The government of South Korea has just cracked down on Kim Dae Jung, its most famous and popular dissident politician. It has also arrested 100 Koreans who signed a petition for the direct election of the president.
Does that make Korea look good? Well, not so you'd notice it.
And yet Korea's president, Chun Doo Hwan, has retained the best -- or at least the hottest -- flack in the business, Ronald Reagan's confidante and image-maker, Michael K. Deaver, who gets $2 million from the folks in Seoul to make them look good.
Did Deaver, who piloted the president through some choppy water in the first term, call up his clients and say, "Listen, it really doesn't look good to barricade Kim in his house and throw soldiers around it and make his wife go to church in a police car. I'm trying to sell you as an emerging democracy, and you're not helping"? Anybody could have told him that for nothing.
We don't know what Deaver does for his $2 million. He declines to say. But we are free to speculate. Did he tell Chun to call off his goons and did Chun tell him to mind his own business? What does a high-priced Washington public relations firm, staffed with former campaign aides, do for its customers?
We certainly know what it shouldn't do. It's what Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly did for Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos during his recent reelection campaign. Did they advise Marcos to go for it and never mind the niceties? Or did they content themselves with getting him on "Nightline?"
Again we don't know. All we are sure of is that the company run by political operatives -- Paul Manafort was Reagan's convention director in 1980 and 1984 -- received $950,000 for its efforts -- although Marcos' name is now mud in the free world, except, intermittently, with its leader, Reagan.
Did Manafort prevail upon the president to make his startling news conference utterance that "both sides" had cheated and that nothing really mattered save the U.S. military bases -- a statement revised by "spokesmen" two days later? It could have been Reagan's instinct; he's crazy about "stable governments," although he is trying to overthrow a couple.
Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly, however, show what a hard-breathing firm can do for a client when the wind is right. The visit of Angolan rebel Jonas Savimbi was a triumph.
Savimbi was put out of business 10 years ago by the Clark Amendment forbidding U.S. covert activity in Angola. He has changed his position on communism as often as Reagan has switched his on the Philippines, but the right wing is mad about him, and his PR firm staged an extravaganza worthy of a world dignitary. He had two long sit-downs with the secretary of state, who once opposed helping him, a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), dinner with GOP senators and, to cap it all, an Oval Office photo-op and a news conference with a White House backdrop.
Sometime during the visit, the decision to give him $15 million in covert aid was made. It was announced during a Senate hearing by Assistant Secretary of State for African affairs Chester A. Crocker. It was ten-strike.
It was an easy job, like arranging a welcome for Princess Diana at a London pub, but it was extremely well done and worth every penny of the $600,000 it cost the big jungle-fighter.
No one is sure whether these highly paid firms are making foreign policy a la Reagan or just making money. They could in the process make the State Department obsolete. Most of their business is in arranging tricky trade deals. How much political counsel changes hands will have to await some distant congressional hearings.
Columnist William Safire, once a White House insider, sees "an excess of access."
Tom Mathews, an old campaign hand and partner in the direct-mail firm of Craver, Mathews and Smith, says that many countries who are insecure because they are small or doing something awful -- or both -- "will do anything to get an Indian guide in the maze of Washington."
"It's access, not advice, they want. Once they've hired a former presidential aide, they feel they have a greater latitude. They don't need to worry about public opinion. They have someone who can call up the White House," Mathews added.
We have to ask ourselves what Marcos and Chun might have done differently if they hadn't had Deaver or Manafort whispering to them. Probably nothing, which suggests that the firms are reinforcing Reagan and helping him circumvent the sometimes wimpy State Department. If you approve the "privatization" of foreign policy, you have to love what's going on.