WASHINGTON -- Jack Valenti is one of the least-known important people in Washington.
He is one of the figures in the famous 1963 photograph of Lyndon B. Johnson being sworn in as president aboard Air Force One in Dallas. He is the figure on the Oscars telecast who every year tells the 50 million viewers how wonderful Hollywood is. He is the man with the Kirk Douglas hair standing next to President Clinton in photographs published last February when the president promised parents a television ratings system to help them control the programs entering their homes.
That ratings system, promoted by Valenti, arrived this month on network programs with a pack of critics snapping at its heels. The critics argue that the ratings serve the industry better than parents. They insist that Valenti has managed to subvert the best intentions of reformers, ranging from the PTA to the American Academy of Pediatricians.
"To understand how we got the ratings system that we now have, you first have to understand Jack Valenti -- who he is and what he does so effectively and quietly behind the scenes," says Douglas Gomery, a University of Maryland historian who has followed Valenti's career.
Valenti, 75, is a 5-foot-6-inch Texan with a gray mane of hair, and is usually identified in news reports as chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America. The MPAA represents the largest film and television production companies in the world, and as its head, Valenti speaks for Hollywood's interests in Washington on billion-dollar issues, such as government regulation of content.
"If you say the word 'lobbyist' -- in both its negative and positive sense -- he is the quintessential, indeed, the most effective industry representative over the last 25 years," says Gomery. Or, as the magazine Buzz described it in an issue on power brokers: "For the past three decades, Valenti has been the middleman in just about all of Hollywood's dealing with Washington."
"I'm an old-fashioned politician," Valenti says. "That means whenever I have a problem and I go and ask a congressman or a senator for his help and he says, 'yes,' then, when he comes back to me for help, I redeem the marker."
He is also head of the Motion Picture Association, formed by the major studios in 1945 to re-establish American films in world markets after World War II. It is the export arm of the American film industry, which contributes an estimated $4 billion surplus to the country's trade balance each year.
Valenti has been head of the two trade associations since 1966, when Lew Wasserman, founder of MCA Universal, asked President Johnson for permission to hire Valenti from the White House staff. But Valenti's road to the White House is part of a life suitable for a made-for-television movie.
Born in Houston, Valenti went to work for Humble Oil -- now Exxon -- as an office boy after graduating from high school at age 15. Within three months, he was writing for the company magazine.
During World War II, he became a pilot in the Army Air Corps and flew combat missions in Italy. After the war, he graduated with a bachelor's degree from the University of Houston and earned a master's of business administration from Harvard University.
In 1952, he co-founded the advertising agency Weekly & Valenti in Houston. Three years later, then-Senator Johnson signed on as one of his clients. Valenti's agency was in charge of the press during the Dallas visit of President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Johnson in 1963. He was in the motorcade -- three cars back from Kennedy -- on Nov. 22, when Kennedy was killed.
White House resident
Valenti has not lived in Texas since that day. Within hours of the assassination, he was on a plane to Washington with Johnson as a newly hired special assistant. For the next 10 days, he lived with his new boss in the Johnsons' private residence. When the Johnsons moved into the White House, Valenti moved with them, until his wife and daughter arrived.
"It was the ultimate in excitement, in sensuality," Valenti says in his occasionally florid manner of speaking about the years with Johnson. "You're right in the middle of where the final decisions are made. We were lifting the quality of life in this country. There is no drumbeat that gets your pulse moving faster."
Wasserman drafted him in 1966 for the battle Hollywood was fighting against calls for government regulation of the film industry. The interest in regulation began as a reaction to movies such as "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Blow-Up," which were breaking new ground in explicit language and images.
Valenti devised what he calls "a revolutionary approach to how we would fulfill our obligation to the parents of America." On Nov. 1, 1968, he announced a "voluntary film ratings system of the motion picture industry."
The calls for government regulation quickly died down. With only a few changes, Valenti's rating system of G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17 has remained in place.
He now is making history repeat itself with the TV rating system he put into place Jan. 1. Indeed, it is a near-perfect piece of Washington brokering.
Clinton's promise to help parents protect their children from unwanted television shows seemed a useful pledge in an election year. But how to satisfy parents without calling for government regulation?
Enter Valenti with a plan that would satisfy his bosses in Hollywood -- who feared that government-imposed ratings could introduce labels that would scare away advertisers -- and satisfy Clinton, who needed progress to show that he was keeping his pledge.
Critics lose ground
Valenti's plan called for the TV industry to rate itself, much as the film industry has done during the last 30 years. Industry leaders in return traveled to Washington to make a show of responding to Clinton's call. And from the moment the plan was announced, the industry's critics seemed to lose ground.
So the leaders of Hollywood are once again greatly pleased with Valenti.
"Jack Valenti is the only man who equally combines a knowledge of how Hollywood and television and motion pictures work and at the same time knows Capitol Hill and how Washington works," says Leslie Moonves, president of CBS Entertainment. "And I think he's the only man I know of who can so perfectly straddle the fence as to bring something like the ratings system off."
But as satisfying as Valenti and his plan might be for Hollywood, there is a vast coalition of critics who believe the plan is far from perfect. In basing the ratings on the viewers' age rather than on the content of the programs, the critics say, the system fails to give parents the information they need to make informed decisions about what their children watch.
"Our goal was to make it simple to use and easy to understand," Valenti says. "If the parents don't use it, it's no good. The parents are the ones who have to make it work.
"If parents don't become responsible about what their kids watch, no law, no presidential order, no ratings system is going to help."
lTC Pub Date: 1/24/97