Staring Down Greatness
Special to The Washington Post

In the summer of 1969, when I was perhaps the youngest CIA agent in history (I was 17), and Jack Valenti was beginning his long tenure presiding over the American Motion Picture Association, the two of us almost brought our fragile government grinding to a halt.

Let's back up. "Agent" might actually be a stretch.

Officially I was a $2.50-an-hour clerk-typist cataloguing films in the film library at CIA headquarters in Langley. The CIA kept a large vault of films and shipped them to its spooks worldwide who might be looking for some non-lethal way to pass the time between covert activities.

Much of my summer was passed in screening-room reveries in the company of a white-haired, crew-cut film library lifer named Marco. (Certain names have been changed in the interest of national security, and because I can't remember half of them.) Marco kept a stash of some of the better movies (I remember one much-rewound scene involving the young Angie Dickinson and no clothing worth mentioning), and most of my summer-hire pals thought I had life pretty good.

Once a week Marco and I drove into Washington to make the rounds of film distribution agencies. Our mission (and we always chose to accept it) was to return batches of borrowed films and pick up new ones. We would take an unmarked CIA cruiser from the motor pool and - after stopping for cigarettes for Marco - drive downtown to meet our "contacts."

Upon my selection to the operations team, I'd been briefed by our boss, Mr. Monopenny: "Marco sticks with the vehicle. Bradley, you enter the building, give the receptionist the name of our contact, make the exchange, exit the building, reenter the vehicle."

But I was no dim bulb - they hadn't hired me merely because my father had been a real CIA agent for 30 years, I swear-and I'd spotted a hitch in the plan.

"What should I say if someone asks where I'm from?"

"You say, 'I work for Mr. Monopenny.' "

"What if they ask who you work for?"

"You say, 'Mr. Monopenny works for Mr. Cox.' "

"What if they ask who Mr. Cox works for?"

Monopenny was getting exasperated, but I thought that it was an important point.

"Say, 'Mr. Cox works for Mr. Beatie.' "

Ah, yes, Mr. Beatie. He was the head of our entire division and the invocation of his name stopped my questioning cold.

For weeks Operation Film Drop went smoothly. Marco seemed to enjoy driving and smoking his cigarettes and telling stories about World War II and Korea. My favorite part was saying, "Cover me, Marco!" as I'd slide on my shades and exit the vehicle. Marco - Get lost, kid!" - would circle the block. I'd make the swap. No one ever asked me where I was from.

One afternoon, our contact list grew to include a Mr. Brown from the Motion Picture Association.

"Cover me, Marco!" We had stopped for the first time at the association offices. The receptionist said that Mr. Brown should be back soon.

Moments later a man in a magnificent gray suit swept in. Not for a moment did I assume this was Mr. Brown. He took some message slips from the receptionist, noticed me on the nearby sofa, and walked over.

"May I help you?"

Jack Valenti is notoriously un-tall, but I can still see him hovering overhead like Ursa Major.

"I'm here to see Mr. Brown."

"Who do you work for?"

"I work for Mr. Monopenny."

Valenti's eyes flickered.

"Who is Monopenny?"

I said: "Mr. Monopenny works for Mr. Cox."

But I was thinking: "I knew I shoulda made up my own cover story."

At the time I didn't have a clue that the man in front of me had flown 51 combat missions over Europe, ridden in John F. Kennedy's bloody motorcade, stood beside Lyndon Johnson as he took the oath of office. But I knew his suit cost 10 times more than Mr. Beatie's, knew from the steely look in his eyes that he'd chewed up and swallowed more power than I would ever dream of tasting.

And I did not imagine that my final answer - "He works for Mr. Beatie" - was going to satisfy him even a little bit. I was right. "Who does Mr. Beatie work for?" he said without a pause.

"The CIA," I confessed.

The steel went out of Jack Valenti's gaze. He looked me up and down once, twice, memorizing me, and without a word went into his office, closing the door.

Mr. Brown showed up eventually. Marco was out of cigarettes by the time I got back to the vehicle.

A week later I was rewinding the seduction scene from "The Graduate" when Marco banged open the screening room door.

"Newsham, they want you down the hall!" Then, after a significant silence he added, "Some real brass."

I pulled on my J.C. Penney sports coat, affixed my CIA badge and my clip-on tie. Crew-cut men in colorless suits crowded around an oval table in the conference room, smoking cigarettes and sizing me up. Mr. Beatie looked nervous.

"These men would like to ask you some questions, Bradley. Can I get you a Coke or anything?"

"No, thanks."

I would take mine like a man.

Sure enough, the unsmiling men asked me to tell them what I remembered about last Tuesday's film run. About halfway through my story they started leaning back in their chairs. Smiles started to poke out from under their practiced stares. By the time I reached my punch line, "The CIA," the room was on the verge of table-thumping.

I stumbled out of there not knowing exactly what I had done, but Marco helped me put it all together.

"Think about it," he said. "All those years in the White House! You know Valenti must have made some enemies - maybe some right here in this building. He finds this punk CIA agent sitting in his office and he gets worried! He's been calling his contacts trying to find out why the CIA is poking around."

Men I'd never seen before began dropping by the Film Library to hear my tale and slug me on the shoulder. The entire Washington-New York corridor, they said, had become an angry beehive of phone calls and whispers. When I left that fall for my sophomore year of college, Marco told me he was looking forward to some peace and quiet.

I'm 48 years old now. Jack Valenti is 78. For more than 30 years he's been head of the MPAA. For 15 years I've been a San Francisco cab driver. Last Sunday night I parked near a bar at 18th and Castro, found a chair and sat back to watch the motion picture industry's biggest night, and to salute the most powerful man I ever threw a scare into.


Washington Post, Sunday, April 2, 2000

 
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