Before he passed away earlier this spring, Jack Valenti completed his memoir, “This Time, This Place: My Life In War, the White House and Hollywood.” I have not read all of it, but I wanted to post in advance of its official publication on Tuesday (it’s been available for a couple of weeks at most major bookstores).
Far and away the most interesting highlights of the book — broken into three parts — concern not Valenti’s observations on the entertainment industry but on his tenure in the Johnson adminstration. It’s here that Valenti is best at recounting details and interspersing them with wisdom.
A steadfast defender of Johnson throughout his life, Valenti nevertheless sheds some light on the decision-making in advance of the escalation of the Vietnam war. As Valenti recalls, only undersecretary of state George Ball among Johnson’s many advisers in 1965 recommended a pullout, arguing that the United States would get bogged down in the country.
Valenti saw the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq. He writes:
The president said to Ball, “But, George, wouldn’t all our allies in Asia say that Uncle Sam was a paper tiger, wouldn;t we lose crediblity by breaking the word of three presidents, if we did as you propose? It would seem to be an irreparable blow.”
“No sir,” responded Ball. “The worst blow would be if the greatest power on earth was unable to defeat a handful of guerillas.” Substitute “insurgents” for “guerillas,” and forty years later Ball’s nightmare scenario would visit the Pentagon’s war plans in Iraq, and eat greedily at their vitals.”
Valenti himself never spoke out at such sessions, but expressed his views in written memos. He urged the president to meet with Indochina historians — in an effort to “know” the enemy — but nothing ever came of it. “I confess I hated the war, but I had no ready alternative.”
Valenti writes further that Johnson expressed reservations about the decision, and one time said to him, “If I could just get to the table with Ho Chi Minh, we could find a way out of this damnable war.”
In the Hollywood parts of the book, Valenti offer effusive praise to colleagues, in particular the many celebrities he met along the way. He does offer some criticisms — Oliver Stone, for one. Valenti was disturbed by the movie “JFK,” he called it “beguiling crap,” and threatened to resign as MPAA chairman so he could go public in his bashing of the movie. But Warner Bros. chairman Bob Daly talked him out of it and Valenti waited Academy Awards voting had ended before taking his case to the press.
He also goes into detail about the now-infamnous screener ban, on of the last major initiatives he had as MPAA chairman. A judge eventually overturned it on antitrust grounds, and Valenti concedes that he didn’t consult enough “friends and allies” before announcing the ban, getting the political support first in the industry rather than have to fight for it later. “To me, the whole enterprise was a sad piece of business. The only good news was that I was damn glad that it was over. It was a bitch.”