A Hollywood Promoter on Both Coasts

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 27, 2007

Jack Valenti, 85, a onetime confidant of President Lyndon B. Johnson who spent nearly four decades as Hollywood's chief Washington lobbyist and helped devise the "G" to "X" movie-rating system, died yesterday at his home in Washington of complications from a stroke in March.

As president of the Motion Picture Association of America from 1966 to 2004, Valenti represented such powerful studios as Disney, Sony, Warner Bros., Paramount, MGM, 20th Century Fox and Universal as well as several leading independent producers. Earlier, he established political connections as a Texas advertising and public relations executive that led to his strong ties to Johnson.

With an instinctive showman's flair -- notably his grandiloquent speaking style and access to movie stars -- Valenti became the dominant power broker connecting Capitol Hill and the film colony. Besides his work on the ratings system in the late 1960s, he helped open up world markets for American-made films and secured passage of copyright legislation to protect movies into the digital age, which led to the proliferation of DVDs.

He also was a major gateway to Hollywood's financial largesse during the campaign season. On any given week, Valenti met with actors, world leaders and newspaper editors and was regarded as a brilliant and aggressive wielder of his glamorous pulpit.

Harry C. McPherson Jr., also a Johnson intimate who became a Washington lobbyist, called Valenti "an extremely successful advocate of the movie industry. You'd be hard-pressed to find any lobbyist for any industry who did a more successful job than Valenti. I can't think of many times when Jack Valenti lost."

"He had a lot to work with," added McPherson, an occasional lobbying adversary of Valenti's. "When senator X would want to go to Hollywood and would want some people to attend his fundraiser at the home of [former Walt Disney chief executive] Michael Eisner or some producer or studio chief, he'd talk to Jack. Jack would set it up and very often go out there."

Lawrence Levinson, a former Washington representative for Paramount, told the New Yorker magazine in 2001: "Jack was able to use the power and glamour and mystique of Hollywood. A new president came in, and [Valenti would] put himself in the center of the process of getting movies to the president. He'd get so excited. He'd call Sid Sheinberg" -- the president of MCA/Universal -- "and say, 'Sid! The president is going to Camp David! We've got to get him "Jaws"!' "

Valenti became known to a wider audience through his appearances on Academy Award telecasts. A diminutive, sprightly man, he was easily identifiable by a well-tanned and protruding forehead covered by snow-white hair. There was also his immaculate executive attire and what one reporter long ago called a "riverboat gambler's drawl."

The Texas-born, Harvard-educated lobbyist had a strikingly baroque writing and speaking style heavily influenced by 19th-century British historian Lord Macaulay and British prime minister Winston Churchill. For instance, a movie audience was not composed of ticket buyers but "unknown but enthusiastic companions of a single night."

He was widely considered an effective promoter for Hollywood on matters including censorship, videotape technology, copyright infringement and, in recent years, video and online piracy of trademarked films.

When Hollywood filmmakers attracted controversy, he routinely defended the studios by citing the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment as well as the cause of artistic liberty.

This was the case when Valenti, along with MPAA general counsel Louis Nizer, helped create a voluntary rating system in 1968 that changed the way the studios classified a film's suitability for general audiences. This new arrangement was important, because it kept government intrusion and citizen censors at bay while allowing the artists maximum freedom and the consumer to influence the marketplace by voting with his wallet.

By implementing this voluntary system, the MPAA eliminated a movie code dating from the early 1930s with a long list of onscreen taboos ranging from "excessive and lustful kissing" to showing mixed-race sexual relations. The films had further been subject to city and state censorship boards trying to rid offending material.

The 1968 system -- with its long-familiar ratings ranging from "G" for admittance of general audiences to "X" prohibiting those under 17 -- was credited with helping keep the U.S. film market competitive with Europe's. European filmmakers had long ventured into fare laden with adult language, nudity and other forms of explicitness that proved increasingly popular with audiences.

What helped smooth the way for Valenti's changes was that many of these bolder U.S. films were quality productions with top stars, including "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966), starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. By 1969, "Midnight Cowboy," starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, became the only X-rated picture ever to win an Academy Award for best picture.

Valenti had a role in later changes and additions to the voluntary system, including PG-13 and NC-17 ratings. Nevertheless, the ratings system continued to be criticized for how it was applied toward films that accented sex or violence.

One of the strongest critics of the MPAA's system was Nell Minow, a corporate governance expert who wrote family-oriented movie reviews for Common Sense Media. Citing examples, she told one congressional hearing a few years ago that the MPAA's system did a poor job of providing families with helpful information.

Minow said recently: "He waited for me to finish, he stood up, learned over, kissed me on the top of my head and said, 'Nell, that's why we all need your Web site, because you can give parents what we can't.' There was really no way to respond to that. I thought that's why he's the most effective lobbyist in Washington."

The grandson of Sicilian immigrants, Jack Joseph Valenti was born Sept. 5, 1921, in Houston. His father was a clerk in the Harris County Courthouse, where young Valenti often saw office-seekers shaking the hands of well-connected bureaucrats. He began political campaigning at 10 and excelled in high school debate.

At 15, he became an office boy for Houston's Humble Oil and Refining Co., which later became Exxon Mobil. He returned from World War II a decorated Army Air Forces bomber pilot and a veteran of 51 missions over Europe.

He finished an undergraduate degree in business at the University of Houston in 1946 and received a master's degree in business administration from Harvard University in 1948.

He returned to Humble and described his most notable work as the "clean bathroom" publicity campaign for the company.

In 1952 he and an old friend, Weldon Weekley, formed an advertising agency. While Weekley oversaw the office work, Valenti lured a series of oil and business executives as clients. He also began handling advertising work for congressional and gubernatorial campaigns and met Johnson, the Senate majority leader, in 1956.

At the time, Valenti had a weekly column in the Houston Post and wrote a deeply flattering account of the future president that described him as "unbending as a mountain crag, tough as a jungle fighter" and called him the "Great Persuader."

Valenti further cemented their relationship in 1962 by marrying Johnson's personal secretary, Mary Margaret Wiley. She survives him, along with three children, Courtenay Valenti and John Valenti, both of Los Angeles, and Alexandra Valenti of Austin; a sister; and two grandchildren.

In November 1963, then-Vice President Johnson asked Jack Valenti to handle press relations during President John F. Kennedy's swing through Texas.

Valenti was in the presidential motorcade in downtown Dallas when Kennedy was fatally shot Nov. 22 and accompanied the newly sworn-in Johnson back to Washington that night on Air Force One. He appeared in the famous photograph showing Johnson taking the oath of office aboard the plane.

As president, Johnson brought Valenti to Washington in 1963 as his special assistant -- a vague position Valenti likened to a "roving linebacker." He was a presidential troubleshooter, speech editor and trusted deputy for confidential assignments. He was often the first non-family member to greet Johnson in the morning and the last to see him at night.

McPherson, who became Johnson's special counsel, said Valenti was "enormously valuable as an aide because he could do so much. He could talk to members of Congress, he could take a piece of leaden speechwriting by someone and turn it, maybe not into Churchillian prose, but something that had some zip to it. There was no one he felt too shy to talk to on behalf of Johnson."

Tom Johnson, a White House fellow during the Johnson administration who later held executive positions at the Los Angeles Times and CNN, said, "Lyndon Johnson had no chief of staff, but Jack was closest to it."

He said Valenti was "the primary note taker in virtually all of the most confidential meetings LBJ had with heads of state, members of Congress, governors and [National Security Council] meetings." He also was Johnson's liaison to the Catholic Church and arranged with utmost secrecy a meeting between the president and Pope Paul VI at the Vatican during a presidential world tour.

Yet Valenti was often described as Johnson's chief whipping post or "glorified valet," who loyally absorbed Johnson's foul-mouthed tantrums and such seemingly humiliating acts as Johnson using Valenti's lap as a footrest.

Despite such treatment, Valenti continued to describe Johnson in worshipful, often purple prose, as when he told a group of advertising industry leaders in 1965, "I sleep each night a little better, a little more confidently because Lyndon Johnson is my president."

Afterward, Washington Post political cartoonist Herblock drew Valenti as a slave being whipped into submission. All this brought Valenti the enduring image of a sycophant, political journalist Richard Rovere once wrote.

Valenti's closeness to Johnson was a top reason Lew Wasserman, president of MCA/Universal Studios and often called the most powerful man in Hollywood, pursued Valenti in 1966 to become MPAA president. Wasserman's empire had been a frequent target of Justice Department actions, and Valenti proved a valuable contact.

The polished Valenti remained the discreet Wasserman's frontman in Washington for decades. For his work, Valenti was among the best-paid trade group chief executives in Washington.

On the job, he was tireless yet always appeared impeccably tanned and suave. He logged hundreds of thousands of miles for his causes and at times had to confront foreign cultural ministries that used trade talks to limit or lambaste American film imports. In the early 1990s, he encouraged the MPAA to donate money to European film schools as a way of improving relations.

Videos are now among the top income sources for his client companies, but Valenti was paid for years to denounce what was then new technology. He memorably told a congressional panel in 1982, "I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone."

In the early 1980s, he successfully lobbied the Federal Communications Commission to prevent the repeal of long-standing financial-syndication rules. His actions allowed the movie industry to keep reaping billions of dollars from reruns. Until the rule was changed in the mid-1990s, television continued to be shut out of owning and syndicating the entertainment programs it aired.

Wasserman had also played an important role, having spoken directly to President Ronald Reagan, whose political rise he helped orchestrate in the 1950s.

When Valenti resigned from the MPAA in 2004, he was reportedly earning $1.35 million, and National Journal magazine ranked him the seventh-highest-paid trade group chief executive in Washington. His MPAA successor was Dan Glickman, a former U.S. congressman and President Bill Clinton's agriculture secretary.

Valenti contributed opinion pieces to newspapers and magazines such as Reader's Digest and the Atlantic Monthly. Among his books were "A Very Human President" (1975), about Johnson's White House years; "Speak Up With Confidence," a guide to public speaking (1982); and "Protect and Defend" (1992), a Washington-based political novel edited by former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. In 2006, he wrote a memoir, "This Time, This Place: My Life in War, the White House and Hollywood."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company