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Reagan advisor led the agency that explained U.S. policy to the world

Times Staff Writer

Charles Z. Wick, the controversial, long-serving director of the United States Information Agency, who raised the agency’s profile, doubled its budget and extended its ability to reach foreign audiences through new technology such as satellite television, died of natural causes Sunday at his Los Angeles home. He was 90.

Wick, a close friend and advisor of President Reagan and his appointee, was the USIA’s longest-serving director, filling the post from 1981 to ’89. A venture capitalist, real estate investor and former movie producer, he brought Hollywood-style pizazz to an agency that had long been treated as a government backwater and made it a prominent part of Reagan’s Cold War apparatus.

Among Wick’s successes was WorldNet, a satellite television network that enabled the Reagan administration to quickly broadcast to other countries American viewpoints on sensitive international events, such as the Soviet crackdown in Poland against the Solidarity trade union movement in 1981 and the U.S invasion of Grenada in 1983.

He launched Radio Marti, a network that sent daily broadcasts to Cuba, in 1983. He also developed programs that brought U.S. news and features to Europeans in two-hour broadcasts five days a week, held news conferences for foreign journalists to question senior Washington officials and sent young American musicians to teach and perform in other countries

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“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 released Tuesday.

Wick also weathered numerous controversies, most notably the disclosure that he secretly tape-recorded phone calls to his office from government officials, celebrities and friends, including former President Carter, Reagan chief of staff James A. Baker III, veteran broadcaster Walter Cronkite and actor Kirk Douglas. After initially denying that he surreptitiously recorded conversations, he acknowledged the taping and apologized for it as “insensitive and dumb.”

Born in Cleveland on Oct. 12, 1917, Wick earned a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Michigan in 1940 and a law degree from what is now Case Western Reserve University in 1943.

He paid his way through college as a bandleader, drawing the attention of Tommy Dorsey, who brought him to California as a business and legal advisor. After a short time in New York as an agent with the William Morris agency, Wick returned to California and entered business, helping found a chain of nursing homes. He also began to produce television shows, including an early detective series, shot in England, called “Fabian of the Yard,” and movies, including “Snow White and the Three Stooges” (1961).

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He and his wife, Mary Jane, met the Reagans in 1959 while running the hot dog booth at their children’s school fair in Brentwood. The friendship led to Wick’s early involvement raising funds for Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign. After the election, Wick co-chaired the 1981 inaugural committee and advised the president-elect on appointments.

Although Wick went to Washington with no government or foreign affairs experience, he proved himself a hands-on director intent on turning the USIA, which is now part of the State Department, into an important player. In 1986 the Washington Post described him as “the most influential USIA director since the late Edward R. Murrow during the Kennedy administration.”

While other departments’ budgets were being slashed, the USIA’s grew from $458 million in 1981 to $820 million in 1988. He used the infusion of funds to pay for technological upgrades, including replacing antiquated equipment that limited the reach of the Voice of the America radio network behind the Iron Curtain.

WorldNet, the global TV network he launched in 1983, was broadcast free to 100 countries. It staged news conferences with top U.S. officials, linked American scholars and scientists with their colleagues abroad, and beamed live coverage of congressional hearings

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When the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles was threatened with a boycott by several African countries, WorldNet hooked up the African leaders with Peter Ueberroth, head of the Games’ organizing committee, and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. The boycott was averted.

Wick also conceived a splashy TV spectacular, “Let Poland Be Poland,” which featured Frank Sinatra, Charlton Heston and a host of Western heads of state calling for Poland’s independence. According to USC professor Nicholas J. Cull, whose history of the USIA was published this month by Cambridge University Press, Lech Walesa later told Wick that the show had been important to him and bolstered the Solidarity movement.

The Poland special and other Wick initiatives stirred fears among USIA careerists and other critics that he was turning the agency into a right-wing propaganda machine. Wick denied the dark motives ascribed to him but said he would not shy from promoting Reagan’s policies.

“Telling about America means telling people about America’s foreign policy,” he told the Washington Post in 1986. “Right now that policy is set by Ronald Reagan, and if we’re going to tell the story accurately, we have to make clear what President Reagan believes in and what his policies stand for.”

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In addition to his wife, Wick is survived by five children, C.Z., Douglas, Pamela, Cynthia and Kimberly, all of Los Angeles; and eight grandchildren.

Services will be private.

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elaine.woo@latimes.com

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