Tuesday, May 03, 2005

RIP, Baron Edward Von Kloberg III, 1942-2005

Edward Von Kloberg is dead. The former public relations man to Saddam Hussein and Mobutu Sese Seko, while on vacation in Rome, leapt to his death from the parapet of a castle, a State Department spokesman said late last night. A suicide note written by the self described "Washington representative to the damned" was found at the scene, but has not yet been made public.

Speculation as to why Von Kloberg might have killed himself revolved around the fact that he was in failing health. My surmise is that his conscience finally caught up with him.

That last comment might appear on its face to be somewhat cruel and insensitive, considering my words have been written so soon after his passing. But before anyone jumps on me for my insensitivity (We don't want a headline in the New York Post declaring "Bloggers Decry One of Their Own for his Incivility", do we?) I should say I knew Edward Von Kloberg quite well. Well enough to know that if he were here now reading this post, he would almost certainly heartily laugh, and say as he was apt to do, when we spent time together, "Well said, young man... Well said, indeed!"

The only story that I have found so far online about his death, is this one appearing on the front page of tomorrow morning's Washington's Post, the lede of which says:

"As part of Washington's image machinery for more than two decades, Edward Von Kloberg III did his best to sanitize some of the late 20th century's most notorious dictators as they sought favors and approval from U.S. officials."

The Post is right to say that Von Kloberg was paid the big bucks by his foreign clients-- several of whom were mass murderers and war criminals-- to "sanitize" their image among U.S. policy makers. (In fairness to Von Kloberg client Saddam Hussein, the since deposed Iraqi dictator has been indicted for war crimes, but has not yet stood trial.) But the Post in its front page tribute to Von Kloberg need not "sanitize" his life the way he sanitized the misdeeds of his clients.

(Update: Several bloggers have since chided the Post for sanitizing Von Kloberg's life. This particular blogger called the Post's front page story a "odd obituary", adding: "[Post reporter] Adam Bernstein shouldn't be writing paeans to a man like Von Kloberg. The Post should be writing exposes to shame [such men] back into the shadows.")

As someone who personally knew Von Kloberg quite well, I believe that inside the man whose life was spent white washing the worst of humanity was a truth teller trying to escape.

I now imagine him once again reading these very words, sitting across from me at the dinner table at the Jockey Club, as I blog in real time, declaring emphatically, as he often did when we met: "Well said, young man. Well said, indeed!" (Would they allow you to bring a laptop into the Jockey Club? Blogging would be banned in such a place, I would think. I dunno.) I have to admit that I rather enjoyed his company on such occasions, liked the man, and disliked myself for liking him. I still like him so much (and will sorely miss him) that I now dislike myself for writing here so truthfully about him. (Enough for self loathing blogging!)

The Post also writes of him: "Von Kloberg embraced the slogan `shame is for sissies' as well as an unabashedly Edwardian style of living. He arrived at balls and galas wearing black capes, and he traveled with steamer trunks. He added the name `Von' because it sounded distinguished. (I do not know whether Von Kloberg was a real life Baron as he claimed, but I will find out, and update my post.)

"His voice, said one friend, was marked by an `almost Rooseveltian, high class accent.' He drove enormous black cars and draped foreign medals (Zaire's Order of the Leopard among them) across his tuxedo. At night, he sported one of two favorite black capes: one with red lining, the other with the print of doves."

Even in death he was over the top: He flung himself in full fury off the parapet of the Castel Sant' Angelo in Rome. This was the very same site of Tosca's suicide in the Puccini opera. Italian newspapers have speculated that he was distraught after a failed reconciliation with his Lithuanian gay lover. (His family believes that failing health also played a role.)

Von Kloberg adopted a persona so thoroughly convincing that it was difficult for even him, I think, over time to know where the persona ended and the real person began, until one fully become the other. One evening at the Jockey Club, I noticed he was not eating, when he confided that he had already had dinner with someone else just before me, and when we were done, he was going to have a third dinner with yet someone else. Despite such a social calendar, I believe deep down that he was a very lonely man. Perhaps it is because I just want to think the best of him, hold on to any reason at all really to think well of him, that I can believe that he was so needy and lonely that his late nights drinking brandy with Mobutu were the result of a Clintonesque fear of being alone for even a single moment.

(I think I should just stop romanticizing this not-so-nice man. I feel horrible on the one hand about saying unkind things about someone I know who just died, and yet so even more guilty about romanticzing him. What to do?! What to do? I will do both! In typical blogger "tradition"-- LOL-- I am sharing my every thought with my readers as they pop into my head-- in real time!-- once again begging the question: "Is this a blog or a parody of blogs and blogging?")

Von Kloberg was indeed every bit as theatric as his last notices have portrayed him. The capes, steamer trunks, even the flinging himself off the parapet of a castle from a Puccini opera, spoke of a man who although was not always openly sexually gay was clearly culturally gay. He was tolerated by conservative Republican friends (as he tolerated them, and sadly tolerated their prejudice) even as they openly expressed their hatred of gays. They explained away the black capes he wore with red lining and the prints of doves as only the sign of an eccentric man.

(One can only imagine how Saddam Hussein or Mobutu Sese Seko would have reacted if they knew their American propagandist and confidant was gay. In Mobutu's case, one might also further consider how betrayed the murderous tyrant might have felt, that after having awarded Von Kloberg Zaire's "Order of the Leopard", his American friend would utilize the medal as a gay kitsch fashion accessory.)

But his flamboyant behavior, such as his adopting "Von" as his middle name, also had another use. It was the sign of a consummate confidence man. Among other things, he had once pleaded guilty to faking letters of support from two ambassadors, both of whom were clients, to obtain a $60,000 bank loan. He received five years probation and 100 hours of community service for that one. (Even Saddam Hussein was at one time a mark, as I will explain shortly.)

On another occasion, when a new Pakistani ambassador arrived in town, she received a letter from Von Kloberg welcoming her and soliciting her business. In the letter, Von Kloberg claimed that the partners in his firm included four former members of Congress, a former mayor of Washington D.C., and a couple of ambassadors. The only problem was that three of them turned out to never have had any association whatsoever with Von Kloberg. One, former Rep. Edward Feighan, Democrat of Ohio, was so infuriated that he sued Von Kloberg for $3.5 million alleging "wrongful appropriation of [his] name."

The faking of letters of two clients to obtain a bank loan was not the only time he betrayed a client. This particular incident has not been previously reported until now (An investigative reporter's heart still beats in this blogger body): When he represented Saddam Hussein, according to Foreign Agents Regisration records Von Kloberg himself filed with the Department of Justice, he billed the since deposed Iraqi dictator for several op-eds in the New York Times and other newspapers that advocated a U.S. tilt towards Iraq in its longstanding conflict with the ayatollahs of Iran. Von Kloberg took credit for the op-eds, and asked to be, and was, compensated for each and every one by Saddam. The authors of the op-eds, all of them (including a then-Congressman) told me that they had never heard of Von Kloberg. One was more amused than angry, telling me: "I guess everyone has to find a way to make a living."

Baron Edward Von Kloberg III defrauded Saddam Hussein. Who is to say that was a good thing or a bad thing? Von Kloberg was fortunate that I never wrote about the incident (by way of explanation, there are always too many good stories competing for the interest of most journalists, including me, and this one didn't pass muster). But what if I had written the story? Would any jury have convicted him? Would prosecutors even have considered charging him with a crime? Absent justice by other means, would Saddam Hussein have somehow found his way to the Small Claims branch of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia?

When I confronted Von Kloberg about this con, he simply laughed, telling me: "If I was doing my job for Saddam Hussein, you would condemn me for that as well, wouldn't you? Maybe it is best that I not do my job so well all the time." It was difficult for me to argue the point.

But let it not be said that there were often times he did produce results for his clients. In 1989 and 1990, Rep. Dan Burton, Republican of Indiana, inserted lengthy statements into the Congressional Record praising Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Around that time, Von Kloberg had paid Burton $4,000 in honorarium for giving talks to his clients. (Can one imagine how Dan Burton, the congressional inquisitor would react, if Bill Clinton had praised a foreign tyrant like Mobutu after receiving speaking fees from a registered lobbyist from the same said foreign dictator?) The Burton statements praising Mobutu, Von Kloberg boasted to me, were ghost written by Von Kloberg and his staff. Burton's office did not return calls seeking commnets regarding the allegations.

Von Kloberg was right when he said it was perhaps for the best that he not always do his job so well.

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