Civility, Persistence Were Hallmarks of Jack Valenti’s Life

Posted May 2, 2007 at 6:01pm

Jack Valenti died last week the way he lived — courageously fighting to recover his health from a massive stroke and giving his family and friends hope that he would make it. Even when sedated, as caring hospice workers prepared us to expect death imminently, Jack fought to live.

And live he did. Most people at 85 might want to slow down, retire. Not Jack Valenti. His schedule was packed. I saw him last at a dinner he hosted in mid-March for those of us planning the 100th birthday celebration of President Lyndon Johnson next year. His recently completed personal chronicle of his exciting life was scheduled for publication in June. He was excited about the grueling multistate speaking schedule he was about to begin. Just days later, following one of those speeches, he complained that he couldn’t clearly see the audience. His doctor recognized this as a stroke and hospitalized him immediately. This was one adversary he couldn’t conquer.

Just as every one of us who worked for President Johnson took away life lessons, everyone who knew Jack Valenti did the same. He taught us how curiosity, communication, civility and persistence could be mighty tools for success. And when success wasn’t to be, he taught us to move on to the next battle. He looked back only to learn what he could do better.

I first met Jack Valenti when I was a law student. I had done some volunteer advance work in the 1964 presidential campaign and Jack was the first person to interview me for a job as deputy to Johnson’s new appointments secretary, Marvin Watson.

Jack played a unique, all-purpose role on President Johnson’s staff. He could quickly edit a mundane presidential speech and make it paint a vivid picture. He could win friends for President Johnson — be they politicians, entertainers or business moguls — practicing Johnson’s famous phrase, “come, let us reason together.” He was a troubleshooter supreme on almost any issue. Even after he left the White House staff, President Johnson regularly called on Jack for counsel, commiseration, companionship or to arrange a particularly sensitive mission.

I remember the waning months of 1967, when President Johnson was weighing whether to run for re-election. He was consumed by trying to reach an honorable peace agreement in Vietnam. Several “peace feelers” were in play, including one that involved Pope Paul VI. In December, Johnson’s friend and close ally, Prime Minister Harold Holt of Australia, died in a swimming accident. Immediately, the president decided to go to Australia for the memorial service. He wanted to take only a few of us from the White House, but he definitely wanted Jack Valenti.

While in Australia, the president decided to make a surprise visit to U.S. troops in Vietnam and to proceed then to Rome to see the Pope. White House trips of this nature usually take months of preparation. This five-day, around-the-world trip was planned and executed in less than a week. Because Jack had been our principal outreach to the Catholic Church, he was instrumental in setting up the meeting with the Pope, which occurred two days before Christmas in1967.

Johnson books have reported how Jack took the brunt of the famous Johnson temper on quite a few occasions. He did get more than his fair share. Ironically, that was a measure of how much President Johnson trusted and respected Jack’s strength. He knew Jack would take it and move on. Jack used to say that with all the pressures on the president, it was better for him to blow off at a close friend than to Aleksei Kosygin or Leonid Brezhnev during this Cold War era.

Jack was a voracious reader, everything from the classics to histories, biographies and fiction. He saved facts and phrases from these books and inevitably shared them in his speeches or opinion pieces. He especially noted stories from friends. If you ever told Jack something, it seemed to register with him forever and he would retell it years later. As he was writing his latest book, he called me to fact-check a story I’d told him years before about a meeting I’d had with President Ronald Reagan when I was House Budget chairman. That was some 25 years ago, but Jack recalled it perfectly.

Jack loved the give-and-take of Washington politics. He loved the gossip. He never quit loving or defending President Johnson. Earlier this year Lyndon Boozer, whose mother was one of President Johnson’s trusted secretaries, tried to move legislation to name the Department of Education building for President Johnson. I had helped Boozer with some Congressional contacts and with White House Chief of Staff Andy Card. But the bill languished, awaiting some signal from the White House. We went to see Jack Valenti, who said he would contact his friend, first lady Laura Bush. Another touch of Jack’s magic. Legislative gears started moving, and last month President Bush signed the bill into law.

Jack taught us how to win and to be civil in the process. He found people — friends and adversaries alike — interesting. He was curious about them, where they came from, what motivated them. Unlike so many in public life, Jack was a listener before being a talker. Once he heard, he knew how to shape his conversation in the most positive way to be received by the other person. Jack didn’t always win, but I can’t think of any battles he fought that left the opposition with a bitter taste about him. He was truly the epitome of being able to disagree without being disagreeable.

Former Rep. James R. Jones (D-Okla.) is co-chairman of Manatt Jones Global Strategies in Washington, D.C.