THIS TIME, THIS PLACE: MY LIFE IN WAR, THE WHITE HOUSE AND HOLLYWOOD
By Jack Valenti
Harmony Books, $25.95, 468 pages
REVIEWED BY CLAUDE R. MARX
If any life is a movie waiting to be made it is the one lived by Jack Valenti. Decorated World War II fighter pilot, top aide to President Lyndon Johnson and the top lobbyist for the movie industry, he seems to have done it all.
Until Valenti’s friend Michael Douglas is cast in the biopic, those wanting to learn about this extraordinary story will have to read “This Time, This Place: My Life in War, the White House and Hollywood.”
Valenti, who died in April at age 85, produced a well-written and entertaining though not especially revelatory memoir. His rise from a loving, working-class family in Houston to the heights of power is described in great detail. For those of us who never had the chance to have drinks or dinner with him, this book is the next best thing.
He takes readers behind the scenes of key events of the last 50 years, ranging from planning sessions for the Vietnam War to negotiations on devising a new system for rating movies. While the author does a great job of describing those discussions, he is sometimes guarded about his own role.
Valenti recounts that he never spoke during the war strategy sessions but shared his thoughts with Johnson in private conversations and memoranda. Alas, there is almost no mention of what kind of advice he gave his boss, though he does note that his suggestions to bring in scholars on Vietnamese history to brief top administration officials were rejected.
Ever the loyal former aide, he defends the president’s decision to escalate American involvement in Vietnam and contends that Mr. Johnson was genuinely conflicted about it:
“He came to this conclusion reluctantly, resisting all the way. He had no illusions about the war. He had no great faith in the predictions of the military, but he had no sound, countervailing arguments,” Valenti writes.
Though there is a “great people who have known me” feeling to much of the book, interspersed amidst the name-dropping are some insightful observations about the personas and physical attributes of some of Valenti’s friends and colleagues.
While standing behind President Kennedy during a speech, he noticed that Kennedy’s hand was shaking, even though the president delivered his remarks in a confident and eloquent manner.
As he describes that scene (which took place the night before Mr. Kennedy was assassinated), Valenti’s deep knowledge of history and literature, combined with his predilection for overwriting and using arcane references, is very much in evidence.
“I could see signs of aging in his face, but he exuded a remarkable boyish grace and sense of perpetual alertness. He reminded me of a Plantagenet royal, a wise, brave splendid king who would save a lady in distress. Or a nation,” he writes.
One infers that Valenti would also have been pleased to rescue such a damsel. His descriptions of many females — such as Italian actresses Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren, who became friends during his 38-year tenure as president of the Motion Picture Association of America — are laden with compliments of their physiques.
During a dinner hosted by Ms. Lollobrigda, she wore a gown “cut so low that it neared the latitudes of the Cape of Good Hope, with her stunning configuration (that’s one way to put it) on full display.”
His discussions of some of the less glamorous aspects of the movie industry are insightful, though he is not afraid to blow his own horn rather loudly.
In telling the story of how the movie industry revamped the rating system, he describes how he balanced the desire to inform the public about sexually explicit and violent films with a desire to protect filmmakers from any government censorship.
He summarizes the outcome of these negotiations, but readers looking for details of how he went about persuading key groups within the industry to agree to his plan will be disappointed.
Despite these shortcomings, “This Time, This Place” is a work that will both inform and entertain. One can’t help but be sad, however, that Valenti is not around to promote the book and enjoy the reaction of readers to his rich and storied life.
Claude R. Marx is a political columnist for the Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass., and author of a chapter on media and politics in the just-published book “The Sixth Year Itch.”