- The Washington Times - Monday, January 10, 2000

If ever a movie is made of Jack Valenti's life in true American good-guy bad-guy tradition, he could play a World War II fighter pilot, a successful author, a White House honcho or a high-powered lobbyist.
He has had all these roles and more.
The president and chief executive officer of the Motion Picture Association of America is a man in full control of every inch of his 5-foot, 6-inch frame. He is especially full of pride about the executive post he has held for 34 years possibly a record for a high-profile trade association in Washington.
In fact, a movie is being made about him indirectly. His 1992 political novel, "Protect and Defend," (the words are taken from the presidential oath of office), one of four books he has written, has been optioned by RKO Pictures with Milos Forman interested in being supervising producer. (RKO is not a member of the MPAA.)
No surprise there, you say, given his industry connections?
Maybe the surprise is how long it took to happen. His youngest child, Alexandra, 30, has sold a script to Miramax for $425,000. Another daughter, Courtenay, 36, is a senior vice president in the production end at Warner Brothers. A son, John, 33, has an Internet company called Creative Planet.com.
Famous for his energy and stamina, he works 15 hour days, watches four movies a week either in the plush MPAA screening room or else at the theater nearest you often with Mary Margaret Valenti, his wife of 37 years and spends every other week in Los Angeles, where he has a home. He chases around the world on business trips as though he were circling the block.
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Four months ago, about the time he turned 78, he earned a black belt in tae kwon do that lies folded up neatly on a table in his office at 1600 I St. NW, beneath a giant gold eagle sculpture jutting out from the wall. Another wall holds a large black-and-white poster of Kirk Douglas in "Spartacus." Kirk and Michael Douglas are his closest Hollywood friends, he says.
But about personalities with whom he has tangled about various policy issues over the years, he will say little. He ignores, or possibly doesn't hear, a question about complaints over the controversial movie rating system initiated by the association in 1968. It has been under fire again recently as an inadequate parental guide for its failure to note explicit contents of movies being judged by an anonymous MPAA board in Los Angeles.
Booster to the core, he would rather point to what he calls a "renaissance of the movie-going habit in the past 10 years, not only in this country but around the world in spite of all the antagonistic competition from other ways of being entertained," a trend he says he believes is caused by people wanting to be among other people.
"No family wants to be umbilically connected to an electronic box seven days a week," he says.
And while he spends a good deal of time fending off pirates from stealing what is known legally as American intellectual property, he says he is pleased that the American movie industry has "a surplus with every country in the world with whom we do business. I don't know if any other American product can say that."
Discreet to the core, Mr. Valenti has an enviable insider's knowledge some might say courtier's knowledge of where the bones are buried and whose skeletons to let lie. He describes himself as an "LBJ Democrat, but I'm not partisan in the lacerating sense." He has "enormous affection and regard for President Bush, who was very, very good to me when he was president."
A member of both the Johnson Foundation Board and the Bush Library Board, he emphasizes how he is "very reluctant to criticize presidents, because I know firsthand how difficult the decision making is in the job."
Such a line could come straight out of the current TV serial, "The West Wing." True to form, he volunteers that "my great teacher Lyndon Johnson" taught him how to deal in the world of politics "a great training ground for dealing in the world of business, movies or whatever."
"I know this sounds like a cliche, but I think politics is a fascinating profession. In fact, I think one reason I am so mesmerized by my own job is that politics and movie people are sprung from the same DNA."
He says he considers current political candidates performers, "just like actors."
"Any time you get up to make a speech you are a performer just like Robin Williams or Michael Douglas. Hopefully, you are trying to ingratiate yourself with an audience so they first believe you and then are pleased by you."
Mr. Valenti calls President Clinton the best political campaigner he ever has seen and the best performer on television. He won't say whom he favors in the current race. It's easier to get him to name his favorite movie and hear him boast about the role of movie making in American life.
His choice is "'A Man for All Seasons,' which is the story of Sir Thomas More and the conflict between his conscience and his king … starring who I think is the finest living English-speaking actor of our time, Paul Scofield. That had great impact … [a man] who believes so passionately in his idea that he was willing to give up his life for it. That isn't considered noble today."
Putting one's career or life on the line for one's beliefs is necessary "a great leader must from time to time do what is right" but, he concedes, "it's very difficult to be great unless you have endured and triumphed in a crisis, which is why you look at all the presidents we consider great Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt. All triumphed in a war, a bloody war on all counts. It's very hard to be considered great in halcyon days."
Mr. Valenti experienced war firsthand as a bomber pilot flying 51 missions, during which he saw many of his squadron mates shot down. Arriving back to a base in Savannah, Ga., he says, he got out of his plane, patted it on the side said, 'Thank you, God,' and never flew again.
"I didn't want to press my luck. What keeps you alive is God's choice, I suppose."

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