Jack Valenti's Memoir, Rated L for Loyal

By Louis Bayard,
a novelist and critic
Tuesday, July 3, 2007


My Life in War, the White House, and Hollywood

By Jack Valenti

Harmony. 468 pp. $25.95

You can't blame Jack Valenti for looking a little stunned in that famous photograph snapped aboard Air Force One on Nov. 22, 1963. Twelve hours earlier, he'd been an advertising executive and advance man largely unknown outside Houston. Now a president was lying dead, and a new president was taking the oath of office. (The widow was on hand, too, spattered with the remnants of her husband's brain tissue.) And there, crouched by the bulkhead, was Valenti, looking like the victim of a mugging. And why wouldn't he? His own destiny had been turned on its axis from the moment the new president turned to him and said: "I want you on my staff. You'll fly back with me to Washington."

"A life unplanned," Valenti calls it in his posthumously published memoir, "This Time, This Place." Which is not to say it lacks for pattern. At key junctures, this Texas-born and -raised grandson of Sicilian immigrants was boosted up the ladder by father figures -- none of them quite so fatherly or quite such a figure as Lyndon Johnson, who, in an act both impulsive and wise, made Valenti one of his top Oval Office advisers, and then obligingly supplied him with all the history he could possibly want to witness.

"I owe so much to that man," Valenti writes. "It is a debt I can never repay." But he never stopped trying. "This Time, This Place" is many things -- and at times, nothing much -- but it is foremost a historical salvage operation on behalf of that "awesome engine of a man . . . terrifying, kind, hyperenergetic, ruthless, loving." The adjectives keep rolling in until Valenti throws up his hands. "Almost anything you could say about Lyndon Johnson, good or bad, had at least a hint of truth to it."

Here is Valenti's "truth": LBJ "waged the most successful war against poverty, injustice, discrimination on behalf of the poor, the old, the sick and the black," and accomplished "more than any president since Lincoln," only to be "devoured by a wretched war not of his choosing." In the service of this theory, Valenti offers arduously detailed -- and tedious -- Vietnam strategy sessions, in which misguided advisers undermine LBJ's reservations about "a war he did not start, a war he loathed, a war whose commitments he dared not cut and whose deadly spiral he could not break."

It's touching, no question, to see Valenti, a proud "Johnson man," still defending his old boss's character 40 years after the fact. (Valenti died in April of stroke complications.) Maybe, too, there's an element of unassuaged guilt. For within three years of coming to Washington, the younger man abandoned Johnson for another father figure: movie mogul Lew Wasserman, who tapped Valenti to take over the Motion Picture Association of America.

In that position he served nearly four decades and became, by design and inclination, a ubiquitous figure at premieres, festivals, Oscar telecasts -- and congressional offices. Diminutive and dashing, he managed to emerge from every screening room looking more golden than when he went in. (Did he absorb the photons directly from the screen?) Along the way, he created (with attorney Louis Nizer) the modern movie ratings system, cracked open overseas markets, lubricated the wheels of Hollywood's campaign finance machine and battled film piracy with all the rhetoric at his disposal: "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."

Such over-the-top language may be expected from the man who once declared, "I sleep each night a little better, a little more confidently because Lyndon Johnson is my President," and who recalls his first encounter with JFK in this fashion: "He reminded me of a Plantagenet royal, a wise, brave, splendid king who would save a lady in distress." (Wait for it.) "Or a nation."

This hyperbole appears to be the bastard offspring of Lord Macaulay and advertising copy, and yet beneath it lurks a kind of deliberative drabness. Valenti was a lobbyist through and through, and any lobbyist worth his salt knows better than to bite the hand that may one day feed him. Thus, the book's latter sections ring with tinny huzzahs for, well, everyone, including Kirk Douglas ("one of a kind"), Michael Douglas ("extraordinary talent"), Marlon Brando ("a legend furlongs above the others"), Sophia Loren ("uncommon grace, wrapped in uncommon beauty"), even Don Imus (who always treated Valenti "with great kindness").

The only movieland figure who really gets what's coming to him is Oliver Stone, and strictly for the crime of smearing Lyndon Johnson; everything else is propaganda for the Great Film Society. Small wonder that the book's most compelling sections come when no celebrities are in sight. During World War II, Valenti piloted a B-25 attack bomber tasked with attacking Nazi logistical lines in the Brenner Pass. This he did more than 50 times, at great personal risk, but his account is arresting precisely because it hasn't been recycled through a thousand PAC breakfasts. It seems actually to cost him something, particularly when he describes the perilous journey he had to take to get himself and his crew back home. All that sweet talk with Warren Beatty pales alongside the sweet and terrible moment when Valenti is trying to find Ascension Island through a swirl of rain and cloud, over a heaving sea.

"Suddenly we saw it, a patch of land thrown up by the Atlantic. Hello, hello, you lovely little lost bitch of an island."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company