Nobody understood better than Jack Valenti the mind-set of powerful people. He began as an ad man in Texas, where he met Lyndon Johnson. When LBJ was tapped as vice president, Valenti went to work in the Kennedy White House. He was the quintessential staff man, bowing to the wishes of a boss who could be crude and overbearing—while never losing his own courtly bearing. Valenti was in the motorcade that fateful day in Dallas, dispatched by LBJ to handle press relations, when President Kennedy was shot. Valenti was there when Johnson took the oath of office aboard Air Force One, captured in the frame along with the grieving widow, Jackie Kennedy.
And he shepherded Johnson through those first tense years, doing everything from taking notes in confidential meetings to acting as a conduit between the rival Kennedy and Johnson factions within the administration. His devotion to Johnson was so complete that much of official Washington dismissed him as a sycophant. But his ties to LBJ helped attract the attention of Lou Wasserman, president of MCA/Universal Studios and a major Democratic donor, who recruited Valenti to head the Motion Picture Association of America--a job Valenti held from 1966 until he stepped down in 2004. Johnson gave his go-ahead to “hire my boy, Jack,” but warned Wasserman in a legendary phone call, “as long as I’m president, remember, he’s working for me.”
Washingtonians remember him for the screenings he presided over at the MPAA headquarters. The food was good, the atmosphere intimate and Valenti got what he needed out of the city’s power brokers. When restrictive legislation loomed in 1968 to curb Hollywood’s appetite for sex and violence, he created the movie-ratings system that is still in place today. He took heat for that among his Hollywood clients but persuaded them that he had shielded them from far worse fates.
Valenti may have started as a courtier, but he did it with grace and charm, and he soon became a presence in Washington in his own right. He was old-fashioned and personal in the way he conducted business. “He knew everything about your family before he got to the ‘ask,’ as we say in lobbying,” says Mark Siegel, a Washington lobbyist. “He would charm your pants off.” Republicans loved him along with Democrats. While diminutive in physical stature, Valenti had an outsized personality and presence. He had it written into his contract that he would appear live each year at the Oscars, and when he flew to Europe, it was almost always on the Concorde. He was a small man who was larger than life. And if you watched “American Idol” this week, among the pop singers and movie actors each belting out a line from the 1970s hit, “Stayin’ Alive,” there was Jack Valenti doing his part, the only figure not instantly recognizable but the one certain to endure.