Missing Jack, mindful of all he's meant

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WASHINGTON -- I have a new greeting. I no longer say hello, hey or howdy. I say: How's Jack?

When I first heard Jack Valenti had a stroke, I had two thoughts: First, get the story. Get it right. Get it first. I know that's really three thoughts, but they all run together. It may have been a little morbid to think about the story before the man, but, hey, I'm a reporter. Second, I hope he's OK.

I guess I'm trapped in the journalistic version of the Stockholm Syndrome where the hostage begins to have feelings for the kidnapper. I covered Jack as head of the MPAA for so long that I came to genuinely like the guy. Worse yet, like the hostages in the Norrmalmstorg robbery, I started to trust Jack. Trusting someone you cover is not necessarily a good thing for a newspaperman who should live by the motto: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."

Since he retired, I can lay my genuine feelings for him on the line. I do really care for Jack, and not just for news value. Although news value is never far from my mind. There are a lot of people on both coasts that want to know how he's doing.

I wish Jack's family would be a little more forthcoming about his condition, but that's unlikely. For all his public persona as lobbyist extraordinaire, counselor to presidents and war hero, Jack is a very private man. I'm told by some of his former associates and friends that he's doing better every day, but that his recovery is going to take some time. They tell me that his speech is good, and his mind is sharp.

Like the lucky among us, Jack's gotten old. Since he's lived so long, time with him has become even more valuable. I'm told there will be more time, that I shouldn't go on the death watch just yet. But no one, not even Jack is here forever.

I was listening to NPR's "Fresh Air" the other day. Ken Burns was discussing his film "The War." The PBS documentary about World War II airs later in the year. While I can't wait for his film, something he said on that show struck me. He told the host that 1,000 WWII veterans die every day.

A few days later, I was visiting a friend who mentioned that her dad drove a tank in the 2nd Armored Division. "Hell on Wheels" took him from Normandy to Berlin. I told her we should interview him, get it all recorded and turn it over to the Library of Congress as part of its history project on the war. It's something Burns is promoting along with his film.

My friend's dad, Gerard LaRoche, is 87, two years older than Jack. While Gerard fought in France, Belgium and Germany, Jack fought in Italy, where he flew 51 combat missions and won the Distinguished Flying Cross.

I've been dwelling on the early stages of Jack's life, rather than on his career at the White House with President Johnson and the MPAA, because WW II fascinates me.

Guys like Jack and Mr. LaRoche really did save the world. They didn't fight and die in deserts, jungles and cities in a war waged on a pack of lies. Their cause was noble.

The problem with those guys is that they're not going to be around much longer. People will forget. Jack was wrapping up his memoir when he was stricken. His story will be preserved, but the amateur historian in me worries about all those other veterans' stories. I hope they don't succumb to the ravages of time.
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