BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. In a speech on Thursday, the President laid out once again his strategy for defeating the enemy in the War on Terror. Part of it is this:
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: We're making our case through public diplomacy, stating clearly and confidently our belief in self-determination and the rule of law and religious freedom and equal rights for women, beliefs that are right and true in every land and in every culture. [AUDIENCE APPLAUSE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: To that end, last week the State Department's new Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy, Karen Hughes, traveled to the Middle East, stopping in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Hughes is the third in a succession of "hearts-and-minds czars" appointed by the President, and she seems to be following in their less than successful footsteps. Last week her attempts to appeal to Arab women by repeatedly defining herself as a "working mom" fell on skeptical ears when she addressed audiences more concerned with America's foreign policy than one Texas mother's time management issues. America, home to a multi-billion-dollar advertising industry, can't seem to sell itself. This week, Slate columnist Fred Kaplan wrote that Hughes could make better use of her time if she spent it searching for someone who could better represent America in the Arab world, someone comfortable with its language and traditions, someone who gets the religion and the jokes - in other words, the American equivalent of former Soviet spokesman Vladimir Posner. Posner, you may remember, was the commentator/mouthpiece who appeared on American television throughout the '80s. At the time, he was working for State TV in Moscow, but when American news shows called for the Soviet perspective, most frequently ABC's Nightline, he answered. Having spent his boyhood in America, he defended Soviet policies in flawless American English with easy American charm. For a while, he was omnipresent, and damn, was he good!
VLADIMIR POSNER: The success was a combination of my believing in what I was saying and in being able to communicate that in a language that was understandable to the American viewer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And if the Communist Party or the Soviet leadership didn't like it, then you wouldn't have been appearing on American television.
VLADIMIR POSNER: No doubt about that. As a matter of fact, the then-Soviet Ambassador, Mr. Dobrynin, who was ambassador for 25 years to the United States, kept sending, as I later found out, telegrams praising how well I did. So that, that's the only reason why I was able to do that. And by the way, I wasn't allowed to travel. I was not allowed out of the Soviet Union for 38 years, which is a hell of a long time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, as I mentioned, Slate suggested this week that Karen Hughes ought to be seeking an American you. Do you agree?
VLADIMIR POSNER: Well, I'll tell you what. What I was doing was propaganda. And what Karen Hughes is doing is propaganda. And I've come to the conclusion that propaganda doesn't work unless it has a basis. You know, in Russian there's a - there's a wonderful saying which, roughly translated, means, you know, don't be mad at the mirror if you have an ugly face. And if you do have an ugly face, then it really doesn't matter how much propaganda effort you put into trying to make the face look nice. You can use cosmetics, but that's not going to last for a long time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You actually ran into that problem because despite your best efforts you couldn't persuasively defend, say, the invasion of Afghanistan, and I know you tried.
VLADIMIR POSNER: I certainly could not. And I tried to stay away from that subject. As a matter of fact, I did say once that it was something we would regret. As a result, I was taken off the air, not allowed to go back for over a year, and I was on the brink of being fired.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In presenting you, they had the very, very best advocate.
VLADIMIR POSNER: Yes, they did. And it still didn't work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Karen Hughes, however, isn't a good advocate, it seems, at least, her initial reviews. So should she be finding someone who spent formative years in the Arab world who speaks the Arab language, who will get their jokes, and so on?
VLADIMIR POSNER: The answer to that is both yes and no. Yes, short term. But the bottom line is this. Is this person actually presenting the United States as it really is? If it's a truthful thing, then it's going to work. But if it's propaganda, which is always at least partly a lie, then it's not going to work. Although, I repeat, if it's someone who knows the Arab world, knows the idiom, knows how to talk to people, initially it'll be more successful. You know, as someone who's gone through this and someone who regrets having done what he's done, and who spent many, many years of his life, and I think probably the best years of my life, doing something that was wrong, I say it just isn't worth it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, last month the State Department's Advisory Committee on Cultural Diplomacy issued a report that the White House apparently has decided not to release. It was a mostly Republican panel, but it criticized the White House for bungling opportunities to foster communication in the Arab world, for spending money in the wrong places, among other things. It also stated very strongly that more exchanges between artists and cultural figures would help a lot. Now, during the Cold War, much has been made of Willis Conover's jazz programs on Voice of America. Do you think it's as important, as this panel apparently does, more writers and artists getting together, more translations in both directions and so on?
VLADIMIR POSNER: No, I don't, and let me tell you why. During the worst years of the Cold War, the Bolshoi Ballet came to the United States many times. The Moiseyev Ensemble of Russian Folk Dance came many times. And everyone said, "This is absolutely magnificent," but it did not change the image of the Soviet Union. Everyone said, "Yes, they have wonderful ballet, yes, they have great folk music but nonetheless it's an oppressive, totalitarian, aggressive society." And there were no artists who could change that view. You know, you can send great musicians - and America, God, has plenty of those - but that does not change the basic understanding of what America's about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what, in your view, has the U.S. done well and done poorly in terms of winning hearts and minds abroad?
VLADIMIR POSNER: The high point, in my opinion at least, of America's image abroad was the years of President Roosevelt, who was seen as not only an outstanding statesman but someone who embodied the American ideal, the American ideal that goes back to the Declaration of Independence, to the great democratic basis of what America's supposed to be about. The other period was, of course, Kennedy. He was for people all over the world, including the Soviet Union, the representative of what America was about. And when he was assassinated, I remember very well that people here in Moscow - and this was not the best period of relationship between the two countries - people were weeping in the streets, because this was the America that people wanted to believe in. And you can send a million Karen Hughes' all over the world but if it's a different America, then [CLEARS THROAT] it's not going to work. People are more intelligent, I think, than governments understand. They understand the difference between propaganda and reality. Willis Conover did great jazz shows, and there were a lot of people here who loved jazz, and that was it. That's, you know, end of story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you said something else that I don't think we should pass by. The most persuasive public diplomat of any nation would be its leader.
VLADIMIR POSNER: Yes, because that leader would reflect or embody the country at that given time. If you have a Brezhnev or, in my opinion, a Bush, it's just not going to work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So - and I'm going to pass on the Brezhnev/Bush correlation - looking to the future, what would you do?
VLADIMIR POSNER: Let me slightly change that question, and - [OVERTALK]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sure.
VLADIMIR POSNER: - and I'll tell you why. Recently a decision was taken in Russia to create a television broadcasting facility which is going to be called "Russia Today," which is going to broadcast to the world in English so as to change the image of Russia. It is a hopeless endeavor. Unless the country changes, that whole thing is money down the toilet. So what I would say to you is until people see America as a different kind of country, no amount of propaganda is going to affect them. It has to be done first at home, and only after that will it affect people abroad.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Vladimir Posner joined us on the phone from his home in Moscow. Thank you very much.
VLADIMIR POSNER: Thank you. It was a pleasure. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]