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R.I.P., Jack Valenti

I thought Jack Valenti was wrong about most of the tech-policy issues that he spoke about, but I'm going to miss that guy.

Valenti--a bomber pilot in World War II, trusted aide to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and Motion Picture Association of America president for decades--died yesterday at 85.

He was one of those people whose voice burrowed into your head. After I'd heard him speak once or twice, I couldn't help but hear his Texas twang speaking whatever quote I saw attributed to him in the papers.

(One of the lingering regrets of my career is showing up a few minutes late to a Post boardroom luncheon with Valenti that had started with him denouncing a column I'd written about the MPAA's "technological totalitarianism." When I sat down, then-managing editor Steve Coll leaned over to summarize Valenti's opening statement as "he took your name in vain"; I felt like I'd missed the whole show.)

Valenti tended to proclaim his opinions in outlandish metaphors--no obituary to him can be published without quoting his infamous declaration: "I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone."

In other words, Valenti--as you might want your own lawyer to do--was a relentless advocate for his cause.: "would you go into a Blockbuster store and furtively put a DVD under your jacket and walk out with it? Of course you wouldn't. But you see no harm about putting a movie in your digital hard drive jacket and walk off with that.

But far too often, he emphasized the risks of digital piracy while ignoring the rewards of digital distribution--a sensible position for a law-enforcement figure to take, but a short-sighted stance for somebody who was supposed to speak for an entire industry. (One of his favorite sayings--"If You Cannot Protect What You Own, You Don't Own Anything!" (PDF)--turned out to be a too-accurate description of the risks of the overly aggressive copy-restriction systems he sought.)

With all his talents, Jack Valenti could have sold ice cream at the northernmost tip of Alaska. I wish that he'd had more time to put his talents to work for more worthy causes. We would have been better for it.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  April 27, 2007; 10:31 AM ET
Categories:  The business we have chosen  
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