Charles Z. Wick: USIA director whose task was to 'tell America's story to the world'

Charles Z. Wick was the key figure in the revival of America's public diplomacy during the Reagan years. A close friend of the president, from 1981 to 1989 he directed the United States Information Agency (USIA) which was the home for the American government's international information and broadcasting from 1953 to 1999.

Wick spent the first four Reagan years confronting Soviet propaganda head-on: contesting disinformation and retaliating with high-profile initiatives like a satellite television special protesting against the declaration of martial law in Poland, Let Poland Be Poland, which was screened around the world in 1982. The show mixed appeals and performances from such celebrities as Charlton Heston, Frank Sinatra and Glenda Jackson with statements by world leaders including Margaret Thatcher. The Polish dissident leader Lech Walesa later told Wick how much the programme had meant to him and his movement.

In the second administration Wick oversaw the expansion of cultural exchanges with the Soviet Union, working to facilitate the dawn of a new era of Russian-American relations. His other important projects included the launch of Voice of America's Spanish-language Radio Martí service to Cuba; initiatives in Latin America to promote the "rule of law"; and much work to bring the private sector into play to help with the task of – in the words of USIA's motto – "telling America's story to the world".

He was born Charles Zwick in Cleveland, Ohio in October 1917. He earned degrees in music (University of Michigan) and law (Western Reserve University), paying his way by working as a bandleader. His break came when the bandleader Tommy Dorsey hired him first to arrange music and then as a business adviser. Relocating with Dorsey to California, he changed his name to "something easier" on Anglo-Saxon ears: Charles Z. Wick.

In 1944 Wick joined the William Morris talent agency as a radio and recording agent. He married Mary Jane Woods in 1947. By 1949 he had his own agent business in New York and London. His clients included Winston Churchill, for whom he handled the American sales of his History of the English Speaking Peoples. Wick's other projects in Britain included the revival of Twickenham Film Studios where he produced the BBC police series Fabian of the Yard (1954-56). In the mid-1950s Wick returned to California. He prospered in venture capital and the convalescent home business. By the end of the decade he had earned his first million and was father to five children (including Douglas Wick, producer of Gladiator).

Wick's long friendship with Ronald Reagan sprang from the friendship of their wives. Nancy Reagan and Mary Jane Wick met when their children attended the same school and soon the two families were close; for more than 40 years they kept the tradition of dining together every Christmas Eve. Wick was an early supporter of Reagan's presidential bids, raising vast sums of money. In the wake of the 1980 election victory he organised the lavish inaugural celebrations. He had earned the right to request a top job in the administration and USIA seemed a fit for his eclectic mix of talents.

At USIA Wick was loyal to Reagan rather than any one ideological approach; he had his share of detractors on the right wing of the Republican Party as a result. Although charming, he was quick-tempered and famously given to sacking staff on the spot. His Hollywood ways initially baffled USIA colleagues, but Wick soon developed excellent relationships with his senior colleagues, founded on mutual respect and his ability to build their budget.

Wick was perpetually generating ideas, which he recorded on a tape and then fired off to staff in a steady stream of memos. Some were tactfully forgotten, but his best – such as the creation of the US government's satellite television service, Worldnet – made a real difference. Worldnet provided both the capability for foreign journalists to interview US politicians remotely and a stream of news and feature programming for the cable networks then being set up overseas.

Wick did not shine when obliged to speak off-the-cuff on policy – one British diplomat quipped that the Soviets had Agit-prop but the Americans had Malaprop – however, Wick had other ways of winning over a crowd. Even on an official visit he could not pass a piano without playing it. He was a great lover of jokes who used humour almost compulsively to disarm his interlocutors. One of his propaganda gambits involved the creation of a compendium of the jokes that the Soviet people told about the flaws of their own society, which he distributed so that his own officers in the field could repeat them and thereby maximise their circulation.

Wick's time at USIA was not free from controversy. Voice of America staff resented attempts at political influence from some of Wick's juniors. His political enemies sought to exploit his errors of judgement, such as his taping of his telephone conversations, or his infelicitous quip that Margaret Thatcher only objected to the US invasion of Grenada "because she was a woman". Thanks to his friendship with Reagan, he weathered such storms to preside over what many now consider to have been a golden age of American public diplomacy.

On leaving USIA Wick joined the board of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation and also helped to negotiate speaking deals for Reagan around the world. Following Reagan's diagnosis with Alzheimer's disease, Wick and his wife joined Nancy Reagan's campaign to promote the use of human stem cells in medical research. At Reagan's funeral in June 2004 Wick was one of five honorary pallbearers.

Wick was much distressed by the demise of USIA in 1999 and lobbied thereafter for the regeneration of US public diplomacy. When asked about his time at USIA he merely quipped: "Some of the people didn't like me, and they had to stand in line."

Nicholas J. Cull

Charles Zwick (Charles Z. Wick), businessman and communications executive: born Cleveland, Ohio 12 October 1917; Director, United States Information Agency 1981-89; married 1947 Mary Jane Woods (two sons, three daughters); died Los Angeles 20 July 2008.

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