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Still in the spotlight

After retiring as lobbyist for the major film studios, Jack Valenti continues to live a life of D.C. royalty, working his connections and attracting attention.

January 07, 2007|Jim Puzzanghera | Times Staff Writer

Washington — Jack Valenti is busily scripting the end of his legendary life.

But, even after 85 years, it's very much a work in progress.

Valenti, who ended his 38-year run as Hollywood's leading man in the nation's capital more than two years ago, continues to work five days a week as something of an icon-on-call.

Nattily dressed in dark suits, his silver mane of hair neatly combed and his manners similarly well groomed, Valenti still works the phones to tap political connections dating to his days at President Johnson's side. Now, however, it's for new causes that include world health issues and leading an entertainment industry campaign to teach parents how to block objectionable TV shows.

"I have a feeling that retirement is a synonym for decay," Valenti said in an interview over a fruit plate with nonfat cottage cheese at his regular lunch table at the Hay-Adams Hotel. "I watched President Johnson leave the White House, go back to his ranch, and literally do nothing. In four years, he was dead."

Valenti wants no part of a sequel. And just tending to his own celebrity as a leading lobbyist emeritus is almost a full-time job.

He rides the speaker circuit telling tales from a Technicolor life: traveling in John F. Kennedy's motorcade when the president was assassinated in 1963, working as an aide in the turbulent Johnson White House, representing major movie studios as head of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, and fathering today's film-rating system.

Valenti will return to the national spotlight this spring with the release of his memoirs. And he's already writing another book about his relationships with eight U.S. presidents.

Although he no longer needs to work, he's up at dawn at his Washington home, exercising for 45 minutes before heading to his downtown office.

In recent weeks, he attended the Kennedy Center Honors, the White House Summit on Malaria and a dinner at the Italian Embassy for new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). His upcoming schedule is neatly stuffed in his right suit pocket.

"As we're all going, 'Gee, if I were Jack I'd be slowing down, taking it a little easy,' that's why we're not Jack," said Martin D. Franks, executive vice president for planning, policy and government relations at CBS Corp.

One night in December showed Valenti's glitz hadn't faded. The National Italian American Foundation tapped him to introduce Sylvester Stallone at a private Washington screening of "Rocky Balboa." But Valenti was an attraction himself. As he was introduced by the group's executive director as "Mr. Hollywood," cameras flashed while Stallone was still seated.

In many ways, Valenti still lives a life of Washington royalty, remaining closely identified with the job he gave up. He is instantly recognized and a frequent guest at society and political events, chauffeured to them in a bronze Lexus sedan with "MPAA1" license plates.

He maintains a stately office on the top floor of the Jack Valenti Building, so christened by the MPAA to mark his retirement. The last four digits of the MPAA's phone number remain "1966," commemorating the year Valenti joined the association.

"He knows the players, he's got a sense of the issues, he knows his way around town, he knows how to use the glitter of the motion picture industry in a city that loves that sort of stuff," said Stephen Hess, a media and public affairs professor at George Washington University. "In some ways, it really is quite remarkable when you think of from whence he came."

Valenti has told his life story so often that he can rattle off an abridged version of his upcoming 416-page memoir, "This Time, This Place: My Life in War, the White House, and Hollywood," in one minute flat:

"It starts when I was born in Houston, Texas, on Alamo Street, takes me through the war. At age 20, I enlisted, flew 51 combat missions as a B-25 pilot. After the war, the greatest piece of legislation ever struck off by the Congress, called the G.I. Bill of Rights, went to Harvard free of charge. Come back, started an ad agency, got to know Lyndon Johnson, wrote speeches for him. In the motorcade in Dallas, suddenly I'm now in the White House. Then, two movie moguls come to see me. Next thing I know I'm in a leadership role in Hollywood. None of these I ever expected to do. Almost 39 years later, I stepped down."

His ability to both distill a subject and spin an almost endless series of anecdotes about it makes Valenti a valuable asset-for-hire in the nation's capital.

"What it still comes down to is that he's real smart and he knows how to communicate real well," said Peter Chernin, News Corp.'s president and chief operating officer.

Even people who have opposed Valenti admire his ability to frame a debate, such as calling the videocassette recorder a "Boston Strangler" to the film industry.

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