Wilmington News Journal
June 19, 2000
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World-weary CNN correspondent settles in Del.

06/19/2000

By BETH MILLER Staff Reporter

The News Journal Photo/FRED COMEGYS

Sometimes the news is good. The man who came up to Ralph Begleiter on the streets of Kazakhstan, Russia, thought so. He wanted the autograph of the newsman who had told him the Cold War was over. Begleiter obliged.

Sometimes the news hits home.

It did for Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat while he was in Geneva to give a speech. His assistant had to call Begleiter immediately after one of his reports. Was it true what he had just said on CNN -- that the United States would now recognize PLO diplomats? It was true, Begleiter said. Did the PLO really learn that from him?

Sometimes the news is desperately desired.

A Pakistani doctor told Begleiter about that one day at the United Nations. Entrepreneurs had captured pirated CNN signals, run cables down the streets of several villages and offered uncensored world news to anyone willing to pay their "fee."

Ralph J. Begleiter spent the past two decades as a world affairs correspondent for CNN, explaining one end of the world to the other, pointing out the connection between issues that cross lines of latitude and longitude.

To do it, he has flown the equivalent of almost 80 trips around the Earth -- sometimes with U.S. presidents, sometimes with diplomats, ambassadors, secretaries of state, once aboard the plane of former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.

These days, he usually goes shorter distances -- from one end of Newark to the other, across the campus of the University of Delaware, sometimes downstate to his beach house in Ocean View.

Begleiter, 51, last year left his stand-up spot with one of the most respected television news networks in the world for a spot behind a lectern at the University of Delaware.

Well, not exactly behind the lectern. He doesn't just stand there and talk. The university's Distinguished Journalist in Residence shows news videos -- sometimes raw, unedited footage that never made it on the air -- brings in expert speakers and helps students think through the ethics of mass communication.

A seat in his class has become a coveted possession for students.

"I got lucky," said Chris Wesley of Durham, N.H. "I wrote him an e-mail two weeks before class started, when he could only take four more people. He took the first four who e-mailed him. If I had written my e-mail two or three hours after I did, I wouldn't have gotten in."

Begleiter's class on "The Road to the Presidency" was the only elective Wesley took at UD while preparing for medical school. He's glad he got into it.

"It's one thing when you have professors talking about presidential campaigns and how primaries work," Wesley said. "It's just completely different when you know your professor has been on Air Force One, talking with the president."

Begleiter makes no academic claims.

"I'm not a Ph.D.," he said. "I'm not a professor. I am what I am."

He invites students to "soak him" for what he's worth. And they do.

"Students listen," said John Courtright, chairman of UD's Communications Department. "If they don't, they're pretty silly."

Begleiter's former colleagues at CNN got that across last fall, when Begleiter's students visited CNN's Washington bureau.

"When we went to the CNN building, all the people -- Wolf Blitzer, Jeanne Meserve, Frank Sesno -- every single person who came into the room told us how lucky we were to have Ralph as a professor," Wesley said.

"He told them to stop, but they were saying it without prompting. It was very genuine. You might have realized before that he was a neat guy. But at that point, you realized how much of an impact he had on CNN."

A knowledgeable pro

Begleiter was as dependable, as professional, as credible as they get, said Bob Furnad, president of CNN Headline News.

"I was never reluctant to put him on, even in live situations where a story was breaking and you might hesitate with a reporter of lesser stature," Furnad said. "He knew if a source had a bias and how to compensate for that bias. He was terrific at going deeper to get more meaning into a story. He always knew who was where and why. You'd tell him, 'Go to [Christiane] Amanpour in Amman [Jordan]' and he'd know why she was there."

Viewers around the world recognized Begleiter -- for his coverage of Middle East peace negotiations, Soviet foreign policy, the unification of Germany, the complex problems in the Balkans.

"He has a credible way of delivering the news -- and he has a wonderful voice, if that means anything," said Marie Lourdes Veneracion Rallonza, a Fulbright scholar from the Philippines attending a two-month seminar at UD.

It's not easy work. It only looks that way when it's done right.

Begleiter once asked former CBS White House correspondent Robert Pierpoint how he did a pair of three-minute reports without glancing at a notebook.

What he learned from Pierpoint, and then perfected, was how to use an earpiece that received a split feed. One voice would be the producer's, telling him what to do or which reporter would follow him on the air. The other voice would be Begleiter's, a prerecorded version of his report that he would simply repeat on the air.

Begleiter also could "tap dance" with the best, Furnad said, filling airtime with ad-libbed analysis or historical context while the network waited for a development or reaction to news it had just reported.

Breaking news

Furnad called on Begleiter to anchor an hour-long live broadcast immediately after negotiations broke down between the United States and Iraq on Jan. 9, 1991. The failure of the talks led to the Persian Gulf War.

Begleiter was covering the negotiations in Geneva, waiting as U.S. Secretary of State James Baker met with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz.

At one point, he noticed a break in the meeting. People left the room. He reported the break and wondered aloud if it was just a break or if an announcement might be coming soon.

As he reported that development live on CNN, he heard a rumbling sound coming from a few floors below. It was the press corps, which -- having heard his report -- was rushing to the briefing room where the announcement might be made.

It turned out to be a bathroom break. But later that day, the real announcement came.

Sometimes the news is bad.

"Regrettably," was Baker's first word.

Begleiter choked up as he reported that war was imminent.

"I got on the air and made an emotional statement," he said. "I said something to the effect that I had covered diplomacy for a long, long time and it was always my assumption that diplomacy succeeds. They're not going to go to war. For the first time, I've had the occasion to cover the disastrous failure of diplomacy.

"I started to choke up. Some people asked me later if I faked it. I didn't. I can't regret it, either. Most viewers in the world would not have wished for war. The stakes were real then. Hundreds of thousands of troops were already gathered in the Gulf."

Hazardous duty

Though he was sometimes in dangerous situations, Beg- leiter's deal with CNN was: No wars. He had promised his wife. He kept that promise.

But another one still haunts him.

His son Joel was in junior high school at the time, and Begleiter had promised he would be there to see his last theater performance.

"Yeah, right," his son replied.

Begleiter was on the road while his son was on the stage.

"It was one of the episodes which eventually led me to cut back my travel," he said.

That was no small feat. The travel was frequent and crucial, especially so during a period of intensive change in the world, 1989-92.

Begleiter was not off playing golf. He was off covering the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Gulf War.

His wife, Barbara, kept a tally one year -- and told Begleiter he had missed 60 percent of the family's weekends. During one 12-month period, he made 14 trips to the Middle East alone.

Joel, now 23 and working with a talent agency in Beverly Hills, finds his father "amazing."

"The older I get, the more amazing he seems," Joel said. "... He is one of the smartest people I've ever met. But he's completely out of touch with popular culture. ... We've had many arguments about who is actually making the most important decisions. I think it's Hollywood, not the president."

The pace he kept at CNN left little time or energy for leisure. White-knuckle commutes in and out of Washington took a toll, too.

Eventually, after 30 years of life as a newscaster, he started considering other options. He and Barbara have been in Delaware for about a year, since Begleiter and the university reached agreement on his appointment.

It was not a quick or particularly easy transition, going from the edge of the world's most exciting events to a small town in a small state. But it was a necessary change, he said, one he now savors.

"The concept of CNN -- as exciting as it is, as exhilarating, because of the tension and shifting from crisis to crisis -- drove me to the point where every day was a crisis," he said. "... I don't regret a minute. But I had to get out of it."

Now he has made a commitment to Delaware, one he hopes will be long-term. Life on a campus has restored an even keel to his personal world. He still works hard. But it's a different kind of hard.

All of his fingernails have grown back.

Sometimes the news is good.

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