A couple of pennies for your thoughts

Whoever said talk is cheap ought to add up the money public figures are being paid these days to speak a lot more than their two-cents worth.

With oil company profits down and a visible fault sighted in Silicon Valley and even AT&T dividends threatened, the lecture circuit may stand as the last of the recession-proof industries.

We don't want to take your oratorical breath away, but do you know that Alexander Haig makes up to $25,000 a night (plus expenses, of course), presumably for delivering the same Haigisms that only earned him political controversy and grammatical ridicule when he did it for a living on the salary of secretary of state (a mere $66,000)?

It's enough to make you stuff your child's mouth with marbles and set the tot to enunciating ''Fourscore and seven years ago . . .'' in the best elocution school style.

Henry Kissinger, you can bet, is not too blushingly far behind Haig's golden-phrases standard. Do retired secretaries of state have the odd appeal of retired quarterbacks, delivering TV commentary on somebody else's football game?

The second most popular category of speechifier may be the economist. The worse the economy gets, the more the Great Explainers like Milton Friedman, Alan Greenspan, and Lester Thurow are in demand. We can explain prosperity all by ourselves, it seems; we deserve it.

Pollsters like Louis Harris and Patrick Caddell are also sought after, as if they will somehow be able to tell us what we have already told their polls we think.

G. Gordon Liddy, a category by himself, is said to be particularly well received by banking associations. On occasions he and the indestructible Timothy Leary appear together on a platform and engage in a sort of moral tag-wrestling billed as a ''debate.''

Barbara Walters and her old friends Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford all command a fee of around $15,000. A celebrity is a celebrity is a celebrity.

Art Buchwald gets paid $12,500 a night for laughing at it all - including perhaps the fact that he gets $12,500 for doing it.

Why, in fact, do people pay all this money to hear words they might well fall asleep over if somebody were so foolish as to set them down on paper?

Why, at the end of the day, will they mush out into the dark and the cold - and then fight for a parking space - in order to see a familiar body hiding behind a distant podium, mumbling into a pitcher of water, when, sooner or later , they could enjoy the same spectacle for nothing on TV while munching chips in a snug bed?

Doubtless there are all sorts of clever reasons to be given, involving the durable drawing-power of bread-and-circuses and dancing bears. A fluent psychologist could go on and on about the magic rub-off effect of having encountered a power-figure in the flesh - the spiel might be worth a star turn on the lecture circuit in itself.

But isn't there more to it? Don't we go to these lectures with some incorruptibly innocent hope in the heart, like pilgrims seeking out a wise man - hungering for the word?

Which brings up the other interesting question: Do the stars believe they're giving listeners their money's worth? Do they ever ask themselves in the motel afterward, ''Why $10,000 an hour for Little Me? And why Little Me instead of Little You?'' Maybe the answer is that people who have to ask themselves such questions wouldn't be invited to speak for such sums in the first place.

Getting back to ''Fourscore and seven years ago,'' we calculate that Abe Lincoln would be paid $96.78 per word at today's top rates. The old rail-splitter knew what hard work is. It's our hunch that he'd drastically reduce his fee on the grounds that any labor which produced a slight breathlessness but no splinters and little sweat and was all over in an hour ought not to be rewarded at the pay scale of a year and a half's work by most Americans.

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