive force in world affairs. "Global disarray coupled with the decline of superpower US," de Borchgrave wrote in one of his final columns last November, "are flip sides of the same coin."
Arnaud de Borchgrave, foreign correspondent and editor: born Brussels 26 October 1926; married three times (one daughter); died Washington DC 15 February 2015.Reuse content