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Foreign Service Life
Summer 2017

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Crocodile Dundee At the White House with President Reagan and Aussie PM Bob Hawke— International Birthday TV Show
by Robert Baker

My best project ever was to celebrate the Australian Bicentennial in 1988 with a birthday party hosted by President Reagan at the White House, with Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke as his co-host for a national and international broadcast television show. 

The party was to run an hour on national U.S. and Australian television (first there, then in the U.S). Crocodile Dundee's star was Paul Hogan. I pitched my idea to Hogan’s manager, John Cornell. He agreed to be the producer for the show gratis, and Paul would be the master of ceremonies after the two politicians opened the show. The show was to feature American and Australian stars from both countries doing their specialty numbers. I had prepared a star-studded list, from opera to pop.  It was to be an American salute to Australia, one of our staunchest allies. 

The movie, Crocodile Dundee, had been a huge hit in the U.S. as well as Australia. Paul Hogan would introduce each act after the opening five minutes for President Reagan in dialogue with Prime Minister Hawke. My script said, after they spoke, the show would toast Australia with a four minute film clip celebrating Australia and its American major connections (our role defeating the WW II Japanese planned invasion of Australia, our alliance, trade, etc.). 

I was the Public Affairs Officer in Sydney at the time and had good connections to the Australian Labor Party as well as Aussie media. Our U.S. Information Agency, Director, Mr. Charles Z. Wick, had Christmas dinner at the White House every year. The dinner included just Mrs. Nancy Reagan, who was Mrs. Wick's best friend, the President and Mr. Wick. That gave Wick great power.

President Reagan had doubled the U.S. Information Agency budget when Mr. Wick asked for that and promised us two billion dollars additional to upgrade our old radio broadcasting facilities for the Voice of America. It came to just over a billion for VOA at the end of the day, but that was a lot and badly needed.  

I also had worked for Mr. Wick on his White House luncheon hosted by the President to enlist a hundred captains of industry to support our student exchange programs with foreign countries. He liked me and I liked him. I knew Mr. Wick’s White House connection was solid and felt sure he could convince the President to do the show, which would play to the President’s best showman and human instincts and put Australia on the map in a big way.

Mr. Wick came to Sydney for a Pacific Regional Conference of our top USIA country officers in East Asia. I had arranged much of his briefing books, his security program, hotels, appointments with key media figures, like Rupert Murdoch and the irrepressible Sir Frank Packer who owned and ran Channel 9, the top TV network in the country and a good friend to the U.S. Packer invited me to his board room lunch once a month.

Many of my Foreign Service colleagues hated being around Mr. Wick, because he often turned to you suddenly with an order or a request. Unlike them, I liked that. He gave you outstanding support if you got him results.

However, some of his numerous ideas were off the wall and impossible to realize. He did not like to be told that, but in the end, took it, after you had tried everything to make his idea reality. He kept three mid-rank USIA officers in his personal office to keep track of his ideas. They sent out Z-Grams every day to the officers charged by Mr. Wick to get something done. The Z-Grams  demanded action for every one of Mr. Wick’s orders. His was the best managerial system I ever found in government.

Mr. Wick came to Sydney to lead all the Pacific Region public affairs officers in a big conference. Just before Sydney, he had been riding in his limo with my boss and his big boss from Washington. For two days they had been blasted by Mr. Wick’s orders for two full days.

As we left the first working session in Sydney to go to lunch, I had accompanied Mr. Wick out to his limo. He got in. Suddenly, I felt my boss and his boss push me into the limo next to Mr. Wick. They slammed the door shut behind me and skedaddled to the next limo in line. They did not want any more work assignments from him. It was a real Max Sennett comedy routine.

As soon as my surprise passed, I outlined my idea for the televised national birthday celebration to Mr. Wick.

He looked at me with astonishment, as if a piece of furniture had spoken to him. He was used to the kind of guys who pushed me into the car with him, solid but not imaginative workers.  

He grabbed the idea enthusiastically and told me to send in a telegram marked for him personally. When the conference was over, I did that. He replied with a request for a minute by minute timed one hour show including suggestions for the opening film and a sketch of the dialogue for the two top politicians, then a timed sequence for the stars who would be on the show with suggestions for their performances. I planned the show to end with the cast around a giant Australia-shaped birthday cake singing happy birthday. When the candles were blown out, the screen would fill with a brilliant fireworks display with the credits roll over sound, the Aussie national anthem to black.  

I had already had a year of television training paid for by USIA. I had worked as a television public affairs producer at WETA, Washington, D.C.'s public television station. I had produced two fairly big shows of my own and occasionally, our best national show, Washington Week in Review, (now called Washington Week) so I knew how to time out a show, etc.

Mr. Wick was enthusiastic about the idea after I sent in my script. He got it all the way to the National Security Council on which he sat as a regular member. President Reagan gave him that honor, unique in USIA’s history. The Council decided if we did that show for Australia, every other country would want a similar show. The burden would be too much for the President. I heartily doubt that would have happened, but that was  the end of my idea.

Mr. Wick sent me a letter of regret and an explanation of why the idea was not approved.

He also thanked me for all the work I had put into the show. I had to unwind the various tentative agreements and understandings I had reached in Australia. The entire show was to be done gratis by the stars, the producer, the American and Australian networks, etc. so it would have cost the taxpayer very little.

It would have been a huge public relations win for both the U.S. and Australia. The Aussies need our alliance and wanted more American tourists and trade.

And it would have helped to throw into the shade, the troublesome minority of Australian political figures who wanted to stop our naval ship visits to Australian ports because they were suspected to carry atomic weapons on board (our official policy was and is, not to confirm or deny the presence of such weapons).

I suspect Mr. Wick’s enthusiasm may have waned when I sent him a confidential telegram to remind him that USIA could not officially produce a show to be shown in the U.S. (Congress put that prohibition into the law that created USIA so no President could use our large media apparatus to benefit his political ambitions in the U.S.)

I told Director Wick I would need to ask Mr. Packer, the owner of Channel 9, to become the official producer of the show. That would have sharply cut back Mr. Wick’s public credit for the show. Mr. Wick was not a modest man. I wonder if that necessary warning made Mr. Wick less supportive.

Mr. Wick had produced earlier a fizzled USIA television show called, Let Poland Be Poland. That was directed against Soviet repression in Poland. It was a politically sound program but very, very dull. It was a hit in Poland, not elsewhere.

I was Africa Area Policy Officer when Let Poland Be Poland was telecast internationally. It was boring as its many stars simply repeated support for Poland, then under Communist rule.

Under pressure from Mr. Wick, we had to browbeat little African countries to broadcast it. Big countries around the world mostly refused.

He may have seen the Aussie birthday at the White House as a way to make up for that fizzle. Too bad my suggested program did not happen. It would have been a real PR coup, and a huge workload, but great fun, too.bluestar

Author Bob Baker: 5 years intelligence analyst (USIA IRS); passed FSO exam; A-100 class; French language training; first post: Kampala, Uganda; next: Bamako, Mali; a year as a producer trainee, WETA; posted to London, Bonn, Berlin, Sydney, Los Angeles (Foreign Media Center), Vienna Regional Programs Office; retired in 1992; currently writing memoirs in LA.

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