April 27, 2007  ·  Lessig

I was extremely sad to read this morning that Jack Valenti has died.

I met Valenti just about 10 years ago while I was at Harvard. Soon after I met him, he published a piece that was extremely nasty about me. A couple months later, he came to Harvard to debate me. He began by apologizing, marking the piece as the “dumbest” thing he had written.

From that moment on, every moment I was privileged to know the man was also a surprise. He was brilliant, and funny, and extraordinarily generous. We debated four times. In each he was self-deprecating, funny, and very very clever — feigning ignorance where it helped, pouncing when it worked. The last time I saw him was at the premier of Gore’s film in Washington. He pulled me aside, and spent 15 minutes asking about everything in my life.

Our positions on many things could not be more different, though we shared certain, fundamental values. It took him 10 seconds to agree to endorse Creative Commons at our launch. Watch the characteristically Valenti (funny, self-deprecating, but very smart) (and totally exaggerating my role but forgive him for that) here:

Valenti taught me many things. But best among those things was the importance of civility. He was respectful and strong, never demeaning or belittling of those he disagreed with. A conversation with him would not produce converts. But it did, in important ways, produce understanding.

We are all worse off because of his passing, and he will be missed by many. But the model of his life as a man will always be remembered. And taught. At least, by me.

  • http://kristofn.wordpress.com kristofn

    Let’s be honest here, I don’t think most will remember him by the speech he’s giving in this youtube bit.

    Rest in peace, but he was no friend to the copyright bargain as most people who read this blog envisage it.

  • lessig

    Honest is all I want to be here. I’ve spent many hours trying to understand my affection for this man. He gave me nothing of tangible value. He brokered no important deals. He didn’t call for advice. He didn’t invite me to his house. So what was it? What is there to admire.

    First, obviously, I’ve not said he agreed with my views about copyright. I use his quotes as stalking horses in just about every speech I give.

    But there are two things about this YouTube bit that I think significant: First, his views were not knee jerk. I’m sure the marketing people at the MPAA warned him against associating with Creative Commons. “Too subtle a message” they would have said. He would have ignored that advice.

    But second, and more important than anything to do with Creative Commons, what I admire is his manner. That’s what I meant by civility. We could understand differences, but make progress nonetheless.

    Many said Jack didn’t get the digital age. I think what he didn’t get was binary thinking. As a man who stood next to Jackie Kennedy as Johnson was sworn into office, and who lived the following forty some years in public life, he understood the importance in subtle differences. Let that analog understanding survive.

  • http://kristofn.wordpress.com kristofn

    I acknowledge your personal affection to Jack Valenti, and by no means can people with colliding views therefore not have good interpersonal respect. Hence, rest in peace.

    In relation to Creative Commons, however, let us be clear that the need for CC originates (in my view) from the push of media conglomerates at the TRIPS council (and no doubt American Congress) towards a hopelessly improperly balanced copyright system. Valenti spearheaded this push, if I recall correctly.

  • http://www.copyrightings.com Kevin Donovan

    I’ve respected and admired you since reading your work a few years ago.

    This post has done more to show you deserve that respect than any legal theory could.

  • Sam

    I attended and vividly remember the HLS “debate” between Larry and Jack Valenti. Put simply, Valenti was completely unconvincing, but highly endearing. He had an enviable ability to ingratiate himself with his audience and even his sophistry — he knew how to evade arguments he would lose — made him more not less likeable.

  • http://blog.waxbanks.net Wally H.

    Prof. Lessig -

    This is a lovely post. Amid the flood of dimwitted invective directed at the man by the Geek Chorus of Cyberspace, you’ve said what needs be said. Thanks for that.

  • Laura

    Precisely, Sam. I saw him speak at a conference in 2004, and, though I completely disagreed with most of his positions, I found myself utterly charmed by him. Perhaps it was because I disagreed with his positions that I found myself charmed. That, I think, is the paradox of the persona of Jack Valenti.

  • http://www.interflect.com Mark Seery

    Classy piece Lawrence. Full of important points.

  • Hexatron

    The warmth. The attention to YOU. The silver coiff. And you bought it.

    If you were a little fish, you would be telling us how ‘that kind anglerfish was giving you the most delicious worm.’

    His loud denuciation was the voice of his deepest sincerity.
    His whispered kindnesses were just ‘cooling the mark.’
    His view of you was nothing like your view of him.
    For one thing, he never forgot where his interests lay or who his enemies were.

    But though he be dead, his hearty handshake and warm exterior live on in a thousand slimeballs.

  • Swan
  • http://freeculturefoundation.org/ David Berry

    Public relations.

    Full stop.

    You don’t need affection for it. You don’t need to lose sleep over why you felt charmed by it. It plays on emotions and it plays on the desire by the other to have a ‘rational’ discussion in order to ignore rationality and instead appeal to the lowest common denominator.

    It plays hardball in order to win; not to make friends.

  • http://www.againstmonopoly.org Justin Levine

    “Many said Jack didn’t get the digital age. I think what he didn’t get was binary thinking. “

    Fair enough. But perhaps even you fail to grasp that the digital age presents binary problems. Either filesharing will be legal, or it wont. Either the VCR will be allowed to exist, or it won’t. Technology often dictates the choices we have. For many of our current copyright problems, the choice is either 1 or 0 and we won’t be allowed to split the baby.

  • kamm

    Valenti was one of the most disgusting, worm-like MPAA/RIAA lobbyist, good riddance he’s gone now.
    One worm bit the dust, thousand other to go.