Charles Z. Wick likes to travel first class. When he schedules business trips, he has his office tell the airlines, the car rental companies and the hotel managers that he's a close friend of Ronald Reagan's. When he appeared on a Washington talk show, he volunteered to the television staff that his suits are made for $1,200 on London's Savile Row. (The belts come in matching material.)

Wick is director of the U.S. International Communication Agency, the global information machine that is one of the most sophisticated instruments of American foreign policy. In the past year, it's become a messy cauldron of resignations and allegations. Last week the ICA ombudsman he appointed resigned and told an oversight commission that Wick is a bad manager and that there's "fraud" and "corruption" in the agency. Wick responded by saying that the ombudsman, multimillionaire trucking executive Arthur Imperatore, "had a very keen, strong disappointment that he was not accorded a position of running all aspects of the agency."

(Imperatore never specified the charges and had no comment on them yesterday. The commission decided they are so far unsubstantiated; nonetheless, Imperatore's letter of complaint was sent to what commission director Richard Monsen called "the appropriate investigatory agencies.")

In lighter moments, Wick is a gag-a-minute guy who was a Cleveland bandleader before he co-produced "Snow White and the Three Stooges," a movie he originally wrote for his children. He is often told he bears a resemblance to Richard Nixon (he winces) and has a temper that causes one employe to call him an "uncontrolled demon." Despite this, people who work with him say he's enthusiastic and well-meaning, and add that he's put a sluggish agency back on the map. He is a Mr. Malaprop, and also prefers to use the big word when a small one would do. At a recent National Press Club breakfast speech, he spoke of both "simultaneity" and "instantaneity."

Last January at the White House, when Wick's "Let Poland Be Poland" television spectacular about that country's crisis was almost completed, senior staffers huddled daily. Frank Sinatra, they'd heard, was going to sing "Ever Homeward" in Polish. They feared that Wick was producing Hollywood in Warsaw. "We've got to stop him!" they said. But they knew that was hopeless.

As the line at the White House went: "The only way to stop Charlie Wick is to shoot him."

Charles Wick first charged into Washington as co-chairman of the most elaborate and expensive inaugural in history. "I don't like to use the word lavish," he said at the time. Now he and Attorney General William French Smith are the only members of Reagan's "kitchen cabinet" who have stayed. Wick has become a public personality--almost an apologist for the administration's opulent style. He says that the Reagan affluence is a comfort to the poor, much as Americans in the Depression "loved those glamor pictures."

He was responsible for "Let Poland Be Poland," which was widely regarded as a political embarrassment, and at the time called it "the biggest show in the history of the world." Now, in hindsight, he says that distinction actually belongs to the marriage of Lady Diana and Prince Charles.

Some say he's Ronald Reagan's "closest friend in Washington," but it's really his wife, Mary Jane, who has the tight bond--with the first lady. They met in Los Angeles 25 years ago driving the school carpools. Their kids grew up together, and during an earlier campaign, Ron Jr. stayed at the Wicks' place. "Ron had some problems," Wick recalls. "Maybe driving too fast, or not getting a haircut one day, or just regular kid stuff."

These days White House secretaries say that Wick, 64, pushes his pet projects by relentlessly phoning the White House, and if he doesn't get results, he goes straight to the president. He explodes when he doesn't get what he wants, and a former employe recalls seeing at least two of his 10 assistants emerge from his office, sobbing.

"I think I was much more subtle years ago," he says, responding to these stories. "But as you deal with people, you learn that you can't be just a little bit pregnant. Being nice, you can't operate. You've got to blast through."

Blasting through may not be what would best qualify someone to serve as director of the ICA. It is parent to the Voice of America, the broadcasting arm that beams news, music and commentary in 39 languages to a worldwide radio audience estimated to be as high as 80 million. Wick thinks of himself as a "rugged entrepreneur" whose primary job is to market America, and says his limited knowledge of foreign affairs is "totally irrelevant."

His major thrust is to counter Soviet "disinformation" through "Project Truth." He has received advice from Arnaud de Borchgrave, one of the authors of the novel "The Spike," a harangue about Russian agents everywhere. In March, Wick told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee that "I would say, from my top-secret clearance that has enabled me to see things of great relevance . . . that "The Spike" is probably a very authoritative set of facts." Some staffers at the ICA shuddered.

He raised $15 million for Reagan's 1980 campaign, and acquaintances say he's told them that "I got the president elected." He has flown the Concorde twice at ICA expense, getting an exception to government guidelines, because he says he had to make tightly scheduled business meetings overseas. "Nobody can tell me I can't fly the Concorde," he says. "I'm a director of this agency."

He is often defensive, asking "What's wrong with that?" when questioned. It doesn't help that he has spent much of his adult life successfully pushing and shoving among California's beautiful people. Even though he's one of them, he doesn't always seem sure.

"I saw this article saying that I'm due for a confrontation with the White House because they won't pay any attention to me," he said at the Press Club breakfast. "It's just preposterous. Two weeks ago I flew up in Air Force One with the president to the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Mike Deaver, Baker and Meese and others are very close friends of mine. We interchange all the time. I don't know where this stuff is coming from."

Mickey Mouse wears a Charlie Wick wrist watch. --Graffito in an ICA men's room

Wick's office at the ICA, just a five-minute walk from the White House, is dominated by a huge map of the world. His desk faces it; tiny lights mark the cities with ICA posts. "Hi, fellas," he says to the lights.

On a recent Friday he has lunch in his office with a reporter and his director of public liaison, Phyllis Kaminsky. He has become skittish about the press, generally because he thinks his statements about "Let Poland Be Poland" and the Reagan style were misconstrued. "My toughest problem isn't putting together 'Let Poland Be Poland' in four weeks," he says. "The toughest thing I have is the goddamned press."

Another problem is personnel. When it comes to Wick, ICA employes fall into two groups. Many, who'll only speak if they're not quoted by name, are seriously alarmed by his ideas and what they consider his naive and dangerous Cold War rhetoric. Others think that despite the rhetoric, or maybe even because of it, he has pulled the agency out of a backwater. "We're in meetings now with the White House all the time, and we sit with the secretary of state every morning," Wick's deputy, Gilbert Robinson, says proudly.

"Whether you agree or disagree with what Charlie's trying to do, he's picked it up," says David Gergen, the White House communications director who wanted the job himself.

"Doing the right thing cannot be accomplished without a lot of painful squealing and moaning from the bowels of the bureaucracy," says Richard Allen, the former national security adviser. Allen encouraged Wick to take the job because Allen wanted to be sure, one official at the White House says, that Gergen didn't get it. Allen has never considered Gergen an authentic, conservative "Reaganaut." Right wing conservatives have always seen the ICA as a plum.

But Allen's "squealers" and "moaners" (Wick refers to them in Washingtonese as "moles") sound out over the voices of officialdom. "There are are 7,717 employes in this agency," Wick says. "I've only scratched the surface insofar as really meeting people and sitting down with them."

"He always aroused in us a deep sense of anxiety," says a former ICA employe.

"An intellectual barbarian," says another.

"He would have been a good czar," says a third.

To some degree, none of this is particularly startling. ICA has always had its problems with morale, in large part because the agency, VOA in particular, has an identity crisis. Is VOA a legitimate news organization or a government mouthpiece? Should you report the news, "warts and all," as the expression goes, or should you leave them off? Employes at VOA prefer to think of themselves as objective journalists, not a collective arm of the State Department. The VOA charter itself is a compromise between the two schools of thought, saying that the news "will be accurate, objective and comprehensive," but also that "VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively."

When Wick arrived, what had been office politics as usual turned into one of the more bewildering labyrinths in town. Wick chose James Conkling, an old friend and a former member of the King Family singers, as VOA director. Conkling then appointed a conservative radio commentator named Philip Nicolaides as VOA coordinator for news analysis. (Some employes said this was to pacify Allen, who admits he had "remarked" to Wick about what he considered liberal phrasing in VOA broadcasts, specifically the words "anti-government guerrillas" to describe Afghans fighting Soviet troops. Allen suggested "freedom fighters" instead.)

Soon Nicolaides had written a memo saying that VOA must function as a "propaganda agency" that should portray the Soviet Union as "the last great predatory empire on earth." Veteran VOA White House correspondent Philomena Jurey, reacting to a Newsweek story that quoted Wick associates as suspecting some VOA staffers of being "communist dupes," publicly accused Wick of "besmirching our newsroom." Then Bernard Kamenske, the VOA's longtime news editor, resigned voluntarily. There was talk of a "hit list." The place boiled.

Things have calmed, slightly, in the six months since. Nicolaides was forced to resign in January and Conkling himself resigned in March. John Hughes, an ICA senior deputy, 25-year veteran of the Christian Science Monitor and Pulitzer Prize winner, was appointed in his place, reassuring a number of the journalists.

But it might be just a time-out. Although one correspondent says that "nothing I have written, to my knowledge, has been changed," a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review refers to VOA as "Censorship U.S.A." and reports that the V.O.A. "themes" in the Reagan administration are "tough on Moscow, strong on American military power, up for free enterprise."

And last week, right after the resignation of ombudsman Imperatore, Rep. John LeBoutillier (R-N.Y.) said that he'd had lunch with Wick and had been told that "less than 10 but more than one or two" ICA employes were set to be fired. "All of them are left-wing liberals, all of them should be fired, and I think it's great," he said. Wick denied LeBoutillier's statement.

First Class

Wick has an unmistakable style. Not only does he like people to know that he's a friend of the president, but he also prefers the second or third seat back in first class, on the non-smoking, shady side of the plane. He is met at both ends by airline people or, in the case of a recent visit to Chicago, by ICA officials. There, a limousine with a police escort takes him to his hotel, the Ritz-Carlton, where champagne, orchids and fresh fruit await him and his wife in their suite.

For dinner, they walk across Michigan Avenue to Cricket's in the Tremont Hotel. It's owned by John Coleman, the man-around-town who owns the Fairfax Hotel in Washington. A bottle of complimentary champagne and an eager maitre d'are waiting for them there, compliments of Coleman. So are the jellybeans, Cricket's tote bags, and the dinner.

The Wicks decide the restaurant's red-patterned tablecloths look like Washington's Jockey Club and its miniature trucks hanging from the ceiling look like the airplanes at New York's "21"--a marriage of two comforting landmarks for the rich away from home. The Wicks order two J&Bs and sodas, then settle in to talk about how they first met.

"Mary Jane was 18 or 19," Wick began.

"I was not 18," his wife responds firmly. "Charles, just keep your mouth closed when it comes to me."

Mary Jane Wick knows how to handle her husband. She is shy, sophisticated and shrewd. During dinner, when her husband starts plowing into a question loaded with minefields, she interrupts and sweetly says to the reporter: "Why do you ask?" When Wick starts telling a story about a man who referred to the "mad government in Washington with all those missiles," Mary Jane swiftly intercepts with: "Excuse me. Did you want to talk about that?"

"Mary Jane was a very beautiful gal and she had a lot of guys after her," says Wick. "I didn't want to get married because I was traveling in this glamorous world. I didn't want to get nailed down. But she had then--which is good for me--the basic values of life. You know, family, friends, and the friends didn't have to be glamorous or have $9 million. It came down to marry her or lose her.

"I just want you to know about my temper," he continues. "She never would rise to any provocation. She mastered me so totally. She just made me feel so lousy by being so nice. She even taught me to fold the towels in three places and hang them up right."

Music and Law

Wick was born Charles Zwick, but by 1944, when the guys in his Cleveland band were routinely calling out "Hey Wick!," he had it changed. "In show business, in those days particularly, a little easier name was always the thing you did," he says. He grew up Jewish, the son of a successful Cleveland businessman, but Wick says he never gave his religion "any more thought than math or science." Now he doesn't feel "any empathy with any organized religion," although his wife, a Protestant, taught Sunday school in California.

Tommy Dorsey noticed Wick in Cleveland, and soon Wick, who had received a law degree from Case-Western Reserve University, went to New York as Dorsey's music arranger and lawyer. Next was California, first as an agent at William Morris, then as a personal manager. One client was band singer Frances Langford. "He was wonderful," Langford recalls. "A diplomat, really." They only had one fight, she remembers: "When I didn't want to wear a certain dress that he thought I should. I think I won out, but I'm not sure."

It was with Frances Langford's husband, Ralph Evinrude of the boat motors, that Wick coproduced "Snow White and the Three Stooges." "I had become very friendly with the Three Stooges," he recalls. "and they were telling me that despite their tremendous success, they owned no residual rights to all those comedies. So I said, 'Listen. I wrote this story for my kids. See what you think of it.' And they thought it was tremendous. So I said, 'I tell you what, I'll put up the dough.' "

By the early '60s, Wick was investing heavily in real estate, commodities and United Convalescent Hospitals, a nursing home chain that he and Evinrude founded. He sold them to Hillhaven Inc. in 1971. "It needed more professional management, particularly from the business side," recalls Daniel Baty, Hillhaven president. United Convalescent had run at a loss in three of the five previous years.

By 1979, Wick's primary job was getting Reagan elected. He had never been a political friend like Holmes Tuttle or Justin Dart. "When we were in really terrible financial trouble, Charlie was moving heaven and earth," remembers Helene von Damm, then the Northeast regional finance director and now special assistant to the president.

There were problems with Reagan inaugural tickets. Three thousand people received refunds for tickets they had already bought, some complaining that Wick and his wife had resold them to friends and VIPs. Wick had a private investigating firm check it out, which found "no intent or partiality" on the part of those involved in ticket allocation.

Soon after, Wick and Dart started the "Coalition for a New Beginning," a group of businessmen who would raise money and support for Reagan. After complaints came in that the coalition was strong-arming the business community, the White House rapidly disbanded it. The kitchen cabinet left town, and has rarely been heard from since.

The Washington Whirl

The Wicks live at the Watergate, renting an apartment for $1,800 a month. They go out a lot. Recently, Wick had Phyllis Kaminsky phone a reporter with some specific entertainment information.

"He overlooked the fact that he pays for most of the official entertaining out of his own pocket," she said. "He had a Christmas party for the agency, where 1,000 people came. He picked up the tab for that. He was also the star performer; he played the piano. And he specifically mentioned a dinner he gave at Blair House for the Korean American Foundation that ran several thousand dollars."

Still, he's not entirely sold on Washington. "Everything is accentuated at a greater level of consciousness than maybe somewhere else," he says. "Because it's not just the city of Washington, it's the citadel of the communications empire . . . anywhere else, you don't have a lot of people in the media probing in everything you do unless you're a public figure. You go about your business. If you do something unethical, your friends may know about it, or others, and it's just a small circle. But it doesn't become syndicated and magnified by the intense circulation in the press of that kind of thing."

He's asked over lunch if he likes living here.

"Please," he says, "I'm eating."

Then he smiles. "Just a gag."