Jack Valenti

Money Is the Cancer in the Belly of American Politics … Jack Valenti

VTR Date: October 15, 1989

Guest: Valenti, Jack


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Jack Valenti
Title: “Money is the Cancer in the Belly of American Politics”
VTR: 10/15/89

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Decades ago, when I began this series, I realize that the effort would hardly be worth the candle if I couldn’t allow myself the luxury of recognizing in those potential guests I know as well as those I don’t know, their wisdom and insight and those may other intriguing qualities my audiences clearly want me to share with them here at this table. So that just as I make many new friends on THE OPEN MIND, on occasions I invite old friends, too, even long-time associates…such as Jack Valenti, the ever provocative and articulate President of the Motion Picture Association of America, with whom I do deal, professionally, most every day.

It is not, however, primarily as the film industry’s intrepid Ambassador to the world at large that I’ve invited my guest today…but rather as one enormously wise and experienced in the ways of American politics. As Lyndon Johnson’s intimately close White House Aide, Jack Valenti served his fellow Texas Democrat with consummate skill and unabashed loyalty…learning from the President so much about our public life, particularly about money and politics…leading him to say here on THE OPEN MIND last year: “Money is the cancer in the belly of American politics. It’s going to destroy this country and some of its great commandments. I think it’s a hand grenade whose pin has been pulled”.

Well, those were fighting words, and I want to ask my guest if a year later he feels any less concerned for our nation’s unique mix of money and politics. Jack?

Valenti: I do feel the same Dick, and as a matter of fact maybe I feel even more anxious about it. The part the money plays, and has to play is really an unruly and surly part of the political scene. I don’t blame public officials today. They didn’t make the rules, they’re just having to live by them. But the problem is that money is a problem, increasingly so because the cost of campaigning is rising exponentially. I had dinner with a good Senator, an able, public man, wise and thoughtful and courageous who told me that in his first race for the Senate he spent $900,000 and his race for re-election, six years later, he had to spend $3 million, and now in the race for his third term, he’s going to have to spend $6, $7, $8 million dollars. Now that is a quantum jump. And if you multiply that by all the other House and Senate races around the country, I think the picture’s dark and something ought to be done about it. Unfortunately, nothing is being done because of the need for a Constitutional amendment to limit expenditures. But sooner or later, it’s going to have to be done.

Heffner: Then that is the direction you would follow. When you were here last time with Don Rumsfeld, you were pushing for limitation. Is that the, the prime approach to this that you would take?

Valenti: I think it’s the only approach. Just as a number of people, far wiser than I believe the only way you’re going to solve the drug problem is not on its supply side, but on the demand side, and that is you have to limit people’s intake of drugs. I think you’ve got to limit people’s intake of the kind of money that’s required to, to run a campaign. That is, put a limit, a per capita limit on a registered voter. If there are a hundred voters in a town, you say, “Can spend no more than 20 cents per voter or 10 cents per voter”, and that way you put a cap on this spending. Unhappily, you can’t do that now because, and there was a case in 1976 called the Buckley versus Valeo case in which the Supreme Court decided that an individual had the right of free speech under the current Constitution, and free speech included spending money to get himself elected to office, which means that you could put limits on politics…I mean on political campaigning voluntarily, but any man with considerable means could spend whatever he chose, of his own money, to elect himself to public office. What is required now is a Constitutional amendment which would allow the Congress to put finite limits on the amount of money to be spent per voter and thereby escape from the grasp of the First Amendment.

Heffner: Well, now, you have been all in favor, and I know this, because you’ve said so on this program, of a single six year tern for President, requiring a Constitutional amendment. What chance do you see for the kind of amendment you’re talking about now?

Valenti: Well, I really…I see even a better chance for that amendment than I do for the six year term. But the problem is that if you’re in the minority, say, in the United States Senate, or any other body, you don’t want to put limits on what can be spent. And I think the Republican leadership in the Senate has a case to be made. They’re saying, “Look, we’re five or six votes shy of taking control of the Senate, and if you allow limits to be placed on…you give an unfair advantage to incumbents. There’s not some untruth to that at all. There’s a considerable amount of truth to it. But if it is the only way you’re going to be able to constrain this avalanche for money or campaigning, it…without these limits, I think in time, that it’s going to have a deleterious effect on the integrity of the system, and that’s what, what worries me most. And I think it concerns a lot of people who give some thought, both Republicans and Democrats to where this country is going over the next 10 to 20 years.

Heffner: Now you say in time you think that will happen. My feeling when I’ve heard you before is that you thought the time had come and passed, that indeed, it does have that kind of negative impact right now.

Valenti: I have never, in all of my 25 years in Washington, that I’ve been in and around politics, I’ve never really known, personally, any public man who sold himself because somebody gave him a thousand or five thousand or a twenty thousand dollar contribution, but I do think that it does loosen the fibers of integrity in the system, and there maybe some people that I don’t know about who may have fallen victim to this kind of a…of temptation. The temptation, that is, to want to be nice, or forthcoming to people who give you a lot of money to help you get elected, and that concerns me.

Heffner: Yes, but I know, in my dealings with you over the years, that your prime principle is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, and “don’t change unless you absolutely have to”, so you must feel that we “absolutely have to” do something here.

Valenti: I do, and I, I…above and beyond the integrity part, when you go to say, Dick, in the last…what…twelve years, where you went from maybe $115 million dollars that was spent on Senate and House election to today, where you’re spending close to a half a billion dollars, House and Senate; where twelve years ago you had about…what…608 PACS, and now you’ve 4,200 PACS, and these PACS twelve years ago raised maybe $12 million dollars…now they raise $150 million dollars. Where with between soft and hard money you had, maybe $60 million dollars per Presidential candidate spent in the last election, with each of the committees, Democrat and Republican, totaling about $200 million dollars in so-called “soft” money, and “soft” money means money that goes for “get out the vote” and all the other educational processes, but it’s funneled through states. There is little disclosure. You don’t know how much anybody gives, which is a terrifying gap, and I find all of that unsettling. But most of all, as I said earlier, besides the integrity factor, today Senators and Congressmen have to spend half their time raising money, the kind of money that needs to be raised – $10 thousand a week, $50 thousand a week, $100 thousand a week. In the ’88 election, in California, each of the candidates for Senate spent close to $15 to $16 million dollars apiece, maybe more for all we know because we don’t know how much was spent. Same is true in all other states. That takes a lot of a public official’s time…got to get on the phone…he’s got to call people, he’s got to go to fund-raising events, that demeaning personal process, but it is absolutely requisite if you’re going to be an effective public servant. And that means one who is in office.

Heffner: Well, now, when our mutual friend, Mike O’Neill sits at this table he always points to the camera and talks about the beady red eye of television. This does seem to be basic to the problem, the cost of political television, doesn’t it?

Valenti: Oh, without any question. I think that you…television absorbs an astonishing and obscene amount of money. I don’t have to tell you or anyone else who listens in that that is the single most terrorizing drain on a politician’s, public official’s campaign coffers. It’s enormous.

Heffner: Well, now, in the past you’ve suggested that the broadcasters have some essential obligation, and there are others who say, “Look you have a license, you have a public license, a license to print money perhaps. Maybe not so much today as in the past…you have an obligation to give the candidates for public office, give them time for their campaigns”. How do you feel about that?

Valenti: Well, I guess if I were a television station owner I wouldn’t feel too comfortable about that. But I do believe you…something could be worked out with broadcasters, they’re men and women of vision, and they understand how the game is played. But I think until you insert that in an overall plan which means putting an absolute cap on the amount of money that a candidate can spend per registered voter, or per voting age population, and to get an amendment which will leap beyond Buckley versus Valeo, so that as a wealthy multi-millionaire I can’t overwhelm you, the I don’t think we ought to be asking broadcasters to do this unless we get it all together, and I think it could be Senator Boren…I know…form Oklahoma has been trying desperately to do this, and there had been two…the Resolution, I think it’s SJ282, for the Constitutional amendment on limitations on spending, both times have collided with, with threats of filibuster, and with not enough votes for closure, and this Resolution has collapsed. But it will be brought back and sooner or later, it’s going to have to be passed.

Heffner: Jack, this question of Constitutional amendment…jumps over, leaps over the question of the possibility of the Supreme Court ruling other than it has ruled in the past, otherwise. Hs there been no thought given to the possibility that the Court is made up so differently now…

Valenti: Yes…a new court may have a new opinion.

Heffner: It is a new court.

Valenti: Well, that has crossed my own mind and several other people, and maybe it needs to be examined. Surely that would be easier than getting the Constitutional amendment. If the Court were so disposed…my memory falters when I try to remember what the…what the count was in the vote, it might have been unanimous, I don’t know…if it was unanimous, well there goes our…our last best hope for the court. But if it was a close vote, and I can’t remember exactly if it was, on the Court, yes there’s a possibility for that and it ought to be explored, but in the final end of it all, if the Court again rules against this limitation, there has to be …the last, best hope is a Constitutional amendment.

Heffner: Look, I’ve heard what you’ve said about perhaps not a matter of corruption, but a matter of time…we’re corrupting the time schedule of the men and women who should be paying attention to the public interest, not to raising dollars. But is there…has there…have there been many cases in which you think that it was money that spoke at an election and that it was money that changed an election fro going one way and made it go another?

Valenti: Oh, I don’t think it’s any question that pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into television…the thirty second commercial, the aggressive commercial, the ones that we’ve gotten used to poking a sharp stick in the eye of your opponent in a twenty or thirty second commercial, has won elections. No question about that. Therefore, the syllogism goes, that if you can weigh in with enough money to buy enough time, with enough skilled practitioners of the art of the javelin throw on a …in a commercial…yes, I think you can win elections, and, and I could probably cite for you, with a little research, any number of them beginning in the last election, 1988, and going back.

Heffner: Okay, then…then I wanted to turn to the question of debates because one of the subjects that has come up has been the paucity of real exchanges among candidates, and I wanted to go back and just flesh out a little historical information here. When you were in the White House, was Lyndon Johnson totally opposed to the idea of debating his opponent in ’64?

Valenti: Absolutely. Why…why should…that’s political strategy. There’s nothing in the Constitution that says you’ve got to debate anybody. I think the Nixon/Kennedy debates were the first televised debates…that maybe Lincoln/Douglas was the first debates that captured the nation’s interest. But when you’re ahead in the polls, and your opponent is desperately thrashing about trying to find some way to attack you, why should you go on television and offer him this splendid, glowing, resplendent opportunity to bash your head in? So, Lyndon Johnson wasn’t about to debate with Goldwater, and I, and others were counseling him not to because that would have been, I think, foolish political tactics. Now one may say, “Well, that’s not the way you should do it. That’s not in the great tradition of American politics”. But if…you know, you want to win the election, and why should you give an advantage to your opponent when you don’t have to?

Heffner: But, of course, what you’re saying now bolsters your own point about needing government action to end the…this nasty impact of dollars…

Valenti: Precisely.

Heffner: …in television.

Valenti: I’m saying, Dick, voluntarism, a noble enterprise in the private lives of all of us doesn’t work in politics. The name of the game is to win within the legal perimeters that have been set out…follow the rules of the game…therefore, if you think it is in your long term best political interests not to debate your opponent and give him a rostrum that he can’t command without your presence why do it…voluntarily? If the government were to come in as an honest arbiter here and say, “Ladies and gentlemen, we can’t command you to debate, that’s apolitical strategy, but we can, we can manacle you to a percent per voter cap”, and when I say “cap”, Dick, I’m talking about television, staff, banners, posters, whatever…direct mail…an absolute cap, and then find the most strenuous way to enforce it, then I think you have a playing field that is not only level, but fair, and then you can unleash a political candidate or an incumbent to be able to do his job and not spend 40, 50, 80, 90 percent of his waking and sleeping moments trying to figure out how to raise money.

Heffner: Okay, if we can do that, can’t we say now that government does put money into political races? The money is available if you spend the money in this way meaning if you debate, if you do this…

Valenti: That’s right.

Heffner: …if you do that.

Valenti: But it takes two to tango. And I may say I’m going to abide within the rules and I’ll take my public financing and I’ll do all the things, and I’ll do everything. But my opponent says, “Wait a minute, under Buckley and Valeo I can spend all I want to spend…I don’t want public financing. I reject it. I will spend my own money”. Under the rules that we now play under, Dick, he can do exactly that and be perfectly within his legal rights. Now, how the public would react to this, that’s another thing, but that’s part of political strategy.

Heffner: That we haven’t tried though, yet.

Valenti: Oh, we have. For example, they’re…they’re…I think in New York that had a…

Heffner: Yes, here in New York. No, I meant on the national level.

Valenti: Well, I think you’ll find, as I recall in the primaries, when people were out scurrying around for votes, you can take public funds, matching funds, but if you don’t take matching funds, then you can spend up to your limit. Both Dukakis and Bush, in the last election, stayed within limits. I think they spent, if I’m not mistaken, about $40 million dollars apiece and…and by staying within the limits. But if one of them said, “No, I’m not going to do it”, he could have gone for private contributions for as high as you could stack it. No, Dick, there cannot be voluntarism in this mercurial and unpredictable business. There must be a new rules of the game, that all candidates must submit to.

Heffner: Why, Jack, are you then so unsympathetic, as I know you are, to the attitude that is expressed now by the European economic community toward the world of film, toward the world of television, toward the purchase by various members of the European community of American product? That’s a semi-governmental activity now. You’ve been excited about that, too.

Valenti: Well, it seems to me though that what a cap on voting is, it’s a domestic enterprise only in the United States and it merely says “All people who enter this arena will play under the same rules”. No problem on that. What the European community is doing is putting up siege walls and barricades, however porous they may be and saying, “Non-European community is going to be treated differently than European community material”. That’s totally different. Number two, my attitude, on behalf of the U.S. film and television industry is that we want to leave it up to the consumer to make this choice about what he wants to watch on television. If we have programs that European television stations don’t want to buy because they say, “We think it’s garbage”, so be it, perhaps it is. But if they do want to buy it, and customers and consumers want to watch it, then we believe it is wrong in the long term interest of a congenial trading relationship, between the twelve nation European community and the United States to have artificial barriers erected by governments standing in the way of consumer choice. Now I don’t find that an unfair kind of a…of a stance. I think…I say…I believe in the Golden rule of trade, and that is, American businessmen, from whatever industry, ought to have the same freedom of access to European markets, to world markets, that world businessmen find so alluring and so seductive in ours. That bad?

Heffner: I…it’s not a matter of good or bad, and the problem here is that you and I are in agreement on this, but this question of “open skies”, open ideas, open minds, if you’ll forgive me, this seems to be so peculiarly American…it seems to be our idea that is not shared by the other peoples of the world and I wonder, unless you have all the political and economic moxie to overcome that, are you going to be able, intellectually, to overcome their barrier-ism?

Valenti: Well, Dick, let’s go to the seminal question. Why should there be a quota? Now the reason that many European, my European friends give is “We want to protect our culture”. Well, American films and television programs have been going into Europe for 30, 40, 50 years, and I haven’t noticed any collapse of French, or British, or German or Spanish or Italian culture in the least. Number two, it’s interesting that it’s a European-wide community quota in which European community material is going to be treated the same, yet while it is true that French television material occupies about one percent of the U.S. television sets…television sets…in this country, the Italian material occupies only about one percent on French television. So, how do you…how do you manage that? Number three, is if there’s a French culture and an Italian culture and a Belgian culture, then how will go to into the 1990s beyond 1992…is French culture going to damage French…I mean is French culture going to damage Italian culture? Is British culture going to collapse German culture? Because they’re all going to be mixed? I only go into this long-disjointed explanation…is that I think the cultural argument is a charade. What’s really at stake here is economics, and that is if we can somehow baffle the American entry, if we can strangle, suffocate, or otherwise exile American material, then some local producers will have a better shot at getting some of their material on, that given free choice, they can’t sell right now.

Heffner: Well, the, the argument that is frequently offered about American cultural imperialism connecting the cultural argument with the economic argument…is there nothing to that at all? Is there nothing to the notion that we have…I hear what you say about the French and the Italians, but that we have so dominated the communications world, that if things continue as they are going, there really will be no opportunity for them to establish their own native film or television industries?

Valenti: Not true, Dick. Today the only two countries that have stern quotas are the United Kingdom and France. Spain has some minor quotas, but they’re not that bad. The Italians have some, but sure are not that bad. The other eight countries of the European community have no quotas. They haven’t felt the necessity for it, doesn’t exist. And number two, keep in mind that the American television program is always the second most popular program in a European country. The French love their own programs first. They love ours second. The Italians love their programs first. They love ours second, and so forth.

Heffner: Which leads me to ask, what is it…do you think that enables us so to get under the skin of other peoples that we can almost invariable be number two, even if we’re not number one? What have we got that so captivates the rest of the world?

Valenti: You know if I could answer that question, I’d quit what I’m doing and make television programs. The answer is…I really don’t know except that I believe in the mysterious process of telling a story on film or tape that flies around the world on gossamer wings, that we understand better than anybody else how to deal with global audiences, whereas in m any cases local industries deal with their local audience. I think that’s one. Number two, we have no patent on this, Dick. There is…we don’t have somewhere in the vault the secret formula…

Heffner: But we seem to have a monopoly. No patent, but a monopoly.

Valenti: But it’s an open monopoly in the sense that we invite filmmakers from all over the world to come here and make films, and indeed, our filmmakers go to Europe to make films. The cinema and television experience, is really…has a commonality to it. What you’re doing is you’re telling stories…that’s what…you’re story-tellers. So that you hold a German family to a TV set for a half-hour or an hour or two hours in which they are transported to some far-distance place, where they’re being entertained. Now, I don’t know why, but I do believe that the only people who ought to make judgments about what they watch on television are not government bureaucrats, Presidents, or Prime Ministers, or Parliaments, none of whom have ever made a TV program in their life. It ought to be the consumers, the viewers who make that choice, and on that I would…I would rest my case. My…my philosophy is founded by Voltaire…who once said, when somebody told him “How did he think he was treated by Parisian audiences?” he says, “I’ve put my future in the Parisians’ hands. If one of my plays is well attended, it’s probably because I wrote a good play. If one of my plays is not attended well, it’s probably because I wrote a bad play. But in any case, the Parisians must make that decision, not I”.

Heffner: Jack, that’s a terrific place for us to end our program. Thank you so much for joining me today, Jack Valenti.

Valenti: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s charismatic guest, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The Lawrence A. Wien Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.