This morning, a legend and giant in journalism died. There will be no more like him. Arnaud de Borchgrave would have been eighty-nine this Fall. And his career was the stuff of Hollywood movies not the least of which was marrying his stunning and glamorous wife Alexandra with more than enough of the “right stuff” to keep pace with her formidable and much admired husband and his extraordinary wit and sense of humor.
Born to Belgium aristocrats in Brussels in 1926, his parents were Countess Audrey Dorothy Louise Townshend, daughter of Major General Sir Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend, KGB, DSO, and Belgian Count Baudouin de Borchgrave d’Altena, head ofBelgium’s military intelligence for the government-in-exile during World War II. De Borchgrave would renounce his title in 1951 for American citizenship.
His exploits in life and in journalism represented a long gone era. His Rolodex was encyclopedic in length including presidents, prime ministers, kings, princes, movie stars and many of the global elite. But he never forgot who he was and despite his intimate involvement in much of post-war history and a streak of irreverence that could only have been God given, knew how to keep his ego in check.
On June 19, 1940, fleeing Belgium, he, his mother and sister escaped on the last freighter from La Gironde as the Germans occupied Bordeaux. Through a harrowing journey that nearly led to capture by the Nazis, his family finally arrived at the south coast of England rescued by a British Royal Navy destroyer—an adventure that caused him to join the Royal Navy in 1942 under aged at 15 1/2 and only because his grandmother, Lady Townshend fibbed by certifying he was 17 1Ž2 years old.
At Normandy as a junior rating on June 6, 1944, his landing craft off loaded three-dozen Canadian soldiers on Juno Beach where he was twice wounded in action. His heroism atD-Day presaged the beginning of an exceptional career in which he would cover countless wars and crises from Algeria and the battle for Dienbienphu to climbing the mountains of Afghanistan to meet Mullah Omar after September 11th well into his ’70’s. And his uncanny ability to get to the battlefield was never on better display than during the October 1973, when he wore the uniform of an Egyptian general.
After World War II, de Borchgrave joined United Press and in 1947 was sent to Brussels as Benelux bureau chief, succeeding Walter Cronkite. His scoops led Newsweek to hire de Borchgrave as chief correspondent and bureau chief in Paris. And at 27 he became the magazine’s senior editor, a position he held for a quarter of a century.
His exclusive and insightful interviews with key foreign leaders over five decades from Charles de Gaulle, Gamal Abdul Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong among others led me to tease Arnaud to title his memoir “People Who Knew Me.” And the bedside visits during the final week before he died included senators, secretaries of state, generals and many of Washington’s elite who knew and admired him as well as his many close friends.
Following a brilliant career at Newsweek, in 1985 de Borchgrave was named editor-in-chief of the Washington Times and then served as President and CEO of United Press International from 1991-2001. It was rumored that President Ronald Reagan wanted de Borchgrave to head the CIA where he would have been an ideal director given his vast knowledge and experience in the worlds of foreign policy, intrigue and intelligence. That did not happen. De Borchgrave later joined the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) as a senior adviser first heading the Global Organized Crime Project and after the attacks of September 11th, the Transnational Threats Project. Beyond running a very successful program, his larger legacy will be those he mentored and inspired.
I recall meeting Arnaud first in the Caravelle rooftop bar in Saigon in late 1966 or 1967. Dressed in a bush jacket and desert boots and despite his relatively short stature, he was an impressive figure often surrounded by other newsmen anxious to know how and where he got his lateststory. It would take another few decades for our friendship to flourish.
He was, I would argue, one of America’s best, if not the best, columnist. His knowledge and understanding of foreign affairs and history as well as his intimate involvement were worth dozens of PhD’s. His writing was brilliant, concise, often wicked in wit and prose and always on point. And his sense of humor was unmatched even the gallows part of it. He once joked with me that his tombstone would read: “I knew this would happen.”
If asked what should be on that tombstone, I would steal from Thomas Jefferson’s brevity. “Husband of Alexandra, Veteran of Normandy and 70 years a Journalist.”
Dr. Harlan Ullman is Senior Advisor at the Atlantic Council and Business Executives for National Security and a current columnist for UPI and in the past for the Washington Times.