Arnaud de Borchgrave, a retired editor-in-chief of The Washington Times, a celebrated foreign correspondent who covered 17 wars and became the confidant of dozens of world leaders, died Sunday at a hospice in Washington after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 88.
Mr. de Borchgrave was editor-in-chief of The Times from 1985 until he retired in 1991. He had been chief foreign correspondent for Newsweek magazine, a post he held for 25 years. He presided over The Times during a period of great growth, both in circulation and in influence at the White House and on Capitol Hill far beyond its circulation numbers.
He became president and chief executive officer of United Press International after he retired from The Times, and was editor-at-large for both publications at the time of his death. After he retired from the newspaper, he became director of transnational projects for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
He is survived by his wife, Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave, an award-winning photographer who often accompanied her husband on his globe-trotting assignments.
“Arnaud was a giant of journalism,” Larry Beasley, president and CEO of The Times, said Sunday. “His globe-trotting reporting kept America informed, and his tireless work as our editor-in-chief helped put The Washington Times on the map in its early days.”
Osborn Elliot, onetime editor of Newsweek and later dean of the Columbia University journalism school, wrote that “de Borchgrave has played a role in world affairs known to no other journalist.”
Theodore H. White, whose “Making of the President” books set the standard for presidential campaign reporting, said that “Arnaud de Borchgrave is one of America’s great foreign correspondents, a man of immense wisdom, solid common sense and enormous sophistication.”
He pioneered conversations between heads of state, drawing them out on explosive international issues, beginning with interviews with President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Prime Minister Golda Meir of Israel. He traded stories and sipped tea with Pham Van Dong in Hanoi and as a houseguest of King Hussein in Jordan.
In his seven tours of duty in Vietnam, from the siege of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 through the fall of Saigon in 1975, he produced groundbreaking interviews with prime ministers, presidents and commanding generals.
His interviews also included President Reagan, French President Charles de Gaulle, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein, Benazir Bhutto and Moammar Gadhafi. “In a job that requires bluff and bravado,” Esquire magazine observed in a profile, “he has outrun the best of them.”
He received dozens of journalism prizes, including awards for best magazine reporting from abroad and a medal from the World Business Council. King Baudouin of Belgium awarded him the Order of Leopold II in 1990, and France awarded its Legion of Honor in 2014 to recognize “his personal contribution to the liberation of France during World War II.”
His colleagues marveled at his uses of intrigue and intuition.
“Arnaud was an extraordinary man,” said Wesley Pruden, who succeeded him as editor-in-chief of The Times and served until he in turn retired in 2008. “He came to us when we were struggling against considerable hostility to establish a second newspaper in Washington, and overnight he gave The Times identity, purpose and credibility. His friends teased Arnaud that he was ‘a legend in his own mind,’ but we were all in awe of his enormous self-confidence and his intrepid and relentless pursuit of the story. He leaves us a true legend in his own times.”
Mr. de Borchgrave, who had not worked on a newspaper before he arrived at The Times, retrieved newspaper traditions from the lore of colorful earlier eras.
He dispatched a reporter to Argentina to pursue a tip that Dr. Josef Mengele, infamous for perverting medical science in Nazi death camps, had been seen in Argentina. The newspaper offered a reward of $25,000 for information leading to his capture. But Mengele, The Times learned, had drowned earlier and was buried under a false name in a secret grave, and the man from The Times stood at the grave when the body was exhumed from toxic soil.
Mr. de Borchgrave installed a foldaway bed off his palatial office on the mezzanine overlooking The Times newsroom, sometimes staying there when a big story was breaking. He sometimes appeared on the mezzanine in silk pajamas to shower reporters below with a hail of large yellow index cards with tips and suggestions for stories scribbled on them. Usually the cards — which the staff called “yellow rain” — included the names and telephone numbers of sources extracted from his famous Rolodex. He paid bonuses, sometimes up to $1,000, for what he called “bell-ringing scoops.” There were many of them.
Mr. de Borchgrave was born in Belgium in 1926, the son of Audrey Dorothy Louise Townshend and Baudouin de Borchgrave. His father was chief of military intelligence for the Belgian government in exile during World War II.
With his mother, and a sister, Marina, the 14-year-old Arnaud fled on the last freighter from La Gironde province as the Germans moved into Bordeaux. They were bound for England, but a British airline pilot returning home learned that the captain of the ship changed course to head for Hamburg. The young Arnaud jumped overboard and was picked up by a French fishing boat, and made it to the British Consulate in Bordeaux just as the Germans were occupying the city. A British destroyer took the passengers to Falmouth.
When he was 16, Arnaud persuaded his grandmother to write a letter saying he was 17, and he enlisted and served four years in the Royal Navy. He was wounded on a Higgins boat landing Canadian troops on Juno Beach on D-Day.
His further survivors include his sister, Marina Bayliss of London, a daughter by a previous marriage, Trisha de Borchgrave, and two granddaughters. Services are pending.