AT FIRST BLUSH it seemed like a good idea. Morocco's King Hassan II was planning his first big visit to the disputed territory of the western Sahara -- scene of a 10-year-long guerrilla war with the Algerian-backed Polisario Front. The trip was to coincide with the annual celebrations marking the restoration of the monarchy in Morocco in 1956.
That would have been enough to draw me from Paris, where I am based, to Morocco. As an added incentive, Gray and Co., the Washington-based public-relations firm, was offering to make arrangements for an interview with the king and to follow the royal caravan to the Saharan capital of El Ayoun.
The situation offered the prospect of some good pieces. As it turned out, I didn't get to talk to Hassan II. The king's trip to the Sahara was postponed. And, the nearest I got to the war was the fabled tourist center of Marrakech, a considerable tourist center, on the other side of the Atlas Mountains.
Perhaps predictably, Gray and Co.'s attempt to persuade one of the world's few remaining absolute monarchs to comply with American public relations techniques ended in frustration. It was fascinating, nevertheless, to observe the collision of a highly organized public relations firm with the Third World and to watch the gradual disintegration of an elaborate "packaging" operation that included smooth-talking P.R. men, shiny "information kits" and the lure of interviews that never took place.
Day 1. Friday, March 1. The Royal Air Morocco flight from Paris is crammed with tourists and Moroccan workers returning home. On the tarmac of Marrakech airport, I spot a young man who looks like a caricature of a State Department official. He is wearing a gray suit and clutching a briefcase. The Gray and Co. representative, I presume.
Having spent much of my journalistic career battling my way past suspicious border guards of various nationalities, it is strangely disconcerting to be whisked past immigration control and customs. A copy of the king's autobiography, "The Challenge," and a folder of press releases about Morocco -- all written on light gray notepaper -- are thrust into my hands.
A chauffeur-driven car provided by "The Palace" is waiting outside the terminal building. I have made clear beforehand that The Washington Post insists on paying its own way as a matter of principle -- but it seems churlish not to accept the ride.
The Gray and Co. official, Steven Worth, announces that the royal trip to the western Sahara has been postponed until Tuesday. Instead of El Ayoun, the celebrations, known as the f.ete du trone, will now take place in Marrakech. Nobody seems to know the reason for the switch.
The good news, says Worth, is that His Majesty the King has definitely agreed to "an interview -- I mean audience" with me and a writer for The New York Times Magazine. The Palace, the fount of all decision-making in Morocco, is fixing appointments with other senior Moroccan officials from the prime minister downward. I will get the schedule tomorrow.
On arrival at my hotel, I run into a foreign ministry official who expresses surprise that I did not show up for a dinner, which I knew nothing about, the night before with His Excellency Abdellatif Filali, Morocco's newly appointed foreign minister and minister of information. It's the first I've heard that I was even invited.
Day 2. Saturday. The good news today is that Gray and Co. have set up an exclusive, on-the-record, "one-on-one" interview with the U.S. ambassador to Morocco, Joseph Verner Reed, Jr. which I could just as easily have arranged for myself. The bad news is that no Moroccan official will see me before I meet with the king. They are all, it seems, worried about being out of step with anything His Majesty may have to say later.
The adjective most frequently used in Morocco to describe Ambassador Reed is "flamboyant." A staunch Republican and former aide to David Rockefeller, whose previous ventures into diplomacy included helping to bring the shah of Iran to the United States for medical treatment, Reed is certainly not bashful about flying the flag.
He has renamed his official residence in Rabat the "Villa America" and added the Stars and Stripes to the sentry box outside. Extra-large U.S. pennants flutter from his official car -- a tank-like minibus known to cognoscenti as the "Reedmobile."
Reed's evident enthusiasm for Hassan II has aroused some suspicion in Congress: according to columnist Jack Anderson, the ambassador has been described as a "a 14- karat nitwit" by Sen. Thomas P. Eagleton (in a confidential letter to Secretary of State George P. Shultz) because of his "proprietary and possessive" references to the Moroccan monarch as "Our King."
At the ambassador's insistence, the interview billed as on-the-record by Gray and Co. is placed on background -- making it impossible to reveal what he said. Suffice it to say that there is much talk of the uncertain "shifting sands of Mahgreb politics" -- illustrated with a knowing glint in the eye accompanied by circular movements of outstretched hands in the manner of a fortune- teller hovering over a crystal ball.
Frustrated by Gray and Co.'s inability to set up the promised appointments with Moroccan officials, I decide to make my own. I ring Foreign Minister Filali who promises to call me back at my hotel after 6 p.m. and arrange a meeting.
The phone eventually rings in my hotel room at 7 p.m. It is the foreign ministry press official who tells me that his boss has been waiting for me since 5:30 p.m.; I must come right over. By the time I arrive, 10 minutes later, the minister can no longer see me. He is receiving the Egyptian ambassador with a message for the king from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Day 3. Sunday. The day of the f.ete du trone. Anybody who is anybody in Marrakech is making for the palace -- one of at least seven luxuriously appointed royal residences dotted around the kingdom. At the gateway, I bump into a frock-coated Ambassador Reed who tells me that Minister Filali is "very upset" that I missed the appointment.
I try to explain that the minister has no reason to be upset and there must have been some misunderstanding. "Quite a misunderstanding," the ambassador fumes as he leads a delegation that includes U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick and special presidential envoy Vernon A. Walters -- an old chum of the king from the days of the Word War II -- into a vast courtyard lined on all sides by tables groaning with food.
Gray and Co. has quite an operation here, I discover. The Gray delegation is led by gray-haired company chairman Robert K. Gray, a friend of President Reagan, and includes a television crew that is filming the entire proceedings. Gray is somewhat mysterious about the purpose of all this. I later learn that the company is handling this event in the hopes of landing the Moroccan government account -- and is in competition against another American P.R. firm.
Intrigued that Worth is still wearing the same gray suit in which he welcomed us to Morocco, my wife Lisa asks if it is required uniform for Gray and Co. employes. He explains that it isn't: unfortunately he packed only one suit. Our interview/audience with His Majesty, he adds, has now definitely been fixed for Monday evening.
Setting off to look for Minister Filali in the sea of flowing white djellabahs and yellow sandals that Moroccan officials have donned for the occasion, I bump into the foreign ministry press flack. Why, I ask him, was I not told about yesterday's 5:30 p.m. appointment with the minister? "Didn't I tell you?" he replies, looking perplexed. "I told someone."
We finally track Filali down. All smiles, he makes an appointment for 6 p.m. at his hotel.
At 6 p.m., I go over to Filali's hotel -- battling my way through crowds of festive Moroccans looking at a "fantasia" or mock cavalry charge in honor of the f.ete du trone. The appointment has been canceled and the minister has left word that I should attend a press briefing being given by the prime minister on the other side of town.
Day 4. Monday. There is an ominous rumor going round the international press corps: The king has put back his trip to the western Sahara yet again. Accustomed to this kind of procrastination, some of the more experienced Moroccan hands decide to get out of Marrakech while they can. Others sit around the hotel swimming pool, engaged in the Moroccan pasttime of waiting for the sovereign to make up his mind.
I am optimistically thinking up questions to put to Hassan II about U.S.-Moroccan relations and the war in the western Sahara in my hotel room when the phone rings. It's Worth. He sounds nervous. He's just come from the palace. There have been some "developments." Can I come downstairs?
It's evident that this corner of the Gray and Co. world -- a world of beautifully packaged press releases, media targets and clients in search of a brand new image -- has finally fallen apart. The trip to the western Sahara is off, at least until the weekend. There will be no interview with the king.
Pressed to explain the erratic behavior of his prospective royal client, Worth looks sheepish. He mumbles something about an article in The New York Times not finding royal favor.
Another spectacular party thrown by the royal palace -- in honor this time of the f.ete d'allegiance. Astride a black horse with gold hooves and gold reins, the king is receiving pledges of loyalty from his subjects. Ambassador Reed is letting out gasps of amazement at the expanse of white djellabahs enclosed in the palace walls. An embarrassed Gray insists that he will do his utmost to get the king to change his mind back again. "A commitment is a commitment," he says.
That evening, the telephone rings again. It's Worth, sounding happier now. The interview has been reinstated and will take place next day. I must be in my hotel room at 2 p.m. when I will be contacted by the king's private secretary, Minister Abdelfattah Frej.
Day 5. Tuesday. Two o'clock comes and goes -- as does 3 o'clock and 4 o'clock. At 4:30 p.m., Frej calls. I am to meet Foreign Minister Filali at 6 p.m. sharp at his hotel. What about the king, I ask, suspecting that something is again amiss. Filali will talk to you about that, Frej replies.
The elusive Filali shows up for this appointment -- but expresses bewildered amazement when I raise the question of the royal interview. Not only does he deny that the king ever agreed to receive me, he also claims that no request for an interview was submitted to the king by Gray and Co. on behalf of The Washington Post. If it had been, he would have known about it in his dual capacity as minister of foreign affairs and minister of information.
This is getting surreal. There are only two logical possibilities. Either Gray and Co. has misled me or they have been misled by the Moroccan government, which seems more likely. Filali suggests that I take part in a press facility trip to the Sahara due to leave on Wednesday -- but I have had enough. I decide to follow the example already set by the old Moroccan hands and pull out.
Postscript: On Wednesday, my office in Paris is called by the Moroccan embassy asking whatever happened to me. Their information is that I never showed up in Marrakech at all. Perhaps, after all, it was just a bad dream.
Post postscript: King Hassan II visited El Ayoun in mid-March, more than a week after the visit was originally scheduled.