NYT: The Presidents Man
June 24, 2007
The President's Man
By THOMAS MALLON
Near the end of his new memoir, Jack Valenti, who died at 85 on April
26, tells how he planned to take an active role in marketing his work.
"Spend time with the booksellers," one friend had counseled him. "If
they like you and your book, you're on your way to the best-seller
list." Valenti did "not intend to ignore" the advice. Fate finally had
other plans, but it's nice to know that the author took his deeply
ingrained optimism all the way to the grave. "This Time, This Place"
is a cheerful, overwritten double feature, the story of Valenti's days
in Lyndon B. Johnson's White House an experience it's safe to say
only he could describe as the "summertime" of a life and his long
subsequent lobbying years as chairman of the Motion Picture
Association of America.
Raised in the Italian and Greek First Ward of Houston, Valenti watched
his grocer grandfather practice local politics and made his own first
speech at the age of 10, advocating the re-election of Sheriff T. A.
Binford, "an imposing 6 feet 4 inches tall, with a pair of
pearl-handled .45 six-shooters slung low from holsters on his waist."
Getting an early start on both of his future careers, Valenti worked
as a movie usher during high school and got himself elected class
president as a night student at the University of Houston. A daytime
job at Humble Oil gave him some early exposure to advertising, before
the war intervened and he found himself training for the 51 combat
missions he would fly in a B-25. The wartime chapter contains some of
the book's best material and most restrained writing. Highly
sentimental by nature, Valenti manages to stay away from
greatest-generational myth and concentrate on the terror he felt
during a conflict that was "brutal, callous and cruel, filled with
depravities." After returning home in 1945, he never again flew a plane.
Valenti does not tell us whether, upon arriving back in the States, he
went so far as to kiss the ground, but he certainly hit it running.
The G.I. Bill of Rights took him through an accelerated program at
Harvard Business School, the description of which is an orgy of
retrospective delight: The "incandescent" faculty is "like a
championship athletic team, with every player having a good shot at
being admitted to the Hall of Fame." His fellow students are "a
glittering assembly" of corporate comers, soon to be "some of
America's matchless business champions."
Valenti himself returned to Humble Oil and raised its sales at the
Texas gas pump from fifth place to first with an ad campaign
emphasizing the company's clean restrooms. Before long, with a partner
named Weldon Weekley, he was forming an independent agency and
snagging Humble's rival Conoco as a client. He was also writing a
column for The Houston Post and making the acquaintance of Senator
Lyndon Johnson, who turned into a kind of enormous dowry when Valenti
married one of Johnson's most devoted aides.
Weekley & Valenti branched out into Texas political consulting, taking
on large pieces of the 1960 Kennedy-Johnson campaign as well as John
B. Connally's gubernatorial run two years later. The success of both
efforts ensured that Valenti would be in the thick of the planning for
a swing through Texas by the president and vice president in November
1963. Two hours after John F. Kennedy's murder, he was standing in the
frame of Cecil Stoughton's famous photo of Johnson's swearing-in
aboard Air Force One, finding the transfer of power a "grave and
wondrous miracle that had unfolded before my eyes."
From the first awful afternoon of Johnson's presidency, there was no
question that Valenti would become part of the administration. Once
inside the White House, he supervised Johnson's schedule and watched
the new president move from coddling the old Kennedy hands to enacting
his own Great Society. When it comes to Vietnam, Valenti's Johnson is
a reluctant and finally agonized war maker, begging for contrarian
viewpoints and telling the author that reading casualty reports is
"like drinking carbolic acid every morning." Over all, the picture of
Johnson is of a piece with the most-quoted, and ridiculed, utterance
of Valenti's lifetime, made in 1965: "I sleep each night a little
better ... because Lyndon Johnson is my president." He never quite
kicked the deifying compulsion, and in this memoir says, a bit
creepily, that hearing agreement from Lyndon Johnson was "like scoring
1600 on your SATs." But Valenti does tell a wonderful story about
campaigning in an open car with the president, through Brooklyn, in
October 1964. When riding through an Italian district, Johnson hoisted
Valenti's arm while his aide was introduced as "the closest man to the
president"; a few minutes later, when they headed into a Jewish
neighborhood, Johnson's "voice was low but firm. `O.K., Jack, you can
get out now.' "
After the Hollywood executives Lew Wasserman and Arthur Krim persuaded
Valenti to leave the White House for the M.P.A.A. position (the
organization's board had reportedly also considered Richard Nixon),
the author experienced some awkward early moments among tantrum-prone
moguls. In an attempt at small talk with Darryl Zanuck, Valenti
complimented the producer's 1944 biopic about Woodrow Wilson. Zanuck
replied: "You would pick the one film that we had to arrest people to
go to the theater. Disaster at the box office." But Valenti found his
way soon enough, making himself into a "semicelebrity" in order to be
more effective battling foreign restrictions on American films or
instituting the M.P.A.A.'s movie-rating system, which he insists is
"still effective and trusted."
The Hollywood portion of his book is strangely without sizzle. The
anecdotes are duds ("Not recognizing her was a first-class blunder,
but I hadn't expected Reese Witherspoon to be carrying a small
child"), and the author's insights into stardom don't rise much above
his overall assessment of the Academy Awards: it's an honor just to be
nominated. For all the decades he spent in the movie business, his
memoir never really makes him look at home there. Still, there's no
doubting the cinematic style of recollection it induced. Valenti's
chapter on the Kennedy assassination is called "The Longest Day," and
it includes Johnson's Capraesque declarations of what he'll do now
that he's president: "I'm going to get a bill through that's gonna
make sure that everybody has a right to vote. You give people a vote,
and they damn sure have power to change their life for the better."
When George Wallace makes a tense visit to the Oval Office, it's "a
scene worthy of Steven Spielberg," and Johnson's feud with Bobby
Kennedy seems to have left Valenti hungering for a happy ending. He
blames unnamed others, not the principals, for their failure to reconcile.
The book contains plenty of errors surely Mrs. Kennedy was not
wearing her pink pillbox hat the night before Dallas, any more than
Valenti could have landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport while de Gaulle
was still alive but the mistakes tend to get lost, along with much
else of potential substance, in the relentless toastmastering of the
author's style. Valenti claims that his florid prose derives from a
too-enthusiastic desire to imitate the writings of Gibbon and Macaulay
and Winston Churchill; the reader may find it more reminiscent of
presenter scripts at the Golden Globes. "When Sinatra died, it was as
if the sky drained of song," Valenti writes. The resultant downpour
did not seem to quench the genius of Quincy Jones: "Music roared
through him, set his soul on fire, and for the rest of his life those
flames blazed as if fed dry tinder." Kirk Douglas "has been globally
revered," and Warren Beatty can often be found not just reading but
"ravaging libraries." All this may make a reader feel stuck in Fulsome
Prison, but the showering of accolades seems always to have energized
Valenti, who would no doubt still say, from some genial place beyond,
that "a little hyperbole never hurt anybody."
Thomas Mallon's latest novel, "Fellow Travelers," has just been published.