Jack Valenti was a special assistant to President Lyndon Johnson, a consultant to the State Department and the third head of the MPAA. In this episode we look at his life, focusing in two key areas – the introduction of the film classification ratings system and Valenti’s connections with the CIA.
Jack Valenti was the third and longest-serving head of the MPAA and like his predecessor Eric Johnston he lived an amazing life that resulted in a lengthy FBI file, and like Johnston he had important CIA connections. So this week we’re going to take a look at Valenti’s life and work as we continue our mini-series on the relationship between Hollywood and deep politics.
Jack Valenti’s life
I have written four pieces on Valenti before so those of you who want the fullest version of this story that I have to offer can read them. They are:
But in short, Valenti was born in Houston, Texas in 1921 and served in the US Army Air Forces during World War 2. He graduated from the university of Houston shortly after the war, having been president of the student government and worked for the student newspaper. After getting an MBA he went to work in advertising for an oil company, before founding his own PR firm working for Conoco, another oil company. In 1956 he met Lyndon Johnson and struck up a friendship, repositioning his firm to also include political consultation. He advised on the 1960 Kennedy-Johnson campaign.
On November 22nd 1963 he began his first day working directly for Johnson, as a press liaison. Valenti was in the motorcade in Dallas when JFK was shot, and was on Air Force One as Lyndon Johnson was sworn in. You can see a youngish Jack in the background of the photo of LBJ taking the oath of office. He then became a special assistant to the president, and was appointed LBJ’s appointments secretary at the White House.
But Jack was much more than that. Various reports from this time describe him as LBJ’s eyes and ears, and a constant consultant to the president on all sorts of matters. Like another White House aide at this time, Bill Moyers – who would later become a journalist and famous new anchor – Valenti was a jack of all trades (pun intended). This necessitated security clearances, so a substantial portion of the FBI file on Valenti is devoted to two investigations. The first was in 1963 and then another in the mid-70s, when Valenti was being considered for a White House position. Curiously, in the 1974 background check they asked the CIA for information and the CIA responded, but what they told the FBI is redacted. When the Bureau reported back to the White House on the results of the investigation they included mention of all the other agencies they’d asked but not the CIA.
Valenti married LBJ’s secretary, and as noted in his FBI file both of their fathers had been imprisoned for embezzlement in 1937. In 1964 there was also a significant Bureau investigation into suggestions that Valenti was a pervert and possibly a homosexual who was having a gay affair with a well known photographer. Both the FBI and the Republican Party investigated these rumours but found nothing. In 1966 Valenti accepted the job as Eric Johnston’s replacement as president of the MPAA, and hypocrite J Edgar Hoover sent him a letter of congratulations.
Valenti was then the main Washington lobbyist for the movie industry until 2004 – 38 years, easily the longest serving man in the role. For some of that time he was also a consultant to the State Department, and had a good relationship with the Pentagon. In the 1990s when the Pentagon were downsizing somewhat they considered getting rid of Phil Strub and the entertainment liaison offices. Valenti and other industry figures intervened on Strub’s behalf, and Valenti wrote to the Secretary of Defence and made personal entreaties to him to keep Strub in his job.
Around the same time, in 1999, Valenti gave a speech at the Institute for Creative Technologies – an Army funded research lab that works with Silicon Valley and Hollywood. It was during this speech that Jack made his famous joke that, ‘Los Angeles is not the entertainment capital of the world. Washington, DC, is the entertainment capital of the world.’ In 2000 the Pentagon spent $295,000 to host a star-studded dinner in Valenti’s honour. Valenti was granted the first ever DOD’s Citizen Patriot Award, with Secretary of Defense William Cohen saying ‘Valenti has been an avid proponent of the men and women in uniform, and has used his influence to perpetuate the positive image of the military both on and off screen.’
Valenti retired in 2004 and died in 2007, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Why was he buried there? Because towards the end of his life he lobbied several successive Secretaries of Defense to be given special dispensation even though he hadn’t died in combat. He wrote to Cohen, Rumsfeld and Robert Gates, even reminding Gates that they had one shared a lunch at Langley when Gates was head of the CIA.
So you understand – Jack Valenti was not just the movie industry’s guy in Washington, he was also Washington’s guy in the movie industry. He worked with the Pentagon, the State Department and the CIA – the trifecta of true governmental power – and even worked for the White House back when that was more than just the temporary home of a reality TV star. This is why Valenti is important, why his life and work was important. So having had a quick look at his life let’s take a look at the two elements of his career that most interest me – the ratings system, and his relationship with the CIA.
Jack Valenti and the Ratings System
Within two years of taking over at the MPAA Valenti did away with the Production Code, scrapping both the Code and the now impotent Production Code Administration. No one was really paying much attention to the rules any more, and 60s films took another jump over 50s films in how violent and sexy they were, along with their willingness to portray major crimes and government agencies and other things that 30s and 40s film usually did not. The Code simply wasn’t working, and though Johnston’s discrete loosening of the rules helped extend its lifespan, it was always on borrowed time.
To replace the Code Valenti instituted the ratings system, establishing the Classification and Rating Administration or CARA, a quasi-independent division of the MPAA responsible for reviewing and rating films. The current chair of CARA Joan Graves was hand-picked by Valenti, having worked for them since 1988. She then personally hires the rest of the review board. They watch films and tell the film-makers what they can include or what they will have to cut out to get a specific classification – U, PG-13, 18, R. There have been a number of changes to the spectrum of ratings over the years but the point is that they went from a system when they told film-makers what not to do based on their scripts, to a system where film-makers have to submit a finished film.
This means that producers and studios can spend loads of money shooting an elaborate scene or creating some great special effects but then not be able to include it in the film because they want the PG-13 rating to bring in the younger audiences and the families that buy four or five tickets at once and make them loads of money. It actually makes the film industry more wasteful, and gives the MPAA more control because without a rating it is very difficult to get any kind of distribution deal.
Where this gets interesting to me is how the MPAA and CARA’s classification system mirrors the government classification system – R stands for ‘Restricted’, which is a term used on classified documents. There is a classification range based on the perceived damage it might do to young minds if they saw stuff beyond their age. In government the range is based on the perceived damage to ‘national security’ whatever the hell that means. The rules by which films and documents are classified, as well as who does the classifying, is not in any way open and accountable.
So, while the ratings system does do something to help the public choose which films to go and see and let their children go and see, it isn’t actually a mechanism for public accountability. It’s more a way of creating a level playing field across the industry, so one studio can’t increase its revenue by releasing a film with more explicit nudity than has ever been seen before, for example. Eric Johnston said in hearings that they never intended to make every picture suitable for every person and that ‘such common levelling’ constituted a totalitarian method of thought control.
However, the classification system is a form of levelling, suggesting that NC-17 films are suitable for every adult, that G films are suitable for everyone considered to be in the ‘general audience’. Whether that, as Johnston said, constitutes a limit on freedom of thought that not even the totalitarians have been able to create, I leave up to you.
For more on CARA and the whole charade that is the MPAA ratings system I will direct you to a documentary called This Film is Not Yet Rated. Film-maker Kirby Dick hired a couple of private investigators and they identified several of the CARA board, which had never been done before. It is a very entertaining and provocative film which I’m sure will teach you a lot. I studied film history a bit at university, as you can probably tell, but I got a huge amount out of watching this documentary. They interview a number of film-makers about how their movies were censored by the MPAA before being released, which scenes were cut out or modified, it’s really a fascinating investigation.
(6:30 – 13:10)
You get the idea – the MPAA are a powerful force in shaping what we see on the screen, and Jack Valenti is unreasonably close to the government. Whose values are being upheld by this process? And why? Does it protect the audiences, or the big studios? I would argue it is more the latter, and so the employment of a government-style classification system has resulted in a state-within-a-state of big studios in Hollywood. It makes the industry less free and less competitive, to the extent that the majors control over 90% of the industry. Would this have been possible otherwise? Maybe. But the MPAA ratings system certainly helped.
Jack Valenti and the CIA
For years rumours have swirled that Valenti was some kind of CIA asset, so we should interrogate and investigate that idea. If his predecessor Eric Johnston was CIA, and Valenti was CIA, then from 1946 until 2004 – nearly 60 years, the MPAA was being run by a friend of the Agency. Given the MPAA’s importance to the film industry as a whole, this matters.
Until very recently the only significant CIA document on Valenti was from 1966, just as he was leaving the White House to take up the job as capo de tutti capo at the MPAA. It was announced in April ‘66 that he would be leaving the White House in the coming months. A State Department memo records how in May ‘66 their office of security did their own investigation and read the FBI’s investigation because Jack was being considered for a consulting role at State. He was granted a Top Secret security clearance and began this consulting job at the same time he started his new job at the MPAA, though exactly what he did for the State Department I do not know.
Meanwhile, a May ‘66 CIA memo records how they approached the White House for a copy of the FBI’s investigation because, ‘Subject is of interest to this Division. He is not being considered for staff employment but rather is of interest in connection with certain sensitive matters in which the Agency is involved.’ This is typical spy speak, but by this time the CIA knew that Valenti was going to become the new president of the MPAA so I can only assume the CIA’s interest in Valenti at this time was related to the movie industry.
The CIA recently posted their entire CREST database online, so I went looking for more documents on Valenti and found over 60 – 44 relating to his time at the White House and a further 21 relating to his time as head of the MPAA. Most of those from or referring to his time as a special assistant to LBJ are not especially relevant to this question, but some certainly are. For example:
– In February 1964 Valenti and another White House aide Walter Jenkins were briefed on ‘special clearance matters’ by the CIA.
– In the summer of ‘64 Valenti, Bill Moyers and other high ranking White House aides went to Langley to get a briefing on what the CIA do and how they do it.
– Throughout this period there are letters between Valenti and senior CIA people including deputy director Marshall S Carter.
– There are records showing how Valenti was often in the distribution loop for secret and top secret documents relating to foreign policy, nuclear disarmament and other National Security Council issues.
– In October ‘64 Director John McCone wrote to the President to clarify that a recent Time magazine article was wrong. The article claimed that the CIA had suggested to the White House that several staffers – including Valenti – be subject to ‘field investigations’ before being given security clearances. The article claimed that the White House wasn’t keen and so the CIA just issued the clearances anyway. According to McCone this simply wasn’t true.
– Valenti’s name appears on a list of ‘special invitees’ for William Raborn, the CIA director in 65-66. Valenti is one of the names marked ‘no’ but the fact Raborn saw fit to invite him (presumably to Langley) shows he considered Jack an important figure. Others on the list include J Edgar Hoover and Averill Harriman.
– In December ‘66 – this is after Jack had left the White House and taken up the MPAA job – he is mentioned on a distribution list for the ‘Deluxe Folios’ of a special high-detail map book the CIA were producing using satellite photography. The others on the list are senior CIA people, the President, military chiefs, the head of the NSA and a note at the bottom records how Valenti had a copy of the small first edition and that they would ‘attempt to locate present holders of these copies, so that they can be updated’.
The later files, from once Jack had joined the MPAA, are perhaps even more revealing. What we can be certain of is that Valenti maintained good relationships with almost all of the directors of the CIA during his time at the MPAA.
– In 1978, following the Church Committee and at a time of very negative press about American intelligence, Valenti wrote an editorial for The Washington Star defending and praising the CIA and FBI. CIA director Stansfield Turner wrote to Valenti thanking him for doing this.
– In 1981 a speech being prepared for the CIA’s Director of Administration on the Freedom of Information Act was rewritten by Thomas H. White (Chief of the Information Services Staff). He recommends restructuring the speech and one section was to include ‘quoting of people like Jack Valenti regarding his conversations with foreign leaders and the FOIA’. Now, while of course Valenti was a representative of Hollywood and was concerned with its increasingly global market. It is no surprise he met with foreign leaders. But why was he discussing the Freedom of Information Act with them? And why were the CIA quoting him on that? How did they know what he said to these foreign leaders about the FOIA?
– Also in ‘81 then director Bill Casey attended a special screening of On Golden Pond at the MPAA building in DC. This was repeated in ‘82 when Casey and his wife went to see I Love Liberty and then in ‘83 they went to see War Games, all screenings hosted by the MPAA and Jack Valenti.
– In 1989 Valenti wrote to CIA director William Webster asking for information for help with his novel, Protect and Defend. Specifically he wanted to know formal information about the Politburo, how they address and talk to each other, little technical details like that. Webster, who had provided similar information to Valenti when he was head of the FBI, responded with detailed answers to the questions. Sadly, the novel was a load of crap. A review in Library Journal said, ‘In trying to take advantage of the upcoming November political silliness, Valenti (head of the Motion Picture Association of America and former adviser to President Lyndon Johnson) has written an even sillier novel (a future movie script?). He has dreamed up a cast of thousands, including a beleaguered, wimpy president seeking reelection; the intrepid hero, who is a presidential adviser; the hero’s pure-as-the-driven-snow FBI girlfriend; the wealthy, evil, villainous vice president, who is trying to usurp the nomination; a passionate woman done wrong; some evil Russians and their machinations; a spy and several other turncoats of another stripe; and various and sundry other supernumeraries. Valenti offers a plenitude of cameo roles for big-name stars to play. A list of characters helps readers keep track – but what’s the difference? None of the players is memorable anyway. It’s impossible to give a synopsis of the plot because there isn’t one.’
No doubt if the CREST database continued into the 1990s and the 21st century then we’d be able to find more of this sort of thing, but this should give you a sense of what kind of relationship Valenti had with the Agency. There are other documents and articles showing that he also remained close to the State Department and White House, even interrupting a White House meeting during the Carter presidency when he turned up with Kirk Douglas. But the best story is not in the CREST documents. I came across this in a couple of books and managed to trace it back to an article in AARC quarterley, the journal of the Assassination Archives and Research Center by James Lesar, a Freedom of Information lawyer and researcher into the JFK assassination, among other things.
Lesar discovered that back in the late 60s and early 70s Helms suggested and was pushing for a TV series based on the novels of David St John – better known as E Howard Hunt. In May 1972 under CIA ‘cover arrangements’ a meeting was held at the MPAA building attended by senior CIA and White House officials including John Ehrlichmann and Richard Helms. They were there for a screening of The Godfather and met with executives from Paramount. Over the following days there was some correspondence between Martin Davis of Paramount and Martin J. Lukoskie, Chief of the Corporate Cover Branch of the CIA’s Cover and Commercial Staff. Davis wasn’t happy because he had a meeting a year or so earlier with a CIA representative on the subject of adapting Hunt’s books into a TV series, but had since cooled on the idea. Davis wanted clarification because it was his understanding that Paramount had first refusal if the CIA decided to go ahead. In the end the project was dropped, possibly because Helms knew that Hunt was involved in shady operations including the break-ins at the Watergate, and didn’t want to risk tarnishing the Agency’s reputation.
So, taking all this together – Valenti’s security clearances, his appearance on very limited distribution lists even after he had left the White House, the CIA’s interest in him and his ongoing relationship with them that lasted decades – it is probably safe to say he was some kind of CIA asset. That doesn’t mean that everything he did was at the CIA’s request, but some of it certainly was.
So was the ratings system a result of CIA interference? I don’t think so, and there are no documents implying that. However, the fact that Valenti had a Top Secret White House clearance and was close to the CIA during his career in politics, and was also a consultant to the State Department with another Top Secret clearance while starting the MPAA job probably had an influence. After all, on the face of it they went from a system of censorship to keep films in line with the Production Code to a system of letting the audience decide on the basis of public ratings. This appears more democratic, but it isn’t. Just like our government appear to be democratic, while classifying huge reams of information that is relevant to citizens and voters. That the MPAA behaves like the government in order to protect the big studios who are the MPAA’s clients is not that surprising, and is in part the result of being led by a man with a governmental mentality. So while the CIA probably weren’t involved in establishing the ratings system, Valenti’s government experience and ongoing relationships were certainly relevant.