It was during working hours, 8 a.m.–5 p.m., that an announced crowd of 18,000 filled the RBC arena last Wednesday. They spent part of the day batting around beach balls and boogying to arena rock, but this was no mass slacking-off; quite the opposite. Many, if not most, of the attendees had been sent by their employers.
A strange sort of traveling circus had pulled into town: the Get Motivated! "business seminar," a flashy, high-budget tent revival pitching a (largely) secular version of the prosperity gospel. Conversations with attendees suggested that public and private employers, including Wal-Mart, Sun Trust and local governments, bankrolled much of the attendance.
Whether employers knew they were sending their workers to what turned out to be essentially a live, nine-hour infomercial, we can only guess.
The event got free publicity from the local media, in the form of articles warning of massive traffic jams. Big names in the speaker lineup lent an air of legitimacy, like former, and perhaps future, Republican presidential hopefuls Steve Forbes and Rudy Giuliani, as well as one-time Republican hoped-for presidential candidate Colin Powell. They shared the stage with a battery of known motivators, like former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz, author Brian Tracy ("America's Top Authority on Selling") and motivator emeritus Zig Ziglar. Ziglar's been dispensing a folksy brand of positive thinking since 1970, but his declining energies called for his set to be padded with a filmed homage and for his daughter Julie to gently guide him through the well-worn paces of his patter.
The seminar's been touring the country for more than 20 years, and its speakers have included the last six U.S. presidents. There was a rightward tilt to the Raleigh event, though: Of the seven featured speakers, only one was not a major figure in, or donor to, the Republican Party. (The exception? Oddly, a televangelist, Robert Schuller, who strenuously avoids partisanship at his Hour of Power-broadcasting megachurch in Orange County, Calif.)
The speakers' motivation was never in question. These gigs will make you rich in a hurry: The Washington Speakers Bureau website lists Lou Holtz's "fee code" at the highest level, $40,000 and up per appearance.
If the presence of famous names like Giuliani, Powell and even Ziglar gave the event its cachet, it was the unbilled speakers who revealed its cynical, necrotic heart. They got the same stage time as the headliners, and they weren't selling motivation, exactly, but rather a series of get-rich-quick schemes: for example, a real estate leveraging system familiar to viewers of "paid programming" on cable TV, and a new scheme for the new millennium, which involves setting up websites and jacking their Google ratings to drive advertising profits and affiliate revenue sharing.
At the end of these speeches, interested attendees were directed to tables set up throughout the arena, where they could enroll in workshops priced between $29 and $99. The fraudulent core of the dog and pony show cast the day's repeated exhortations to "dream big" and "never give up" in a sinister light. When the audience's more gullible members attend the workshops and are (inevitably) hit up for more of their conventionally earned cash, they'll only have themselves to blame if they fail to reap the spectacular profits the speakers promised.
It was disconcerting to see an accomplished former statesman like Powell speak in the company of these two-bit hustlers. For one thing, they were better at it. Not for lack of trying, apparently; he's been speaking to Get Motivated! audiences since at least the early '90s. After the crowd was warmed up by a knockout live rendition of "God Bless America," he preened and mugged his way through a phony canned speech, riffing on his befuddlement with modern technology ("It's our grandkids that pull us along ... What's a tweet? 'Poppy, it comes from Twitter.' Why don't they call it a twit?") and his disappointment that he no longer gets to travel in his own private 757. Whether he's setting up a future run for office or just cashing paychecks, the lightweight public persona he was selling almost made you forget that this was the same man who pitched a war to the United Nations.
Powell's pandering skills were outshone by the unbilled speaker before him, one James Smith. "I see some of you looking in your book to find me. I'm not in it," he said as he took the stage. Smith was hawking the "Financial Success 2010 Workshop," and his spiel was a masterpiece of persuasion. Aggressive and profane, he delivered an incoherent, yet irresistible stream of disconnected one-liners about personal savings, real estate, surly waitresses and respecting your mother. "Some of you, your credit's so bad it could go out, smoke a cigarette, come back in and smack you in the mouth," he growled.
A true "closer," his force and timing were exquisite, and the crowd lapped it up. When he finished, people signed up by the hundreds for workshops in Durham and Raleigh—a value of $1,995, according to a PowerPoint slide flashed on the screen, but theirs for only $49. "Some of you in here have to get past you, because you're the reason that's holding you back," Smith said. "We'll hang with you until you have success."
And if you believe that ... well, there's one born every minute.