At the Washington Speakers Bureau, talk isn’t cheap


Former U.S. Secretary of State and retired Army Gen. Colin Powell speaks at Mississippi State University. He was the keynote speaker to a crowd of several thousand people at the Humphrey Coliseum as part of the university's Leadership Submmit. (Kristen Hines/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
October 10, 2011

On his last day as secretary of defense, Robert M. Gates received the vaunted Medal of Freedom from President Obama.

Less than a week later, he received another coveted prize: the keynote speaker gig at the annual National Grocers Association convention in Las Vegas.

In official Washington, there is an afterlife, and it’s a crowded, cacophonous place. Called the public speaking circuit, this D.C. Elysium is bound by the same transactional laws as the realm that preceded it. But instead of political parties, it is governed by speakers bureaus that promise visibility to those who sign up. In the past 30 years, a proliferation of bureaus has promoted, booked and enriched former lawmakers, candidates, consultants, Cabinet members, political reporters and gadflies.

“Let’s say you are secretary of something — there are two ways you are going to make a really good living: a lobbyist or a speaker, or a combination of the two,” said James Carville, the political consultant and a client of the Washington Speakers Bureau, the agency that represents Gates.

In Washington, said Carville, who has given about 3,000 speeches over the past 20 years, relevance is currency, and the speaking circuit “keeps you in.”

Many of the country’s biggest political names belong to the WSB, which is run by Harry Rhoads Jr., perhaps the area’s lowest-profile power broker. “I am going to have to decline your interview request as we are a quiet company,” Rhoads said in an e-mail. “I’ve turned down many media requests over the years, including those from good friends, fyi.”

And Rhoads has a lot of friends.

The WSB’s list of exclusive clients constitutes a parallel power structure of men and women who’ve led, managed and covered government. There are former heads of state (George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern); secretaries of state (Condoleezza Rice, Colin L. Powell, Madeleine Albright and James Baker); secretaries of defense (William Cohen, Donald H. Rumsfeld, Gates); a Fed chairman (Alan Greenspan); America’s mayor (Rudolph W. Giuliani); senior strategists (Obama adviser David Axelrod); pundits (Lou Dobbs, David Gergen, Paul Begala); and reporters (Mike Allen, Mark Halperin, Tom Brokaw). The bureau even represents the political satire troupe Capitol Steps (“We put the MOCK in Democracy”).

To replenish his branch of this shadow government, Rhoads has a lucrative relationship with uber-lawyer Bob Barnett, who is famous for brokering the contracts of officials when they cash in. Public speaking gigs are “a major source of synergism,” said Barnett, referring to his term for the creation of a permanent Washington persona through a combination of authorship, TV and radio appearances, consulting gigs, appointments to boards of directors or law-firm partnerships.

“These people look to the Washington Speakers Bureau and other bureaus as a major avenue to that goal,” he said. “That’s a critically important piece of a post-government life for a lot of people.”

Don Walker, who runs the WSB’s chief rival, the New York-based Harry Walker agency, which represents Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney, concurs. “It’s a very American institution,” he said. The agency’s Web site touts tandem packages with Bush architect Karl Rove and Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs, who speak with “great authority and accuracy from a White House Insider’s perspective.” Walker said that if a client gives him 50 days a year, “I can give them the world.”

Competition is cutthroat

The lifeblood of the bureaus is recruiting talent.

At the Washington Speakers Bureau, Rhoads is described as “the keeper of relationships,” but he has also had up to 15 to 20 agents in his Alexandria offices cold-calling potential clients, according to one of several people who knows the company well and spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of angering the powerful bureau.

One long-timer said the bigger bureaus target potential clients well before they leave office, and they assign agents to work on them the moment there is an inkling that they might depart. Agents also get signed talent to whisper in ears, vouch for the bureau and let it be known how much money there is to be made gabbing in such prime locations as Hawaii, Vegas, New York, the District and other places that, according to one industry veteran, “smell like money.”

Carville, reached while giving a speech in Las Vegas, said it was “very common” for the bureau to call on his recruiting services.

Bureaus use other tactics to attract talent as well. When Bush prepared to leave office, according to one person with knowledge of the operations, the WSB approached his sister Doro Bush Koch with lucrative exclusive speaker gigs. The firm also signed the president’s wife, Laura, and his brother Jeb.

Barnett said that when he acquires a client, he usually gives him a list of bureaus that would be a good fit based on commission, bonus and fees.

Fees are never public and are often exaggerated by speakers, while bookers play them down. According to industry insiders, big names can get more than $50,000 a speech, while former presidents and the market’s top attractions can hit the $200,000-to-$300,000 mark. Traditionally, bureaus get a 20 percent cut. But when it comes to landing big fish, the bureaus often take a smaller cut or even nothing in the hopes of windfalls down the road. By contrast, lesser-known speakers intent on upping their profiles offer services for free or even pay bureaus to hawk their goods in front of audiences.

The competition between bureaus is fierce and sometimes ugly. In February 1999, a U.S. district court forced the Leading Authorities bureau to relinquish the domain names washington-speakers.com, washingtonspeakers.­com, washington-speakers.net and washingtonspeakers.net following a lawsuit brought by the Washington Speakers Bureau.

The competition to retain talent results in a cutthroat, litigious climate. Agents are often asked to sign non-compete agreements that prevent them from taking talent to another bureau. One much-discussed incident occurred in 2010. The WSB warned an agent who represented Arianna Huffington that she was contractually prevented from leaving the WSB to join William Morris Endeavor’s D.C. speakers bureau. Ari Emanuel, a WME chief executive and the combative super-agent brother of Rahm Emanuel, directed his business affairs office to say that the contract wasn’t enforceable. The agent left; Huffington stayed.

Booking marquee names

Industry leaders trace the demand for speakers from the world of politics to the mid-1970s. The pep talks of quarterbacks and go-get-’ems of motivational speakers didn’t quite cut it for corporations and trade associations facing an energy crisis, recession and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Instead, companies sought speakers with firsthand experience confronting the challenges of a far-flung world that had consequences for their bottom lines. Washington officials who would have faded into obscurity were suddenly in demand.

The circuit became so lucrative that politicians still in their prime want in. Since 2010, Mitt Romney has earned nearly $400,000 in speaking fees, including more than $100,000 in 2011, according to his campaign filings.

Marquee names, such as Romney, appeal to associations, universities and corporations that want speakers to convey success, impart useful information or sell an event.

In 2006, the American Society of Association Executives published the paper “Determining a Professional Speaker’s ROI,” or return on investment, which asked, “How can a savvy planner determine who to hire?” Anne Blouin, who plans its conferences, described putting out calls to fill its St. Louis summer conference spot. CNN’s Anderson Cooper? (Couldn’t commit.) Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough from MSNBC’s “Morning Joe?” (Vetoed by NBC.) Would she consider “60 Minutes” anchor Scott Pelley? (No thanks.) She settled on Daily Beast editor Tina Brown. (The price was right.)

To help planners find the right speakers, the Washington Speakers Bureau introduced a pay scale, which ranges from below $15,000 (Richard Wolffe, “Political Analyst, MSNBC and Bestselling Author”) to more than $40,000 (Christiane Amanpour, “one of the world’s most respected journalists.”)

All those prices are negotiable, according to people involved in bookings, and extra costs often come with an entourage. Judith Giuliani, wife of the former mayor, was infamous in the speaking world for contributing to expenses the mayor incurred. A spokesman for Rudolph Giuliani disputed those accounts.

“You can’t imagine how many submissions you get, from crazy people to former senators and five-star generals,” said one former agent for a top firm. “People would go on TV to become pundits just because that was a way to get a higher profile, to get speaking gigs.”

Today it’s a secret all of Washington is in on.

At a panel discussion in Little Rock last month, Carville delivered some typically sharp-tongued assessments of Clinton history. The ex-president stood up afterward and quipped that his former strategist “likes to act crazy because it helps him get speaking gigs.”

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