Jack Valenti took a break from cleaning out his office the other day to expound on a subject he knows well: the art of persuasion. Over minestrone soup and hummus at his usual table at the restaurant in the Hay Adams Hotel, Valenti, the 82-year-old dean of Washington lobbyists, reflected on how Washington has changed and how lobbyists should operate here.
Not that Valenti has ever been shy about voicing his opinions. For all 38 years that he's served as president of the Motion Picture Association of America, the short, dapper, white-maned Texan has been colorful, controversial and outspoken. Valenti opining about his work is about as rare as popcorn at a movie theater.
But soon he won't be so visible around town. On Sept. 1, Valenti retires from the movie association. He'll be replaced by former representative and agriculture secretary Dan Glickman (D-Kan.) and then, as they say in Hollywood, he plans to ride off into the sunset. He won't be gone completely, of course. Valenti will still help oversee the movie rating system that he helped devise nearly 36 years ago. And he'll continue to jet between the coasts to lunch with moguls and potentates. But he won't be lobbying for the big studios anymore.
Which gives him more liberty than ever to speak his mind.
In four decades, Valenti says, a lot about Washington has changed and not all for the better. Take inter-party rancor. Valenti's mentor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, clashed publicly with the Senate's Republican leader, Everett M. Dirksen (Ill.). But in private, Valenti fondly recalls, "they would make a deal and the government would go forward." Nowadays, he says, partisanship, both in private and in public, blocks almost all compromise. "There is the odor of hostility in the air more than I've ever seen it," he says.
The spiraling cost of congressional races has also turned the capital into something it never used to be: a fundraising mecca. Valenti remembers when lawmakers collected their campaign cash back home and reserved Washington for legislating. No longer. Congressmen and senators now gather lots of dough from D.C.-based lobbying shops whose numbers are growing so rapidly that he says he can barely name 10 percent of them. Of their fundraising, he says, "It's an insidious spread [with] loopholes big enough to drive three Hummers through."
Valenti has adapted to these and other new realities well enough to attain what he considers his chief accomplishment: "I survived." Indeed, his best counsel to young lobbyists is to go with the flow no matter which way it runs. "If you try to fight change, you are doomed to a dispirited life," he says. "Don't fight it, embrace it, and bend it to your own needs." Only one thing doesn't change, he says, and those are the rules for how best to deal with lawmakers -- who apparently need incessant ego stroking.
As a lobbyist, Valenti says he's lived by the credo that President Johnson laid down for his staffers in the 1960s. Johnson demanded that his aides not leave their desks at night until they'd returned every call from a member of Congress. Then, Valenti recalls of Johnson's edict, "when you get them on the phone you treat them all alike, whether they are a first-term rookie or a herd bull, which is the chairman of a standing committee -- whether they're Republican or Democrat."
"You treat them with courtesy and genuine respect," Valenti continues. "You say, 'Yes Sir' and 'No Sir' and 'No Ma'am' and 'Yes Ma'am,' because they all got elected and none of you have ever run for constable before." The next step is to act, and quickly. "And if you have to say 'no,' do it gently."
Such kowtowing sounds odd coming from someone as famously boastful as Valenti. He does, after all, wear on his lapel the red thread that delineates him as a recipient of the French Legion of Honor. But he insists that lobbyists should treat legislators like elected royalty. "I made it a point to ingratiate myself with Republicans as well as Democrats," he says proudly. "That pays off in the end."
And that end, he adds, should always be thought of as a long way off. "I don't play politics on a daily schedule," he says. "I think long term, like a marriage. You build long-lasting relationships." Valenti explains the process this way: "When everything is pretty much breaking even and he [a lawmaker] can go either way [on an issue], chances are, if it doesn't affect too much in his home district . . . the fact that you have been responsive to him, not how much you gave him but the fact that you're always there when he calls . . . then you have the possibility of him saying, 'Well, I'll go with you on this one, Jack.' "
A key element in such a transaction is trust. Although many people have accused him of many things, Valenti asserts that that an effective lobbyist must never to lie. "What they can't say is that I ever played it false around the turns."
They can also say that he always tried to keep his lobbying pitches brief, simple and lively. Why? Because that's the way legislators like them. Whenever he contacted a lawmaker, Valenti says his written materials were "clear and understandable" and "no more than a page and a half, a page if I could do it." And when testifying in Congress, he tried "to be a little entertaining" and to "dress up my positions in language that was memorable." To this day, Valenti is still renowned for referring to the VCR as the Boston strangler of his industry.
Although in recent years he's been sending more and more contract lobbyists to Capitol Hill on his behalf, Valenti has always believed in the personal touch as well. "It's very helpful for the congressman or senator to know you, to have tested you, to see whether you have a tendency to skirt the truth," he says. With that kind of history, he adds, "When you say something he's more likely to believe it. That, I think, is very important."
Though Valenti has made his share of enemies over the years, the public will long recognize him for his role in establishing the movie ratings system and for his frequent appearances on the televised stage of the Academy Awards. Less well known but perhaps more significant were the many pieces of legislation that he steered through Congress that benefited the movie business, such as copyright protection measures, the investment tax credit and two trade bills that pried open multimillion-dollar foreign markets that once were closed to U.S.-owned films.
So why retire now? "I wanted to leave under my own schedule, my own timing, without somebody in Hollywood saying, 'When the . . . hell is that old fart going to leave?' After 38 years it seemed to be opportune and wise, which is why I did it."
Then again, he says, "I find retirement to be a synonym for decay. I don't aim to decay anytime soon."
He'll be keeping his table at the Hay Adams.
Jeffrey Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. His e-mail address is email@example.com.