I feel I’ve been privileged to be part of life’s two most dazzling fascinations—politics and movies. – Jack Valenti
To those who have taken both tours, the world of politics and the world of movies seem remarkably alike. The casting is analogous—stars, would-be stars, kingmakers and critics, groupies and sycophants—and their traits the same: ambition, egoism, self-indulgence. Both deal in illusions and panaceas. Even at the most mundane behind-the-scenes level (“on location” being the cinema equivalent of “grassroots”), the logistics of actual moviemaking are virtually identical to political campaigning.
In recent years, what with image-makers, charisma, and whatnot, the boundaries between the two have blurred even further. Politicians now make fast copy in the movie fan mags and, conversely, movie stars form an indispensable ingredient in the well-balanced political entourage. In some cases the roles have reversed, sex appeal becoming a valuable political commodity at the same time it lost its attraction at the box office. Little wonder that paranoids say movies are always political while cynics denounce politics as sham.
Despite all the similarities, though, very few immigrants have crossed from one world to the other with any success (except of course in California, where everything is a B-movie). One of the rare non-Californian exceptions is a Texan: Jack Valenti, one-time usher and popcorn-popper in Houston’s Iris Theatre, is perhaps the only man ever to inhabit the power center of each world.
In Lyndon Johnson’s White House, Jack Valenti was the President’s Main Man, both speechwriter and poker partner, counselor and crony, a kind of combination Bob Haldeman and Bebe Rebozo. At present, he is performing equally diverse services for a new employer; as president of the Motion Picture Association of America ( MPAA), Valenti functions as front man, lobbyist, ambassador, arbiter, and amanuensis for the nation’s film industry.
It’s no good havin’ a dream if you can’t make it come true. – Jack Valenti
In 1966, shortly after the announcement that he was leaving the White House Staff for the MPAA, Jack Valenti returned to Houston for a gala testimonial dinner in his honor. The dedication of the banquet program read: “This evening belongs to a young man who made it big without hurting anyone to do it.”
Normally, a line of that sort could be dismissed as the kind of maudlin excess generally encountered at testimonial affairs. In Valenti’s case, however, it seems both true and deserved. Indeed, it is Valenti’s curious fate to merit almost every saccharine cliche in the entire arsenal of dime-novel romanticism. His is an American Success Story that only John Ford could have filmed, starring Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda, back about 1955.
The second-generation son of Italian immigrants, he was sacking groceries and delivering papers in grade school, dreaming of Harvard. A precocious learner, he finished high school at 15 (three years ahead of his class) only to discover he couldn’t afford college anywhere. Forced into the Depression job market, he became the sole employee of a rundown neighborhood moviehouse specializing in low-grade Westerns. Moving up to a job as a Humble Oil office boy (“They paid $45 a month, I couldn’t believe I was getting that much…”) he set about working his way through night school at the University of Houston. He caught the eye of “Pop” Mabry, Humble’s legendary public relations director, who brought him over to the advertising department.
After serving as a bomber pilot in World War II (flying 51 missions over Italy and earning the Distinguished Flying Cross), he returned to Humble and night school, where he got himself elected student body president. Cashing in on the G.I. Bill, he finally made it to Harvard, entering the Harvard Business School (he still wears his class ring). In 1952, “filled with illusion of grandeur,” he and a friend left Humble to form their own advertising agency. “We had one client for the longest time,” he recalls, “or at least it seemed like it then.” The agency eventually grew into one of the city’s most successful (Valenti severed his ties a decade ago when he joined the White House staff) and in 1956 he was voted Houston’s Outstanding Young Man by the Chamber of Commerce.
Somewhere along in there he’d developed an interest in politics, became a key advisor to Houston Congressman Albert Thomas, and managed several of Thomas’ campaigns. By 1958 he was being touted as a possible mayoral candidate, and that year he first met Lyndon Johnson. “Lyndon had a policy of always trying to meet new young men, fresh faces,” he remembers. “I was invited up to a little coffee one time to meet him. I guess I was kind of captivated by him.” Valenti, who did a weekly column for the Houston Post, wrote an effusive account of his meeting with the state’s senior senator (“… the feel of strength, unbending as a mountain crag, tough as a jungle fighter. .” and so forth). Not one to discourage such perceptiveness, Johnson personally called Valenti to encourage further get-togethers.
“Every major politician has a cadre of spear-carriers and bush-beaters who meet him at the airport and run errands,” says Valenti. “I was one of those eager young acolytes who met Lyndon when he came to Houston.” It was not long before Valenti was carrying weightier burdens than simply spears. In 1960 his agency handled the Kennedy-Johnson campaign in Texas and, soon after, he began courting Mary Margaret Wiley, Johnson’s longtime personal secretary. When the two were married in 1962, Lyndon gave away the bride (the Valentis’ daughter is named Courtenay Lynda).
On November 21, 1963, Valenti handled arrangements for a massive appreciation dinner honoring Representative Thomas. The featured speaker was President Kennedy. Afterwards, Johnson urged Valenti to join the President’s party for the trip up to Fort Worth and Dallas. “Our daughter had been born just three weeks before, and my wife didn’t want me to go,” says Valenti. “But I said ‘What the hell, it’s only for one night,’ and threw a change of underwear in my bag and went along.” He and Johnson sat up most of the