Valenti: I’m Not Budging

Posted January 24, 2003 at 6:39pm

For all those star-struck politicians angling for the perfect bicoastal Washington-Hollywood existence, Motion Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti has a message for you: His job’s not open — at least not yet.

In the last week and a half, the K Street/Capitol Hill rumor mill has been whirring with talk that colorful House Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) will soon replace the seemingly ageless Valenti as Hollywood’s man on the Potomac.

While Valenti has wonderful things to say about Tauzin, he insists that “not a single human being” — including himself or anybody else affiliated with the Motion Picture Association — has talked to the Louisiana Republican about the job.

And frankly, Valenti, who was one of President Lyndon Johnson’s top aides, is getting a little tired of all the rumors, although he understands their motivation.

“I’ve been here for 37 years and people say, ‘When the hell is that old bastard going to leave?’” cracked the 81-year-old Valenti.

Tauzin, who is term-limited as chairman and will have to give up his gavel at the end of 2006, claims to be equally annoyed — even if all the attention is undeniably flattering. The chairman’s spokesman, Ken Johnson, said that in the past week alone his boss has been mentioned as a replacement for the top spot at the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, the MPAA and the Recording Industry Association of America.

“I’m going to be as emphatic as I can,” Johnson said. “Yesterday it was the CTIA, today it’s the MPAA and tomorrow it will be the RIAA. Frankly, we’re f-e-d-u-p with all the rumors. Billy has a job and he’s not looking to take anyone else’s.”

Johnson later added that the speculation had gotten so out of control that the spokesman himself was mentioned as a possible replacement for James May, who will leave his position as the chief lobbyist for the National Association of Broadcasters at the end of the month.

“I told the reporter who called that I think they got my name mixed up for the vacancy in the mailroom,” Johnson said.

Valenti said he too was bewildered about the timing of the rumors, which came the same week that RIAA President Hilary Rosen and CTIA chief Thomas Wheeler announced they were, in fact, heading for the door.

K Street will no doubt weigh in on the RIAA and CTIA vacancies soon enough, but in the last week most of the intrigue has swirled around the MPAA post, long considered the most sought-after lobbying job in Washington by virtue of its immediate entree to studio execs, superstars and glitzy Hollywood soirees.

Names that have surfaced as possible successors to Valenti in the past few years include: former President Bill Clinton, former U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor, former Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine), former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) and, just four months ago, Paramount Pictures chief Sherry Lansing.

“The only person who hasn’t been mentioned is Adam Sandler,” Valenti quipped, referring to the comedian-turned-actor. “First, I think Billy Tauzin is a giant leader and if the job was open he could do a great job, no question about that. But not a single human being, including myself and my board of directors, has talked to Billy Tauzin about it.”

“I will be leaving,” Valenti continued. “I don’t know whether it’s this year or next, or one month from now, or three months from now, or 18 months from now. When I make up my mind, it will be on my track schedule — no one else’s.”

In fact, Valenti said he thought it would be a breach of Congressional ethics to be talking to a Member of Congress about taking over the job, which consistently tops the list as one of the highest-paid lobbying posts in Washington, commanding more than $1 million a year.

“The only person who would be making overtures to a possible successor would be me and I haven’t spoken one word, not one word. I have not talked to anyone on his staff or to Billy or anybody close to Billy,” he insisted.

But there’s no doubt that Tauzin could be on Valenti’s short list if and when he decides to make his exit.

“I don’t know of anybody else who would do a better job,” Valenti noted. “I think Billy Tauzin is one of the most extraordinary leaders that I know and he has one of the most attractive gifts: a wonderful sense of humor. But there’s no job vacancy.”

In the meantime, some on K Street have all but anointed Tauzin. One lobbyist friendly to Tauzin said this is a perfect job for the chairman.

“Billy is well-respected on both sides of the aisle,” said the lobbyist. “And he’s got one of the sharpest minds in Congress.

“Besides,” the lobbyist added with a laugh, “he’s just a tiny bit taller than Jack.”

The high praise didn’t surprise Tauzin. When Lansing’s name surfaced, Valenti had nice things to say about her as well, noting that she would raise the stature of the position.

“Billy would tell you that no one can do a better job than Jack Valenti,” Johnson said. “They’ve had mutual respect for each other for nearly 20 years.”

Valenti, however, stressed that he is feeling great, works out every morning, still travels the country (California three times a month) and makes regular jaunts to Asia and Latin America.

“So long as it’s fun and full of challenges, I’ll stay,” he said. “I’ll set my time. Obviously, I’m not going to stay forever but as Henry Kissinger used to say: ‘If I die …’ That’s really the same attitude I have.”