Charles Wick, 90, Information Agency Head, Is Dead

July 24, 2008

By DOUGLAS MARTIN

Charles Z. Wick, whose friendship with Ronald Reagan led to his appointment as director of the United States Information Agency and gave him influence to recharge the agency with bigger budgets, superior technology and aggressive policies, died on Sunday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 90.

The death was announced by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Foundation.

Mr. Wick’s rise to political influence had an improbable start: his wife and Nancy Reagan became friends in 1959 while they were running the hot dog booth at a fair at their children’s school. Soon, the Reagan and Wick families began a tradition of spending Christmases together.

His résumé, while long and impressive, did not exactly suggest his future. It included helping the bandleader Tommy Dorsey with business and musical matters and producing movies, among them “Snow White and the Three Stooges.” Mr. Wick was also a talent agent, founder of a movie studio in England, producer of one of the first television detective shows, real estate investor and part owner of a large chain of nursing homes.

In a way, this all added up. His mission as head of what has been called the United States’ propaganda machine was selling America and Mr. Reagan’s vision of it to the world. Show business skills and hands-on experience with capitalism couldn’t — and didn’t — hurt.

“Charlie Wick was magnificent in letting the world know about Ronald Reagan’s America,” former Secretary of State George P. Shultz said in a statement this week.

Mr. Wick’s eight years at the helm of U.S.I.A. made him its longest-serving director, and he displayed resourcefulness and passion in fighting what he saw as a widespread Soviet campaign of disinformation. He started the Voice of America‘s Spanish-language outlet Radio Martí, to broadcast American news and views to Communist Cuba, and Worldnet, believed to be the first live global satellite television network.

He called for “a wartime urgency” in pursuing initiatives that included a television arm to U.S.I.A’s radio station in West Berlin and a worldwide live television program celebrating Poland’s resistance to the Soviets, complete with Frank Sinatra singing in Polish. He used satellites to broadcast daily programs of American news and greatly expanded cultural and educational exchange programs.

In 1988, Mr. Reagan praised Mr. Wick’s marriage of technology and public diplomacy, saying, “The genius of Charlie Wick lies in his ability to recognize how changing information technology, especially satellite communications, has transformed the international political landscape.”

Mr. Wick had another bent: generating controversy, often with unguarded comments. When Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain did not support the United States invasion of Grenada in 1983, he said it was because she was a woman. He said the ostentation some saw in the lives of some wealthy members of the Reagan administration was actually a comfort to the nation’s poor.

In 1983 and 1984, Mr. Wick was in the headlines for taping his phone conversations without asking the permission of the people on the other end, who included former President Jimmy Carter and Walter Cronkite. Such recording was not illegal in the District of Columbia, but was in some states.

When asked about Mr. Wick’s failure to ask permission, Reagan said in an interview with The New York Times in 1984, “I can understand his forgetting sometimes when he was talking to people, particularly that he knew.”

Mr. Wick called his taping “a dumb thing” and publicly apologized.

In 1984, press reports revealed that the U.S.I.A. had a list of 84 people who were barred from agency-sponsored speaking engagements, including Coretta Scott King, the widow of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Mr. Wick denied personal involvement in the list, but conceded that “political bias” might have had a role.

Charles Zwick, the son of a venture capitalist, was born on Oct. 12, 1917, in Cleveland. He earned a music degree from the University of Michigan and a law degree from what is now Case Western Reserve University.

As a student he played the piano and arranged music for a dance band. His first job after law school was handling the business and legal affairs of Tommy Dorsey, as well as coaching his band’s vocal group.

It was during this period that Mr. Wick dropped the “Z” from Zwick and adopted it as a middle initial. He explained that in show business circles it was better to have “a little easier name.”

He next worked for the William Morris talent agency, then bounced about in various other show business endeavors. A children’s story he wrote turned into the Three Stooges movie in 1961. He complained that many people seemed to think the film, savaged by critics and applauded by moviegoers, was all he had ever done.

In 1947, Mr. Wick married Mary Jane Woods, who had appeared as a Goldwyn Girl in the movie “Wonder Man” (1945), and who survives him. He is also survived by his children CZ, Douglas, Pamela, Cynthia and Kimberly, all of Los Angeles and all having the last name Wick; and eight grandchildren.

Mr. Wick raised $15 million for Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign, was co-chairman of his inaugural ball and helped advise him on his presidential appointments. When some of Reagan’s aides questioned whether Mr. Wick was qualified to head the U.S.I.A., Current Biography quoted the president as answering, “He can have anything he wants.”

New York Times

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