What Jack Valenti Taught Us All

By Matt Gerson
Saturday, April 28, 2007

Jack Valenti lived a unique life between two of society's fascinations -- politics and Hollywood. For Republicans and Democrats, for senators and young aides, for celebrities and the legions behind the cameras, interactions with him were graduate seminars in history, politics, human nature and common sense. This extraordinary communicator punctuated every conversation with a witticism linked to his beloved Texas, a quote from an obscure historical figure or a rule passed on to him by his mentor, Lyndon Johnson. In the weeks leading up to his death Thursday, all over town a simple "How's Jack?" almost always led to, "You know, I try to live by something I once heard him say."

I first noticed his reach when a lunch companion said, "I try to return every phone call the same day I receive it, and I try to treat an appointment secretary like a Cabinet secretary." That was followed by a senator who revealed: "Jack was the first one to contact me after my son died. I will never forget his concern and support. How can I reach his family?"

For those Jack mentored during the 38 years he dedicated to America's film industry, it became clear that character was defined by loyalty. In both Washington and Hollywood, people often desert "friends" at the first whiff of public disfavor. Not Jack -- time and again he insisted that you never abandon a friend who was going through a rough time, and he always stood with a beleaguered colleague or public official who was receiving unwanted publicity.

He would tell his team to respect every elected official ("because you never even ran for dog catcher, and they were sent here by the people"). He admonished us that your adversary today might be your ally tomorrow. "In a political struggle, never get personal -- else the dagger digs too deep."

Jack rejected the partisanship that gripped Washington and would warn that "nothing lasts -- today's minority backbencher will be tomorrow's subcommittee chairman." On the day the Motion Picture Association of America headquarters was named the Jack Valenti Building, Sen. Ted Stevens observed, "Jack works across the aisle because he doesn't see an aisle. It is the root of his success and what others ought to emulate."

Each of the six studio chiefs who spoke at the dedication ceremony emphasized that Jack's word was his bond -- if he made a promise, he never wavered. His rock-solid commitment gave him unusual credibility with leaders on both coasts and around the world.

Jack was a gifted public speaker who put incredible effort into making it all look effortless. He would rework his text behind closed doors, reciting it until the cadence was just right. Jack was ebullient when a president complimented him once on the "extemporaneous" remarks he had made at the Gridiron Club. "The president couldn't believe I didn't have a prepared text. I neglected to mention that I didn't need notes because I spent several days getting ready," he said.

It was especially fun to watch Washington's most accomplished professionals try to decipher one of his homilies. They eventually got the point and often adopted the line as their own. When a project was in trouble, it was time to "hunker down like a mule in a hailstorm." [Modified from the original Texas vernacular for a family newspaper.] When prospects got even worse, "The ox was in the ditch." But every problem could be addressed if you remembered "the three most important words in the English language: Wait a minute."

When someone from the MPAA left to take a new job, Jack would say, "I like to think I teach my people everything they know. But I know I didn't teach them everything I know." That line always got a laugh. I worked with Jack for six years and was friends with him for nearly two decades. In the past few years, frankly, I thought I had gleaned every lesson he had to offer. But then I picked up the galleys of his soon-to-be-published memoir, a book that tracks his "Greatest Generation" fable. This grandson of Sicilian immigrants, decorated combat pilot, Harvard MBA ("thanks to the greatest piece of social legislation ever devised by man -- the G.I. Bill"), presidential adviser and confidant of America's business leaders has left a treatise with even more rules to live by.

One paragraph is a must-read for the BlackBerry-addicted. Jack quoted Emerson's observation that "for every gain, there is a loss. For every loss, there is a gain." While lamenting the number of nights he spent away from his family, he reminded us that attending one more reception meant missing a meal around the dinner table, and one extra night on a business trip would mean one less chance to help with homework or watch a soccer game.

I have recounted that quote many times over the past few weeks. And while this loss is devastating for many in Washington and Los Angeles, the life lessons that are his legacy are our gain.

The writer is senior vice president of public policy and government relations for Universal Music Group.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company