At 3:30 a.m. Tuesday, Edward J. van Kloberg III was awakened by a call from Nancy Doe in London. The wife of Liberian President Samuel K. Doe, holed up in his fortified mansion in Monrovia with 500 troops holding off a rebel army, was checking in with her husband's public relations man.

Communications have been cut. An American fleet is lying off the coast. The city's eastern suburbs echo with the sound of artillery. A key U.S. official says it's "highly doubtful" that Doe can hold on.

"I was urging Mrs. Doe," van Kloberg says, "to tell her husband through the State Department that perhaps it was time to leave the country in view of the deteriorating situation."

The State Department has offered to extricate him, but Doe has not decided. And Mrs. Doe, it turns out -- along with their son Chayee, a university student in Washington -- doesn't want him to leave.

"They fear for their tribe," says van Kloberg. "If he leaves, they'll be slaughtered. If he stays and retreats to his homeland, then he can protect his tribe."

It's quite a dilemma, but nothing new for van Kloberg.

A couple of weeks ago, with the rebels still 35 miles from the capital, van Kloberg was chattering happily about his new $800,000 public relations contract with Doe. It's a hard sell, he explained, what with the civil war going on and a key committee chairman in Congress calling Doe "a disgrace ... a clown ... corrupt."

Still, if anybody can do it, van Kloberg thinks he's the one.

"I really believe that this man is genuinely concerned about his people," he says with a big salesman's grin and the kind of drawled accent generally described, for a New York boy anyway, as Fake English.

Sitting in one of the Jockey Club's red leather banquettes, van Kloberg, a rather plump man, tucks into his grilled veal paillard (32.9 grams protein, 248 calories on the diet menu). Allegations that Doe's soldiers have been robbing, killing and raping civilians, he acknowledges, have been a problem.

But, as he explains brightly, "in these kinds of countries they don't have control over security forces all the time. ... It's a little different from our Republicans and Democrats. It's an advanced stage of savagery."

He brushes off the criticisms of Doe by Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), who as chairman of the foreign operations subcommittee has led a successful effort to slash foreign aid to Liberia, with the countercharge that Obey is conducting a "personal crusade" against Doe.

Of course, it doesn't help any that former master sergeant Doe, described in a van Kloberg press release as "a staunch ally of the United States," took power in a bloodbath. President William Tolbert and 27 others were killed in the 1980 coup.

Apparently not one to forgive easily, Doe then had 13 more enemies of the government tied to poles on the Atlantic shore and shot to death in full view of reporters, who described it in shocking detail.

"Nobody can forget that," says van Kloberg, shaking his head. "That's what {Col. Desire} Bouterse in Suriname did with 15," he adds, referring to another client. "He shot them all, supposedly shot them in the mouth, and then cut off their testicles."

Another hard sell.

A woman rushes up and plugs in a telephone at van Kloberg's table. On the line is an aide who has just received a call from Doe concerning his impending "Nightline" appearance. Van Kloberg goes over "talking points" that Doe will need to keep in mind and then gets to the crucial matter of whether the president "should wear native garb, or a suit. We've stressed he shouldn't wear a military uniform because {rebel leader Charles} Taylor always appears with a gun, in battle fatigues."

It's decided that Doe would go with "native garb."

"That's the kind of trust that you must have with clients," says van Kloberg after the call. "... It becomes personal. That's the motto of our firm, 'The Personal Touch.' "

It's all in a day's work for van Kloberg & Associates, which, as a mid-size public relations firm with 14 full-time employees at its L Street office, represents seven foreign countries and several U.S. firms in Congress, at the White House and on the Washington social circuit.

"I represent President Mobutu {Sese Seko} of Zaire," says the boss proudly. "I have the 'Beast of Baghdad,' President Saddam Hussein of Iraq." Mobutu, according to Obey, is "the most successful thief in the world." Hussein, who is developing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, appeared on the June 4 cover of U.S. News & World Report as "THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN THE WORLD."

Van Kloberg calls Mobutu the "peacemaker of Africa," and he's upset with Obey because he "referred in public hearings to President Mobutu as a 'turkey.' How nasty this stuff gets! That's not only unprofessional, it's undignified. ... {Mobutu} has his good points, he has his bad points. ... At Lubumbashi {on May 11}, unfortunately, there were some student riots, reports of 120 to 150 killed. Mobutu didn't order those killings."

In any case, he contends the death toll "was far less than that."

With clients like these, Doe is nothing special.

"Everybody claims he's illiterate," says van Kloberg. "He's not illiterate. {One reporter} called me and said, 'You know, I was just amazed, he's not a beast. He's rational! He's calm.' "

The lobbyist takes another bite of veal.

"Would you like to talk to him?"

Chat With a Client

"Hello," says President Doe, flatly, his voice humming electronically across the miles from the west coast of Africa. At that point Taylor and his insurgent National Patriotic Front had vowed that Doe would be killed if he didn't step down, which the president had said he would not do until the 1991 elections. Meanwhile, Doe had hastily embarked on a series of reforms ("he declared multi-party democracy yesterday," van Kloberg says hopefully) in an effort to save his neck.

Doe says he is happy with van Kloberg's "hard-working" approach, which has already been "very effective" in getting "the real facts" across to Americans about the situation in the small country founded by freed American slaves in 1822. (Although a technical glitch prevented his planned live appearance on "Nightline," a pre-recorded interview with him was substituted.)

He allows as how he could have used a lobbyist a long time ago. "We've had a long-standing relation with your country," he says, "and because of that we did not engage ourselves in having a lobbyist group. It did a lot of harm before we realized it. ... Most of the good things, the Congress doesn't know about."

With $800 million in national debts and rice and gasoline running low in Monrovia, Doe is asked how Liberia can afford van Kloberg's services. He sidesteps, saying that the lobbyist is such "a good man" that "whether it is expensive or not, we are going to hire him." As for Obey's criticism, "I have not met him, so how can he condemn me and say things against me? ... Mr. van Kloberg will get to know the man {Obey}. ... People here know I'm not a bad man. I'm not corrupt. I don't think he can prove that I'm corrupt. I own no property in America, I own no property in Europe, or in the capital, except for my house."

And so on.

"Thank you, Mr. President!" van Kloberg booms into the receiver at the end of the call, which he had arranged for Doe to make to the reporter.

While Doe says that he planned reforms "even before" hiring van Kloberg, the lobbyist says he pressed the president to make them -- taking, in effect, an active policy role with Doe. "We give advice," says van Kloberg. "I mean, we are a member of their team, but we're also working for the United States, and in the best interests of both sides. They can say to me what they can't say to the United States side, the United States can say to me what they can't say there, and we look for a middle road."

Doe's June 18 announcement of "multi-party democracy," for example, was a van Kloberg idea.

"The good thing about hiring a lobbyist," says van Kloberg's senior partner, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico Joseph John Jova, who has accompanied his boss to the reporter's office, "is that Doe can position himself to take the credit." But if the president admitted this publicly, Jova says, "he'd be emasculating himself."

"We've worked with him on recommendations," says van Kloberg with a twinkle in his eye. "You can't say that you sit there and browbeat them, although we certainly call a lot."

A senior State Department official, who asked not to be identified, says van Kloberg is "very responsible. If we suggest to him he should back off on an issue, or suggest a course of action, he'll take that course of action. It's not confrontational. It's a collaborative type of arrangement." U.S. policy in Liberia, the official says, is aimed at "conflict resolution. We're not supporting either side at this point, we'd just like to see the killing stop. ... Taylor is no jewel, either."

Van Kloberg, who had tried to get the Liberian account for five years, finally succeeded when Doe found himself in deep trouble. He visited Monrovia May 28 through June 2, met Doe several times, and faxed the signed 19-month contract -- covering government, media and public relations -- back to the Justice Department's Foreign Agents Registration Act office in Washington.

"When I arrived," says van Kloberg, "the pack of reporters had been making requests to see Doe for five months. The minister of information never passed these on, and of course Taylor was having the press in the bush all the time. The government didn't even seem to know that the press was there. It was crazy!"

As Doe began seeing the press, he began making reforms. He set up a human rights commission. Started voter registration for the 1991 elections. Asked the United Nations to observe. Announced he wouldn't run.

"All the things," says van Kloberg, "that his critics say should have been done a long time ago."

Indeed, this week it seemed all efforts of Doe and van Kloberg were going to be too little, too late.

"The thinking is," van Kloberg said Tuesday, "he might last from two to five days."

The Social Worker

Van Kloberg, 48, began his rise in Washington public relations in 1980, founding his own firm after a long administrative career at American University. A suave, energetic bachelor, he made it a point to work the social scene, entertaining frequently and appearing at parties around town in the company of socialites.

When former District of Columbia mayor Walter Washington and his wife, Bennetta, showed up with Mayor Marion Barry and his wife, Effi, to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Consumer Health Services of America in 1981, the joint appearance was so unusual that Frances Humphrey Howard, sister of the late Hubert Humphrey, said van Kloberg "brought together even those the Lord could not bring together."

"Socializing is part of the job," he says, "and I enjoy it." He also throws weekly breakfasts at the Jockey Club that have given clients and others a chance to meet members of Congress such as Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), Rep. Mervyn Dymally (D-Calif.) and Rep. Edward F. Feighan (D-Ohio), all members of foreign relations committees.

The son of an engineer in New York City who attended Rider College in Lawrenceville, N.J., van Kloberg first came to Washington to do graduate work in history at AU, and still lives in an apartment near the campus. He became a lecturer, then an administrator, working his way up to become dean of admissions, financial aid and veterans affairs. He was swept out in 1978, along with a number of other members of the old guard, by the university's new president, Richard Berendzen.

Van Kloberg had been liaison to the university's board of trustees, befriending many prominent members who later helped him get back on his feet. One of them, Bennetta Washington, helped van Kloberg become senior vice president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, a job in which he met many visiting African heads of state and other foreign dignitaries.

After starting his public relations firm, he soon found that he was having a tough time making ends meet. In what he termed an act of "desperation" to save the business, he falsified letters of support -- supposedly from the ambassadors of several foreign countries -- to obtain a $60,000 bank loan. He plead guilty and was sentenced to five years' probation and 100 hours of community service by a federal judge in 1984.

"I took the blame for something that happened," he says of the matter. "It was an unfortunate incident, and I'm sorry it happened."

Believing that "every country is entitled to representation," van Kloberg came to have many controversial clients. "PRESIDENT DOE OF LIBERIA CALLS FOR PEACE," his press releases say, or "ZAIRE'S TRANSITION TO DEMOCRACY." The firm even represented the late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, and van Kloberg is still trying to hang on to that account, recently issuing a press release headed "FOREIGN MINISTER OF ROMANIA INVITES U.N. OBSERVERS TO MAY 20TH ELECTIONS."

"We have friendly relations with the new embassy people," he says. "We have a proposal before them, and I guess the question is whether a retread tire is better than a new one. They're very strange people."

He also has "some good clients, heh heh heh. We have some clients that are less controversial. Niger, for example, is one of our clients. This is a very interesting, different kind of story: They have issued a stamp in honor of {the late Rep.} Mickey Leland."

As for the "difficult" ones, he says, "Everybody blames you. 'How can you represent these people?' Yet these people have the right to be represented. You can't order countries around and tell them what to do. ... We always think we're working for the people. I think that I'm working for the people of Liberia. ... And we worked for Romania all those years, we were working for the people of Romania. You could not defend Mr. Ceausescu, but you could defend religious liberty. Billy Graham had the largest crusades in Eastern Europe in Romania."

His working theory goes like this:

"If President Mobutu is guiding his nation to multi-party democracy," he says, "I think we have to give him a chance. People think it's only his way of staying in power longer. He's already been in power 30 years. Of course these guys want to hold on, but why not work with him, give him the benefit of the doubt, and try to lock him into his own reforms? Stay in touch, keep the door open."

"This is what we've been telling people on the Hill," says Anthony S. Dalsimer, director of the State Department's Office of Central African Affairs, when asked about van Kloberg's theory. He says that Secretary of State James A. Baker and others "pushed Mobutu very hard to move to liberalizing, democratizing his regime, and Mobutu has begun the process whether he wants to or not. ... And for his critics to not give him any time for things to develop and see what happens is unfortunate."

"Baloney," says Obey. "Lookit, I believe in many instances incentives work. But in the case of these turkeys, sooner or later you just say the hell with it. It's just beyond the pale. I will be damned if I will continue to allow a clown like Mobutu to rip off American taxpayers or his own people with our help. He's amassed a personal fortune estimated at $6 billion. His goons go in and massacre 100 to 150 kids. This {current foreign aid} bill would have no credibility at all if we allow any aid to run through this government. This guy is the most successful thief in the world."

Accordingly, Obey's subcommittee sent the bill to the full appropriations committee with a prohibition on military aid to Zaire and a requirement that all development assistance must move through private voluntary organizations, not the government -- the toughest requirements on aid to Zaire in recent memory.

Van Kloberg pooh-poohs Obey's concerns, saying that Mobutu "has held the country together and been an American ally."

As for Liberia, van Kloberg had hoped that the war would be brought to an end and Doe would survive at least until the elections late next year. After all, his fee was to be paid, according to government filings, in two $150,000 installments this year and two $250,000 installments next.

"If all this mediation doesn't work," he had said reflectively at the Jockey Club, "and they do start fighting again, then you can sit back and remember this lunch.

"And you can also wonder why Doe didn't listen to the Americans {in the State Department} telling him, for years, to get a lobbyist."