Rich DeVos would like to set the record straight. He is not, repeat not , giving his $5-million corporate yacht to President Ronald Reagan.
"No way ," ways the deeply tanned Grand Rapids, Mich., millionaire and finance chairman of the Republican National Committee.
The yacht is the 131-foot Enterprise III, the glorious Goodyear blimp of the seas.
It steamed into town last week, a custom-built Cadillac of corporate yachts, for a flotilla of exclusive parties, private dinners and twilight crusises feting cocktail-quaffing Cabinet members, ambassadors, representatives and senators. The ultimate hospitality suite.
"The last time I had gone down the Potomac was on the Sequoia," sighs Frank Ursomarso, former Nixon advance man and now White House director of communications. "I haven't been down it in a long time."
Indeed, when Jimmy Carter sold the 104-foot Sequoia in 1977 as part of an austerity move, some Washingtonians saw it as grounds for impeachment. But Ursomarso says Ronald Reagan's well-publized search for a replacement has been temporarily scuttled. "We're doing nothing."
The good ship Enterprise is owned by Amway Corp., which is to soap what Tupperware is to plastic. Company President DeVos and Chairman Jay Van Andel -- two former vitamin salesmen who parlayed the direct-sale company begun in their basement 21 years ago into a $1-billion corporation -- are in town for Friday's dedication of a new "uplink facility" in Fairfax for the Mutual Broadcasting System, which is owned by Amway.
DeVos, sporting a diamond pinkie ring and Gucci loafers, says the yacht is used primarily for floating seminar sessions in the sun, rewarding Amway distributors who sell $100,000 worth of merchandise during the year with a one-week Caribbean cruise.
But when in Washington, the ship of soap is more nautical nightclub than conference room.
It all started last Monday night with the Michigan congressional delegation. Tuesday night, it was the Republican National Committee staff. Wednesday night was "International Night," with embassy personnel from 12 countries Amway does business with, including England, France, Germany, Japan and Canada.
The Reagans, according to an Amway spokesman, were invited "any night they wish to come." So far, they have declined.
Ridgewell's Washington's premiere catering firm, was hired to handle the week-long, gala for a reported fee of $10,000.
There were waiters in black tie. Sterling silver candelabra on the buffet table. Tenderloin of beef, rack of lamb, chicken Wellington, chocolate-dipped macaroons, mousse royale, cucumber boats with ham salad and Clams Casino. All washed down with Chateauneuf du Pape and Chablis Grand Cru.
Beefy security guards kept groups of gawkers behind a locked gate at the Washington Marina, where the Enterprise III is docked.
Between sightseeing in rented limos, making speeches, seeing friends on Capitol Hill and chatting with Vice President George Bush, DeVos and Van Andel sank into plush chairs on the orange-and-yellow afterdeck of the Enterprise III to talk about the zen of yachting.
"The yacht is what America stands for," says DeVos. "We were told for a long time that it wasn't, but it's changed."
It's like his $40,000 green Rolls Royce. A yacht, he says, stands for "opportunity and reward for achievement." It stands for wealth and power. Above all, he says, it stands for success. "It's like Air Force One," he says proudly.
Jay Van Andel, tall and platinum-haired, interrupts.
"I happen to think the American people want the president to have these things in life," he says.
The yacht, with a cruising speed of 14 knots, was custom-built in the Netherlands last year at a cost of approximately $5 million. Since then, Amway has put an indeterminate amount of money into keeping the boat shipshape. "Yachts are like racehorses," says Van Andel. "The first cost is the smallest."
Helen DeVos flips through a scrapbook of photos taken at the boat's christening. "It was so cold I had to borrow the shipbuilder's wife's fur coat," she says.
The yacht, says her husband, is "an ego trip."
"It's the Rolls Royce of yachts," says chief steward Frank Padrone, passing a tray of cocktails.
"It rides like a Cadillac ," says Ridgewell's waiter Miguel Yanos, holding a silver tray of hors d'oeuvres.
The 292-ton, steel-and-teak behemoth boasts five plush staterooms, a bar, two lounges, galley, library (titles include "Born Again" and "What the Bible Is All About"), stereo system, closed-circuit television alarm and a crew of nine. Currently, it's on its way from the Caribbean to Nantucket, where it will spend the summer.
To qualify for the coverted five-day cruise, distributors (usually a husband-and-wife team) must make "diamond" by selling $100,000 worth of panty hose, biodegradable laundry detergent, jewelry, bug spray and various other Amway products. If the "diamond distributor" gets seasick, he can stay on the Caribbean resort Peter Island, another Amway holding. DeVos says Amway has a special department in the Ada, Mich., corporate headquarters that chooses the cruise couples based on their "compatibility" with one another.
Currently, there are 750,000 distributors. Only 400 have made diamond.
"We think this is a unique incentive," says DeVis. "It's the symbolism of achievement, the hope of achievement. Some of the joys of life that could be theirs."
In fact, says DeVos, at company conventions, when a picture of the Enterprise III is flashed on the screen, "People who make $50 a week stand up and cheer. They say, 'One of these days I'm going to get on that.'"
The fact that the boat is so inaccessible makes it more attractive. No, they say, no celebrities have ever been on board the Entrprise III. The boat is for the employes .
"But it's really funny," says Helen DeVos, watching the sun set on the Potomac. "When the boat is docked somewhere, people always ask if Frank Sinatra's on board."
The Enterprise III was docked on the Caribbean island of St. Martin in late January when two men approached the gangplank and asked to come aboard.
It was Richard Nixon and his brother, Donald.
Capt. Keenan Van Mill, a bearish man with a Burl Ives goatee, walked out from the bridge, looked down and, he says, refused to let the ex-president pass. The Amway owners had already left the island, Van Mill says, and besides, "I didn't have anything to talk with him about."
As most Amway afficionados know, the captain says, "We don't just let anybody on board."
Standing behind the chain-link fence at Pier 4 are two D.C. policemen with Polaroid cameras. Rich DeVos steps out onto the rail of the Enterprise III and waves like a politician from a podium. The policemen quickly click their cameras.
"How ya doin'?" DeVos calls to the men.
"Pretty good," answers D.C. policeman Henry Cole, who started selling Amway products seven months ago.
DeVos says Amway distributors from the Washington area have been straining against the fence all week to get a glimpse of the yacht. DeVos cups his hands like a microphone to the sides of his mouth.
"When ya gonna make diamond?" he shouts.
Henry Cole beams and calls back: "1984."
Keenan Van Mill, a salty 47-year-old sailor, stands on the bridge while guests from the RNC staff party wander up from the bar.
Amway, which bills itself as the "success story of the 20th century," has owned three corporate yachts. The Enterprise I has been sold. The Enterprise II, smaller than the new yacht, is in a Miami shipyard for repairs.
Van Mill has been with the company for the last four years. Yes, he says, being a corporate captain for Amway is "one of the top" private positions in his chosen field.
"Up to a month ago, this was the largest corporate yacht in America," he says. "Then somebody came along last month with on that's four feet longer."
The Enterprise III operates 40 weeks a year and, since delivery last summer, has logged 11,000 miles.
"We're here to entertain people," Van Mill says. "We're very busy doing so."
But the Enterprise III -- which is scrubbed down daily with Amway liquid detergent -- is no love boat, he says.
"These people are pretty much family-oriented," he says. "In fact, it's a little too quiet sometimes."
A tall young man holding a drink wanders into the room. He is Dick DeVos, 25-year-old son of the Amway president. The company owners have four children each and live next door to each other in Grand Rapids.
"This is very formal, very stuffy," says DeVos, compared with the smaller boats the family sails at home on Lake Michigan.
He calls the Enterprise III "a floating corporate conference room," and says, if it's not the biggest in the world, "we kinda think she's one of the prettiest."
A man with a tan suede jacket points to a technical-looking gadget above the varnished, spoked wheet. He turns to Keenan Van Mill and says, in an officious tone, "Tell me about that circle thing up there."
"It's the windshield wiper," the captain replies.
The tour continues as the party moves out onto the bridge.
"Listen," Dick DeVos whispers, "don't say I said this is stuffy. My Mom'll kill me."
DeVos and Van Andel, both in their late 50s, met each other as teenagers back in Grand Rapids. They served in the Air Force together during World War II and returned home to start a flying school which never got off the ground. Then they decided to sail to the Caribbean. Their boat sank off Cuba. After a year in the sun, they returned to Michigan and began selling Nutrilite vitamins. In 1959, they started selling liquied detergent out of a basement and Amway ("American Way") was born.
DeVos and Van Andel say the secret to Amway's success is remarkable simple. A customer is contacted by a company distributor, who buys the merchandise from Amway and then sells it, usually at a 30-percent mark-up. If the customer becomes interested in selling Amway products, he or she must be sponsored by an existing distributor. You make money, says DeVos and Van Andel, not just by selling products, but also by sponsoring other distributors. Like Avon and Tupperware, the products are similar to those found in stores.
Some Amway distributors work at it full time, others do it to supplement their income. But the message is clear: You too can be a self-made millionaire.
"It's the despair," says DeVos, which destroys most people today. Amway offers a chance to get out of the rut. Amway, he says, stands for motivation. It stands for free enterprise.
"It used to be thought of as sinful to be successful," he says. "Only the poor are virtuous."
Van Andel pipes up. "That, of course, stems from jealousy."
DeVos wants to right "the mixed signals our young people have been given" about the sweet smell of success. "The unions are against motivation," he says. "It's evil to be eager. You're laughed at. That's going to have to change if we're to compete with Japan and Germany."
"If a rich person gets richer, a poor person doesn't necessarily get poorer," says Van Andel.
Rich DeVos takes a sip of his dirnk. "That's why a boat like this raises eyebrows."
The motor starts, the foghorn blows and the Enterprise III chugs backwards for 100 yards in the river. The partygoers stand in small groups near the bow, cocktails in hand. The men are in three-piece suits. The women are dressed in pastels and chiffon. They wave to a group of onlookers on the shore. The onlookers wave back, some of them jumping up and down.
"It's not the ship of soap, it's the ship of hope ," says Debbi Bard, a housewife from Forestville, Md., who drove all the way to the Washington Marina just to see the Enterprise III. She says she has sold $2,500 worth of Amway products to her friends, neighbors and relatives since February. She reaches into her van with orange shag carpeting and pulls out a few samples.
"Amway is going to get people back on the right track," says Valerie Kline, a paralegal from Landover Heights "Did you know there's less than a one-percent divorce rate for Amway people?"
It takes two years, they say, to get the right, positive mental attitude. To get out of your rut and stop being shy and start selling. Sell enough to make emerald, then enough to make pearl, and finally enough to make diamond.
As the Enterprise III steamed off down the Potomac, Martha White, a housewife from Landover Heights, snapped her last picture from her Instamatic.
Above all, she says, "Amway offers common people a chance to get on something like that ."