Why Jack Valenti Still Sleeps Soundly

Because all’s well with Hollywood – That’s Why

July 1974By Comments

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 night trading yarns in a Fort Worth hotel.

The next day, Valenti was riding with Evelyn Lincoln and Liz Carpenter eight cars behind Kennedy when the motorcade entered Dealey Plaza. In the wake of “the inscrutable act of fate that changed my life,” he found himself wandering through Parkland Hospital “trying to keep out of everybody’s way. Hysteria was hanging like Spanish moss.” A Secret Service agent tracked him down to say that Lyndon Johnson was holding Air Force One until Valenti was aboard.

In the official (and only) photograph of Johnson’s swearing-in, just beyond the shoulder of the widowed Mrs. Kennedy, is the lost and wall-eyed visage of Jack Valenti. It had been Valenti who called Nicholas Katzenbach to learn the text of the oath of office, Valenti who wrote the 57 words of Lyndon Johnson’s first Presidential statement. Johnson’s instinctive reliance on Valenti in the frantic interval of transition, and Valenti’s equally instinctive answer to summons, perhaps illustrates their relationship more clearly than the confused and erratic organizational tangle of the Johnson White House.

In the years to follow, Valenti would be what Tom Wicker called “at once the most enigmatic and the most omnipresent of the Johnson men.” From the day he arrived in Washington, without even his change of underwear and an absolute amateur at Capitol horse-trading (he had never before seen the inside of the White House and worked there three months before anyone thought to put him on the payroll), he was the man closest to the President.

On paper, he was but one of ten special assistants, and even then without any formally demarcated zone of authority. The only duty he seemed to perform on a regular basis was the final edit of Presidential statements. Valenti possessed an inflated prose style, roughly equal parts ad agency hyperbole and Victorian histrionics, that suited Johnson’s method and manner to perfection. No matter who was responsible for the content of a Presidential utterance, be it on farm or foreign policy, the final revision was always left to Valenti with instructions to “sex it up a bit.”

But to relegate him to the status of rewrite-man, albeit on a grand scale, is to misunderstand both Valenti and Johnson. The inner circle of the White House Staff was a collection of Johnson loyalists, personable as well as capable, to whom he could turn with either crisis or quip, as his mood determined. Johnson’s style was intuitive and impulsive, prone to seat-of-his-pants reaction; hence his aides were quick-witted, self-reliant, and supremely adaptive.

If Jack Valenti was responsible for memorizing the TV schedule and fetching cigars, as he was, then he was also dispatched on secretive, Kissinger-like diplomatic missions, and charged with the tenderest political negotiations. His relaxed, self-effacing charm established him as an enormous favorite with the Capital press and the congressional leadership—normally a contradictory, nearly impossible combination in Washington—often ranking him among the administration’s most effective lobbyists. And not the least, in a city where Presidential proximity surpasses cleanliness as the next-best thing to godliness (if not going it still one better), Valenti’s unremitting communion with Lyndon Johnson accorded him power and influence far exceeding anything attached to a meager job title.

It also made him target for the talent scouts of the American movie business. For three years, ever since the 1963 death of MPAA president Eric Johnston, the corporate chieftains of the major film studios had been searching for a possible successor. Founded in 1922 to help combat Hollywood’s racy reputation as a scandal capital, the MPAA had been the brainchild of the original movie moguls: Goldwyn, Fox, Zukor, et al. As Vincent Canby has observed, they were “dictators in their own exotically rich domains, first generation potentates who envied—and thus respected—only those men who could wield more power than they could.” Unavoidably then, they looked to Washington.

The MPAA’s first president had been Warren Harding’s Postmaster General, Will Hays. Eric Johnston, who succeeded him in 1945, was president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Franklin Roosevelt’s frequent personal emissary. To succeed Johnston, the movie magnates returned again to the Federal City, seeking after their rightful Leader much as Buddhist pilgrims journey through the hinterlands in search of The True One. Names like Adlai Stevenson and Ted Sorenson kept appearing in the mystic speculations surrounding the three-year quest until April 1966, when Valenti’s selection was announced.

Ed Weisel, chairman of the executive committee at Paramount and one of Johnson’s personal attorneys, together with Lew Wasserman, head of MCA/Universal and close friend to Hubert Humphrey, had been the first to approach Valenti. Although he rebuffed their initial advances, it was due to internal MPAA wrangling rather than an unwillingness to depart the White House; in truth, he was already hesitantly job-hunting. “I was broke,” he admits, “I’d been thinking of a move for some time.” His income had been cut by two-thirds when he moved to Washington, an expensive city for most anyone but especially for White House aides with young families. The seven-year contract offered by the MPAA called for $150,000 annually, plus expenses.

“It was really the best of all worlds,” thinks Valenti. “Public service had excited me terribly, so I didn’t want to go back into business. Business just didn’t hold any interest for me anymore. It was written into my contract that I could work for Lyndon on my own time and could continue to live in Washington. I needed to keep the scent of politics in my nostrils.”

Outside of writing Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 acceptance speech to the Democratic Convention—and occasionally recruiting a movie star to add luster to a friendly pol’s dinner party—Valenti’s subsequent politics have been mostly limited to hanging out with his old White House and Capitol Hill buddies—Joe Califano, Birch Bayh, Humphrey. His serious politicking is reserved for the MPAA, monitoring the federal universe for events of consequence to the film industry: FCC opinions, court rulings, changes in copyright or patent law, cable television legislation, anything, in short, that touches the communications field. As such, his role is no different from any other corporate lobbyist in Washington.

His office also doubles as Hollywood’s State Department. Ironically enough for an industry so quintessentially American, the international market accounts for over half the box office gross for American films, and Valenti’s duty is to tend the negotiations that keep it so. Bilateral agreements are currently in effect with over 100 nations respecting copyrights, profit repatriation, distribution and release, even with clauses on advertising and ticket prices. Valenti’s Johnsonian peregrinations have served him well in this regard, especially in Italy, the single most lucrative foreign market for U.S. films (in the White House, Valenti was the administration liaison with Italian-American groups and congressmen, learned the language, and was often mentioned as a possible ambassador).

His former government associations have also added to suspicion of the motives behind certain MPAA actions, as when they slapped a movie boycott on Chile during the leftist government of Salvador Allende. Almost immediately after a right-wing coup seized power the ban was lifted, thus allowing the military junta to score an impressive public relations success by opening the long-delayed Godfather to enormous, movie-thirsty crowds. Valenti denies that political considerations prompted the MPAA decision and ascribes it instead to Allende’s abrogation of previous agreements.

When Valenti took over his present post, he served notice that he had “no intention of being just a figurehead president.” In so doing, he broke with an MPAA tradition that had seen his predecessors function largely as Washington water-bearers for the movie magnates. Most of the magnates, though, had since been replaced by younger, more liberal, and less autocratic studio executives. Most of the studios, as a matter of fact, were no longer, having been sucked up into gigantic conglomerates with corporate preferences for businessmen instead of moguls. The film industry for the first time could be seen as an industry, with an industry’s concerns for such things as profit margins and market stability. And yet, at the very apex of the entire business, sat a vacant presidency and a paralyzed board. Because each of the nine MPAA members* jealously held veto power over their collective decisions, they could take initiatives only after forcing a sterile unanimity on compromise measures.

With the sure instincts of a true Johnson protege, Valenti moved to fill the policy-making vacuum. He devoted himself to learning the mechanics of the film business and the aesthetics of film-making, devoured the literature on both topics, and appeared everywhere talking to actors, writers, producers, mini-moguls, critics. In six months, he announced a newer, “more liberalized” production code for the industry, the first such change in 30 years. Two years later he threw over the whole concept in favor of the present ratings system (G, PG, R, X).

In both cases, the industry had been caught between a broadened appreciation of creative freedom and a deepening public outrage at cinema “immorality,” and Valenti moved to head off intervention by outside parties, like the U.S. Congress. On his first try, he had merely sought to update the antiquated code he had inherited (even films like Alfie, for example, were too strong for the old code). Later, when even the modernized code proved unworkable, he jettisoned it for the ratings system. “The film industry,” says Valenti, became “the only communications art medium that turns away business at the box office. . . . that regulates itself and denies itself additional business in order to fulfill a public pledge.” At the same time, he disassociated the MPAA from “hard-core pornography” and all its permutations. The inauguration of the system, he admits, “was a pretty radical change. We don’t really have any authority over exhibitors, but we got their voluntary cooperation. It was the only thing that could work.”

In an effort to keep it working, Valenti is constantly talking to legislators, producers, civic groups, industry unions, and guilds, all those people whose help is needed to enforce the ratings. “It’s a classic example of the politics of this job,” he says. As would be expected of anything as subjective as ratings, the system is under continual attack from every conceivable direction (he recently had to defend the R rating given The Exorcist against critics who felt it deserved an X) but, as yet, nobody has offered a practicable alternative.

While the ratings system is undoubtedly the most dramatic innovation Valenti has introduced into the film business, the one he is proudest of himself is the reorientation of the industry’s governing board toward “creative excellence.” At his instigation, for example, the MPAA played a leading role behind the creation of the American Film Institute, the government-subsidized foundation that maintains one of the finest film libraries in the world, hosts classes, conventions, and festivals all over the country (at the Kennedy Cultural Center, particularly), and operates a graduate-level film school on the West Coast.

“Making a great movie,” offers Valenti, growing enthusiastic, “is like weaving a tapestry. It should be braced and knit with no signs of laxity. I think it’s probably harder to make a great movie than to write a sonata or paint a painting.”

Such is the bitter taste of worldly power. Such are the correctives of glory.” – Winston Churchill, as quoted by Jack Valenti in the frontispiece to his book, The Bitter Taste of Glory.

The corridor leading into Jack Valenti’s Washington office is hung with life-size, full-color portraits of every Hollywood superstar one could imagine. Inside, in his private office, the only photographs are of his family. There is one picture of Lyndon Johnson: a simple pen-and-ink sketch.

Just a few steps down the corridor is the MPAA screening room, a plush, quietly elegant little theater that seats about 250 people. There Valenti hosts the occasional parties that Washington heavies are expected to host. Every year, for example, he throws a party for Harley Staggers, the West Virginia congressman who chairs the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee, the House panel with authority over the film industry. At his parties, Vaienti shows first-run Hollywood movies; this year’s Staggers party featured The Great Gatsby. When he has screenings at home, according to a friend, “he shows the most ordinary movies you can think of . . . Here’s a guy with access to any movie ever made, and you go over there and you might end up with John Wayne.”

Valenti’s two all-time favorite films are A Man For All Seasons, which he’s seen seven times, and Becket, which he’s seen five. Both films deal with the pursuit of power, and the guilt and doubt that cloud its attainment. For a man who helped to secure and occupy the most powerful office in the land, a fascination with Richard Burton’s tortured portrayal of Thomas a Becket reveals something of the conflict within his own conscience.

And yet he is the same man who once ventured that “I sleep each night a little better, a little more confidently, because Lyndon Johnson is my President,” a remark that produced gales of laughter in Washington. Valenti was more than a little cowed by the reaction he received, and today his speech and prose are more restrained, less exuberant, than in his White House days. But it wasn’t so much sycophancy that got him into trouble like that, as the fact that, at heart, Jack Valenti is an indomitable romantic. To someone who began as an office boy and ends up working in the White House and hobnobbing with movie stars, grandiose metaphors don’t seem quite as grandiose as they might to the rest of us.

The same romantic impulse that inclines him toward baroque overstatement is what has made him so successful. He has been able to survive the neurotic pits of both Washington and Hollywood because he entered them with an unflinching, almost ridiculously cheerful optimism. If he’s a fast learner, it’s because he has a capacity to be easily captivated by whatever task is at hand, and to approach it with enormous energy.

In an average work week, Valenti caroms around the country like Kissinger’s mailman—a conference in Washington, meetings on the West Coast, negotiations in New York—yet he never seems to lose his stamina. More amazing, he never ceases to enjoy doing it. As one of his friends sees it, “The thing that’s made Jack so successful is the same thing that’s made him look foolish sometimes. He just gets so damned wrapped up in what he’s doing.”

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