April 30, 2007 5:49 PM
When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes, as a critic often feels he is, there can still be compensations. This old scribe, having written on many more than one occasion a piece that was all but universally derided and pilloried, has been lucky enough to have his spirits lifted and bruises soothed by the generous kindness of a salty and peppery man named Jack Valenti, president and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America.
Jack was not a student of the old school, he was a professor emeritus, maybe even the dean-and in the most literal senses, both gentleman and scholar. He was also a writer, primarily of speeches, and one whose love of the English language did not go unrequited. When Jack Valenti gave a speech, those of us who were fond observers would count the number of times he dipped into antiquity for a quotation, a phrase or some venerable pearl of wisdom. Jack's speeches were strings of those pearls, and rare was the occasion when Homer or Plato or Abraham Lincoln failed to make an appearance-via quotation, of course.
About three hours after worriedly discussing Valenti's declining health with a mutual friend late last week, I heard the sad news from Katie Couric on "The CBS Evening News": Jack Valenti had died earlier that day at the age of 85. I hadn't run into him in several weeks, maybe months, but his talents and charm were fresh in my mind from the chat I'd had that day with my friend.
It is customary to call the death of a celebrated and influential person the end of an era, but Valenti's era ended many decades ago-in the sense that he expressed himself with such formal flourish and elegant erudition, that he was so fastidious in manner and gentility and personal style, that he observed old-world rules and customs which lesser men had long since discarded. There wasn't time for Jack Valenti's kind of erudition and decorum, but he managed to make time.
I don't mean he was fusty or stuffy, or snobbish, or anything resembling a fuddy-duddy, because he was none of those things. You don't spend years working closely with Lyndon Johnson, as Valenti did, without learning plenty of ribald references and developing an earthy sense of humor. There was also about Valenti something that cannot be learned, acquired or cultivated-not unless you're born with it. That would be, corny as it sounds, the very proverbial "twinkle in the eye." Jack had that, or them (two eyes, two twinkles) and thus never had to learn how to fake it.
They were unmistakable signs of an overall natural ebullience and an appreciation of life's pleasanter possibilities. Having an expense account big enough to rebuild New Orleans has to help in the enjoyment of life's pleasures, it's true, but Jack managed never to come across as decadent in his tony extravagance or custom-made suits. They were a second skin to him.
The world already had a crucial shortage of men like Jack Valenti: there was really only one. And now zero.