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Leonard Marks, 90, leading adviser to Johnson

WASHINGTON -- Leonard H. Marks, a communications lawyer who headed the US Information Agency during the Vietnam War and was a leading figure in foreign policy and diplomatic organizations, died Aug. 11 at the Washington Home hospice. He had Parkinson's disease and was 90.

After working for the Federal Communications Commission, Mr. Marks started a private practice in 1946 that became one of Washington's premier communications law firms, Cohn & Marks.

President Johnson named Mr. Marks USIA director in 1965, based on his long representation of Lady Bird Johnson's Texas radio and television assets. Mr. Marks helped turn Mrs. Johnson's properties into immensely profitable media holdings, which were crucial to her husband's political career.

Mr. Marks became a trusted figure in Lyndon B. Johnson's inner circle and a top fund-raising adviser during his bids for the White House.

Although initially seen as a controversial choice -- his immediate predecessors had been distinguished journalists, including Edward R. Murrow and Carl Rowan -- Mr. Marks said he had ``broad experience in the whole field of communications." He had once worked with Murrow on a program to send thousands of American books to developing countries, and in 1962 helped incorporate the Communications Satellite Corp. , the federally-created provider of satellite telecommunications.

During his three years at USIA, Mr. Marks oversaw a $178 million international operation that published magazines in dozens of languages, distributed hundreds of films and documentaries, and beamed pro-American news abroad through the Voice of America.

He also became a member of the National Security Council during the Vietnam War, making him privy to discussions among top military and diplomatic decision makers.

The war consumed much of Mr. Marks's work, and he once implemented an unusual plan to explain US policy directly to the Vietnamese.

He wrote in his 2004 memoir, ``The President Is Calling," that ``the Vietnamese household was well served with gossip and information when the women gathered each morning at the fish market and swapped stories about local events. At the suggestion of one of our employees, I retained the services of talented storytellers who, each day, would compose stories describing the issues of the Vietnam conflict and report on the progress being made in repulsing the communist invaders.

``At night, singing troubadours would go to Vietnamese guesthouses, churches, and other gathering places. We eliminated daily newspapers and replaced them with live fish market correspondents."

Mr. Marks's view of the war gradually darkened, and he recalled telling Johnson one morning that it was time to ``bring the boys home."

``In all of the time I knew him, he never said a cross word to me," Mr. Marks later told an interviewer, ``but that day, he told me to get out of the room."

Mr. Marks said a highlight of his USIA tenure was starting a cross-cultural exchange program with Egypt to challenge the pan-Arab nationalism of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Mr. Marks brought six prominent Egyptians to the United States, allowing them to travel freely and meet with whomever they chose. The visit ended in Washington with meetings with Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Johnson. Among the visitors was Anwar Sadat, a future Egyptian leader who led his country away from Soviet military and economic ties and allied himself with the West.

Leonard Harold Marks was born in Pittsburgh. He was a political science major at the University of Pittsburgh, which he entered at age 15, ``carrying a tremendous ambition to be important." He was the top graduate in the Pitt law school class of 1938.

He joined the FCC in 1942 and was assigned to the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service during World War II. He started his law firm with an FCC colleague, Marcus Cohn.

His wife of 54 years, Dorothy, died in 2001. He leaves two sons, Stephen of Arnold, Md., and Robert of Greenwich, Conn.; and five grandchildren.

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