Reviews are mixed as Wick puts USIA 'back on the map'

Rarely has a public official's personal style been so carefully scrutinized. For more than two years, the press and the Congress have examined Charles Z. Wick's many activities, not only down to the size of the grants his agency gives to private foundations but also down to the size of the generous tips he hands to bellhops.

The press has shown great interest in the combative Mr. Wick's Hollywood past , his anti-Soviet attitudes, and his misuse of words. The Congress has focused on his agency's programs and its hiring, firing, and spending.

Some of Wick's more than 8,000 employees at the United States Information Agency have been the sources of complaints surfacing in both the press and the Congress against the controversial USIA director.

But now some of those same employees are beginning to mix a few words of praise in with the complaints. Wick's chief watchdog in the Senate, Edward Zorinsky (D) of Nebraska, indicates he is pleased with Wick's response to his criticisms.

Even among the most disgruntled USIA employees, there is recognition that Wick has secured more money for the agency and has expanded its activities, particularly in the field of television. A friend of President Reagan, Wick has insisted on holding a seat in the administration's top foreign-policymaking councils. He has put the USIA back on the Washington map.

Charlie Wick presides over an agency with 206 posts in 126 nations. He has requested appropriations totalling $711.4 million for fiscal year 1984, a substantial increase over the previous fiscal year. Part of the increase will go into the modernization and expansion of antiquated relay stations and facilities for Voice of America. In 1981, when Wick took over as director, the USIA's budget was $457.8 million.

A self-made millionaire and a principal fund-raiser for President Reagan's election campaign, Wick was viewed with suspicion by many USIA professionals when he first came to the job because he knew little about foreign policy. But he does know a great deal about the use of the medium of television. He has revitalized that branch of the USIA, which had been languishing.

Earlier this month, the USIA introduced a service called Euronet. The first transmission by satellite consisted of a televised news conference about Grenada. Putting this together posed some complicated technical problems. Journalists in five West European capitals questioned United States Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick in New York and Prime Ministers J. M. G. (Tom) Adams of Barbados and John Compton of St. Lucia in Bridgetown, Barbados. Excerpts were carried on evening television programs in Europe. American embassies in Europe reported that the program was a major success.

What Wick is most proud of, however, is the video document that the USIA prepared on short notice for Ambassador Kirkpatrick's presentation at the United Nations Security Council on the shootdown of Korean Air Lines Flight 7. Starting Sept. 4, the agency launched a 48-hour series of meetings, studio tapings, and translation sessions that resulted in the videotape, which dramatized the exchange between Soviet pilots and their ground-control officers in the moments before the unarmed South Korean passenger plane was shot down. Wick called the preparation of this 10-minute tape ''one of the finest hours for the USIA.''

In an interview, he said had he not been present at the first National Security Council meeting of top-level US officials dealing with the KAL shootdown, the USIA might not have been able to mobilize quickly enough to prepare the videotape. Wick's predecessor rarely attended NSC meetings, but Wick insists on being there when he considers it necessary. He also attends Secretary of State George Shultz's 8:30 a.m. policy meetings.

In a recent speech delivered at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Wick said that when the late Edward R. Murrow served as USIA director during the Kennedy administration, Murrow contended that the agency should be in on the ''takeoffs'' as well as the ''landings'' in foreign policy. Through a national security decision directive that emphasizes the role of ''public diplomacy'' in his administration, President Reagan has given the agency that mandate.

Wick said in the interview his biggest disappointment at the USIA has been the press coverage he's received, much of it focusing on his personal style, his expenses, and his background, while ignoring what he is actually doing in the way of programs. On the subject of expenses, aides say that while Wick clearly likes to dine well and stay in the best of hotels, he pays thousands of dollars out of his own pocket, particularly for entertainment.

''I'm perceived as being very close to the President,'' Wick says. ''I'm a natural target, which I understand. Therefore, I am enormously scrupulous about the appearance of whatever I do.''

The USIA director notes that newspaper profiles seldom fail to mention prominently that he wrote and produced ''Snow White and the Three Stooges,'' a movie he originally created for his children.

'' 'Snow White' was a very beautiful picture,'' says Wick, but he adds, ''My so-called show-business career ended about 29 years ago.''

Wick holds a degree in music, but he also has a law degree. In addition to his work in motion pictures and television, radio and musical productions, he has been a businessman involved in the financing and operation of health care and mortgage industries.

Criticism of Wick from US senators has focused to a great degree on the USIA's handling of grants and its hiring at one point of several friends and relatives of high-ranking administration officials. The controversy over these hiring practices became known in the press as ''Kiddiegate.''

But the criticism subsided after Wick gave what Senator Zorinsky considered to be a forthright and detailed explanation and after Wick's deputy, Gilbert Robinson, resigned from the agency. Caspar Weinberger Jr., son of the US defense secretary, resigned from the USIA after it was disclosed that he had received a raise which Robinson had approved but which Wick and some other officials considered to be unwarranted.

Interviews with about a dozen USIA employees from different branches of the agency indicate that low morale is still a problem for some of them. Morale is said to be high among members of the television and film service. But employees in other services say they worry that hard-line anti-Soviet editorials broadcast by Voice of America are causing the VOA to lose its credibility. At the same time, these same employees acknowledge that Wick and other political appointees have not distorted the news the VOA carries. The editorials are clearly identified as such.

From the beginning, the fear of many veteran USIA employees had been that Wick would turn the agency into an anti-Soviet propaganda machine. But the recently introduced Euronet program could hardly be called a propaganda program, except perhaps in the best sense. Its first transmissions have included hard questioning from often-hostile West European journalists.

Several USIA employees, speaking on the understanding that they not be identified, say they feel that Wick does not value their long experience in the agency and that their views are being ignored.

One well-placed employee says, however, that some of those who started out ''very anti-Wick'' have ''turned around.''

''Some of the detractors are no longer universal in their condemnation,'' the employee says. ''They tend to say 'yes, but he has done this or that' a lot more often.''

In the interview, Wick contended that he has been ''pleasantly surprised by the high quality and commitment of USIA Foreign Service officers.''

''As a 'stereotypical taxpayer,' I felt that government was layered with people who were in there for their pensions and so forth, but I've been remarkably impressed with their competence,'' Wick said.

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