Valenti's Sexuality Was Topic For FBI
Thursday, February 19, 2009
When Beltway insider Jack Valenti died two years ago at age 85, he was playing the role of intermediary between Washington and Hollywood as the theatrical, snowy-haired president of the Motion Picture Association of America.
But back in 1964, Valenti was a Houston ad executive newly installed at the White House as a top aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson. And J. Edgar Hoover's FBI found itself quietly consumed with the vexing question of whether Valenti was gay.
Previously confidential FBI files show that Hoover's deputies set out to determine whether Valenti, who had married two years earlier, maintained a relationship with a male commercial photographer. Republican Party operatives reportedly were pursuing a parallel investigation with the help of a retired FBI agent, bureau files show. No proof was ever found, but the files, obtained by The Washington Post under the federal Freedom of Information Act, provide further insight into the conduct of the FBI under Hoover, for whom damaging personal information on the powerful was a useful tool in his interactions with presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Richard M. Nixon.
Johnson initially blocked the FBI from obtaining a sworn statement from Valenti or approaching the photographer, asserting that Valenti was "attracted to the women and not to the men," files show. But under FBI pressure, the president relented and approved an investigation of his close friend.
In the Washington of the early 1960s, allegations or proof of homosexuality could end a career. In October 1964, Walter Jenkins, another senior aide in the Johnson administration, was arrested for allegedly having sex in the men's room of the Washington YMCA. The news leaked just before the election, and Johnson, rushing to stem the political damage, quickly secured the resignation of Jenkins, then his longest-serving aide.
Even Bill Moyers, a White House aide now best known as a liberal television commentator, is described in the records as seeking information on the sexual preferences of White House staff members. Moyers said by e-mail yesterday that his memory is unclear after so many years but that he may have been simply looking for details of allegations first brought to the president by Hoover.
In Valenti's case, agents located the photographer and he confirmed that he had attended parties with Valenti and stayed at his apartment on two occasions. But he stressed that Valenti was strictly a platonic friend, records show. Historians have suggested that Hoover himself may have been gay and that the bureau's fascination with the sex lives of others was a manifestation of deeper currents in his psychology. Hoover never married and was a constant companion of his longtime FBI aide Clyde Tolson.
Valenti was a successful Texas businessman before joining Johnson in the White House in the hours after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. After three years in Washington, Valenti was named head of the Motion Picture Association, where he served as Hollywood's chief lobbyist from 1966 to 2004. His tanned face became a fixture on the annual Academy Awards broadcast.
The FBI file shows that a routine background check performed when Valenti joined the Johnson administration in 1963 turned up a series of picayune concerns. The file noted that Valenti's father and father-in-law had spent time in prison for embezzlement, and that his father-in-law had an "undesirable credit record" and had once been arrested for "being drunk."
A number of informants alleged that Valenti was good friends with a "top hoodlum and prominent gambler" in Houston, and agents suspected that the underworld figure had underwritten the cost of Valenti's wedding and a honeymoon suite at the Tropicana hotel in Las Vegas.
Most people interviewed praised Valenti, his morals and his social skills; one described him as "smiley" and "able to charm the horns off a billy goat."
Agents asked about Valenti's dating habits and quizzed his friends about whether they thought he had been faithful since he married Johnson's personal secretary the previous year.