Meet Chris Dodd, Hollywood's new man in Washington

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 15, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Chris Dodd's favorite movies are classics like "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "On the Waterfront," movies that, as he puts it, "are more likely to have adult conversations."

The former Connecticut senator may need the resolve of Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch and Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy, characters in those films who overcame cultural challenges, as he takes his new job as chairman and chief executive officer of the Motion Picture Association of America.

He'll be Hollywood's ambassador to Washington. He starts March 17.

"I wanted to start on St. Patrick's Day — a good Irishman likes the idea of beginning on the highest of all holidays," said Dodd, in an interview with McClatchy. The 66 year-old Democrat retired from Senate in January after serving 30 years.

Dodd's no grim-faced Peck or beaten-up Brando, but he is considered a master of the adult Washington conversation. Those skills, said industry insiders, are a big part of what got him the job as the voice of the dream factory in the nation's capital, because the movie industry badly needs a friendly Washington face.

From 1966 through 2004, it spoke through Jack Valenti, the legendary ex-LBJ aide and white-haired bon vivant. Valenti's "movie nights" at the MPAA downtown D.C. headquarters were cherished invitations.

But times changed. Studios became part of bigger conglomerates. Movie attendance has stagnated in recent years.

And Valenti's successor Dan Glickman, the former Kansas congressman and Agriculture secretary, never won the same kind of affection in either Washington or Hollywood. Insiders said that Glickman lacked Valenti's bonhomie and penchant for outsized rhetoric, which both capitals loved.

"A lot of people think the job is walking the red carpet, which you do, but a lot of it is lobbying, going overseas. It's a tough job," Glickman said. "It's an industry that employs a lot of people in this country. You're also dealing with a lot of Type A types. It ain't a piece of cake. It's tough work."

Dodd was chosen because of his "reputation as a consensus builder," said Jim Gianopulos, chairman and chief executive officer of Fox Filmed Entertainment and a search committee member. "He has an ability to manage complex issues across diverse constituencies."

"The big question is not why they hired Sen. Dodd. It's why does he want it?" asked Gigi Johnson, a lecturer at UCLA's Anderson School of Management.

The choice stirred some controversy. He's barred by law from lobbying Congress for the next 22 months, and Dodd told the Connecticut Mirror in August four months before leaving the Senate that he would do "no lobbying, no lobbying."

Yet the MPAA job is considered one of Washington's plum lobbying positions.

Dodd said he won't actually be lobbying, and Fox's Gianopulos noted that the individual film companies are well represented in Washington on their own.

"We were looking for leadership, direction and consensus-building," he said.

MPAA spokesman Howard Gantman noted that the job encompasses much more than lobbying Congress, since the agency deals with issues at the state and local levels as well as with Washington's executive branch.

Dodd will head a global organization with about 200 employees and regional offices in Brussels, Singapore, Sao Paulo, Mexico City and Toronto. The MPAA also works with content-protection groups and organizations in over 30 countries.

While Dodd can't initiate conversations about MPAA policy with his former legislative colleagues, nor can he push its positions, those ex-colleagues can ask him questions or discuss matters should they see him socially, as long as he doesn't lobby on behalf of MPAA positions.

Ethics watchdogs aren't pleased.

"His position is head lobbyist for the MPAA. He's going to try to claim he won't be proactive lobbying members on public policy, but his activity will be social. It's incredulous," said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen.

Dodd is taking over an organization whose origins date back to 1922, when the major movie-studio barons — including Samuel Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer — formed the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America to help combat a government drive for film censorship.

"It used to be that all Jack (Valenti) had to do was call the studios on positions," said Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California. "Now the people who Dodd will talk to will be enmeshed in corporate politics of larger companies."

Studios that were giants back in the movies' golden age are now pieces of larger corporate complexes. For example, cable-TV giant Comcast completed a $30 billion takeover in January of NBC Universal. The takeover included Universal Studios and theme parks.

Dodd will face some long-time on-going challenges: The illegal pirating of films, convincing other nations to make it easier to show American films, protecting intellectual property rights and dealing with evolving movie delivery systems, such as Netflix, DVDs, iPads and other new technologies.

When Dodd was first approached he said he was skeptical.

"It didn't make a lot of sense to me. My first-blush reaction was, I'm not into the glitz," he recalled.

But he has dabbled in the glitz. He appeared in the 1993 movie "Dave" as himself, and he has a long friendship with "Saturday Night Live" creator Lorne Michaels. Singer Paul Simon accompanied Dodd through Iowa in 2007 when Dodd sought the presidency.

And when Dodd was single in the 1980s, his friendships included Bianca Jagger, ex-wife of Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger, and actress Carrie Fisher.

During his 2008 presidential campaign, Dodd's relationship with Fisher, who played Princess Leia in "Star Wars," prompted him to tell a reporter that the friendship occurred a "long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away."

Dodd's ascension to the MPAA job, which reportedly will pay him about $1.5 million a year, comes after a rocky ending to a long political career.

He was Connecticut's favorite political son for decades. His father had served two terms as a U. S. senator, and Chris Dodd won five six-year terms, starting in 1980.

He wrote an historic family-leave law, became a major player on health and banking legislation, and chaired the Democratic Party for two years in the mid-1990s.

He married Jackie Clegg, an international trade consultant, in 1999. They now have two daughters.

Dodd's fortunes began to sour about three years ago. His run for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination ended after the first caucus in Iowa, where he finished a distant sixth.

Back in Washington, he came under fire for obtaining home mortgages under a special VIP program from Countrywide Financial, and for inserting language into legislation permitting insurance titan American International Group (AIG) to pay millions in previously negotiated bonuses in 2009, while the firm was getting federal help.

His approval ratings in Connecticut tumbled, and he didn't seek re-election last fall.

But his reputation in Washington, where he had long been known as a skilled negotiator and a willing compromiser, remained intact.

"He wasn't okay in Connecticut, but inside the Beltway he was okay, and that's what mattered to insiders," said Gary Rose, professor of politics and government at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.

Dodd was a major player in crafting overhauls of the health care and financial regulatory systems over the last two years, and kept his reputation intact.

"We had a lot of disagreements, but we still see each other socially, with our wives. A lot of people aren't able to do that," said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who was top Republican on the Senate Banking Committee when Dodd chaired the panel in recent years.

Reaching consensus is a well-honed Dodd skill, but this job will come with a potential difference: Getting movie-business executives' attention. Senators are usually in the same building and share common political interests. But the person who runs Walt Disney Corp. also has to deal with ESPN, cruise ships, the ABC television network, theme parks and more.

Not a problem, said USC's Kaplan, because as in the Senate, the right personality can get the job done.

"He's a skilled negotiator and he's well-liked in Washington, which is one of his constituencies," said Kaplan.

And he's got another feature that the movie folks love: "He comes as close to looking good on television as Valenti," Kaplan said.

ON THE WEB

Sen. Dodd's movie and television resume

Motion Picture Association of American web site

MPAA announcement of Dodd hiring

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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