Politics, according to Christopher Hitchens, is show business for ugly people. That being so, the ugly people need representation, and nobody built up an uglier clientele than Edward J. von Kloberg III. He was the Washington lobbyist for the dictatorial A-list: Ceaus¸escu of Romania, Mobutu of Zaire, Saddam of Iraq, Samuel Doe of Liberia, General Abacha of Nigeria, Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda, the Myanmar military junta … If you had enough blood on your hands, chances are you were on his books. Anyone can have an axis of evil, but von Kloberg had a full Rolodex of evil.
For a quarter century he was the William Morris Agency of global pariahs, and with clients like these you never had to say "Break a leg." He was the go-to guy for guys you wouldn't want to go near, the public-relations man for men who had little contact with the public until the palace guard opened fire on them and little interest in relations except when it came to figuring out which scheming brothers and cousins it would be prudent to bump off next. Few Beltway insiders had the ear of so many dictators. Not literally, of course: the men who had the ears of Samuel Doe were the fellows who sliced them off and then made him eat them. They kept his genitals for their own light supper, in the belief that the "powers" and "manhood" of a person are transferred to the person who's chowing down on his parts.
By the standards of President-for-Life Doe and many of his other clients, von Kloberg had a dignified end. Depressed after a failed reconciliation with his Lithuanian lover, he hurled himself from the Castel Sant' Angelo in Rome, the scene of Tosca's operatic suicide—although, unlike Tosca, he carried a magazine cover of himself with the first President Bush on the way down. Over the top in death as in life: "Tyrants' Lobbyist, Flamboyant To The End," said The Washington Post, "flamboyant" being the agreed euphemism. Perhaps it was the "flamboyance" that explained why he never clinched the deal with Robert Mugabe, the famously homophobic Zimbabwean strongman who has accused Tony Blair of being a "gay gangster" leading "the gay government of the gay United gay Kingdom," and prides himself on being able to spot "flamboyance" at 200 yards. But elsewhere among an African elite markedly antipathetic toward flamboyant Western gays, von Kloberg found many takers. He was the killers' queen. Mobutu awarded him Zaire's Order of the Leopard, and with decorations like that on your chest, flitting from one social event to another up and down the East Coast, you know that no one's likely to show in the same getup.
Few others worked so assiduously at turning totalitarian honors into gay kitsch. "I call it hardwear," he said at the Red Cross Ball in Palm Beach a few years back. "You can only wear four stars at a time, you can't repeat the same country, and you wear a star low on your jacket." He pointed to the next table, where the young male companion of an elderly lady had a star over his heart. "That gigolo over there is wearing it as a pin."
Larry Gelbart has an oft-quoted line about how if Hitler's still alive, he hopes he's on the road with a musical in trouble. Von Kloberg seemed like an addendum to the gag: if Hitler's musical was in trouble, this guy would be the press agent. He was a man with a foot in both camps, the military junta's camp and the screamingly camp. Even his name was oddly reminiscent of the faux Continentalism of Roger de Bris, director of Springtime for Hitler in the Mel Brooks hit The Producers. I don't know whether Roger's "de" was an affectation, but Edward's "von" voz. Edward J. von Kloberg III may have been the third Kloberg but he was the first "von" Kloberg, after a brief interregnum as the first "van" Kloberg.
The Almanach de Gotha touches were grafted on to make him sound more distinguished. He came to regret the hasty adoption of "van"—as in Dick van Dyke and other eminences—and decided that "von" was what he'd been looking for all along, and that he was, in fact, an authentic baron: "Baron Edward von Kloberg III," a "titled European in Washington," as The Washington Post once called him. Like Baron von Frankenstein, Baron von Kloberg favored black capes lined with red velvet when out on the tiles: von singular sensation, every little move he made. Like Van Johnson in In the Good Old Summertime, van Kloberg favored bow ties and straw boaters in the summer months. Did he mind being a flack for dictators? "Shame is for sissies," he said, in what would have made a good motto for most of his clients. They would have appreciated the whiff of self-invention, too.
Even if one has a mind to, how does a chap go about becoming a specialist in dictatorial representation? Kloberg, as he then was, was born in New York, educated at Princeton, and earned a master's degree from American University, where he stayed on for the next couple of decades, rising to dean of admissions. Then, in 1982, he set up shop as a PR man and never looked back. Within months he numbered among his clients the governments of Syria, Panama, and Lesotho. Or at least that's what he told the bank when applying for a $60,000 loan. When it turned out that the references on embassy letterheads were forgeries, the FBI was called in, and van Kloberg, as he then was, found himself facing the possibility of a $5,000 fine and two years in jail. But he gave a moving performance in court, explaining that his gambit had been born of his "desperation" to save his struggling firm and its eighteen employees—even in those days he favored dictator-size retinues. Van Kloberg got five years on probation, and did himself no harm with the kind of governments he was hoping to attract: forging ambassadors' letters to sucker a bank has the kind of panache that many totalitarian regimes like; similarly, the Soviets are said to have warmed up to Mengistu when he had his best general decapitated and the headless corpse ceremonially paraded through the streets of Ethiopia's second city. It's the willingness to go the extra mile that impresses discriminating dictators, and within a few months of his loan scam van Kloberg was proudly telling The Wall Street Journal that his firm "specializes in developing countries and Eastern European countries." That would be Saddam's Iraq and Ceaus¸escu's Romania.
His first big success was Surinam. After reading about its "bloody dictator" in one newspaper after another, van Kloberg wrote to Surinam's ambassador in Washington and successfully pitched his services. Within a year of signing with him the country had a new, democratically elected government. How closely these two events are connected depends on whose version you prefer. But van Kloberg worked hard at rehabilitating Surinam's image—setting up some harmless little photo ops, cornering key congressional figures, and telling the bloody dictator in question, Lieutenant Colonel Bouterse, what to say in his big speech to the UN. It was mostly a lot of boilerplate about the country's "marching toward democracy" as "the free and democratic Republic of Surinam," but it was a rare example of a dictator's taking dictation, and it encouraged van Kloberg in his view that he could be a force for good, wooing his unlovely clientele away from the dark side.
That's one view. An alternative is that these otherwise savvy dictators wound up with little to show for putting van/von on retainer. Like so many other flacks for problematic acts, he would promise network prime time and feature spreads in Vanity Fair, and in the end the clippings file would have little in it other than a few letters to the editor in non-major markets, invariably under Kloberg's own name or whichever variant of it he was using at the time. According to the U.S. government's Foreign Agents Registration records, he billed Saddam Hussein for several prominent op-eds that appeared in The New York Times. When the journalist Murray Waas called up the authors, none had heard of von Kloberg. Fraudwise, it's small beer next to Saddam and his oil-for-food racket. But even so, bilking the Baathists took some nerve. Von Kloberg was an expert at schmoozing friendless regimes into picking up the tab for his social life, a one-man oily-for-food program he kept running for two decades.
To modify Sir Thomas More, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world … but for Burma? Guatemala? To look at von Kloberg's client list is to wonder what was going through the minds of his later signings: Did they reject the schmuck down the street, who was representing Belgium and New Zealand, because it would be damaging to their image as reviled, blood-soaked thugs not to be represented by the town's No.1 pariah guy? Even more perplexing, signing with von Kloberg was usually a good indicator that a president-for-life was coming to the end of his term. Mobutu fell, and von Kloberg wrote a hagiographic eulogy for the papers, "The Mobutu I Billed"—sorry, my mistake, "The Mobutu I Knew." Then he promptly signed up the fellow who had deposed Mobutu—Laurent Kabila. Either it was a clerical error (Kabila had changed Zaire's name back to the Congo) or von Kloberg prided himself on being one of the few members of the Order of the Leopard who could change his spots.
But with the Cold War winding down, beleaguered despots figured they could use a spin doctor. They were trying to get with the beat, and he assured them he could teach 'em to dance the new steps. A charming host who seemed very lonely, he had contacts rather than friends, and in his isolation he gravitated to those more spectacularly isolated. He was never as influential as he claimed, nor even as wicked: pace von Kloberg, there are plenty of sissies with no shame, which is why many of his clients didn't want for pals in the State Department and other bastions of striped-pants foreign-policy "realism" whose unreality 9/11 blew apart. And those friends discreetly did far more for them than their flack's letters to the editor ever could. "E lucevan le stelle," Cavaradossi sings in Tosca, "How the stars seemed to shimmer … and a footstep skimmed over the sand." Edward von Kloberg skimmed lightly over as the sands ran out. He kept the show on the road longer than most of his clients.