Pundits Cash In on the Lecture Circuit

Election season and White House scandal spark demand for political speakers.

It's a high dollar payoff for political machine-gunner James Carville. For Mike McCurry, it's a chance to finally speak freely about the president - and pick up $40,000 bucks for his time. It's a $70,000 gravy train every time retired Gen. Colin Powell steps up to the microphone.

The media explosion of the 1990s and the desire for a glimpse of unfiltered Washington have sparked a burgeoning speaking circuit. Former luminaries of the Beltway report the greatest demand in 25 years, and it's filling their pockets with cash.

"The political section of our catalog is growing," says Debbie Kolb, marketing director for Leading Authorities Inc., a Washington-based stable (4,000 strong) of the political world's Who's Who. The firm represents George and Barbara Bush, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Geraldine Ferraro, to name a few.

The boom is happening despite the public's avowed aversion to Washington politics and, experts say, is fueled by the very thing people say they don't want to hear any more about: the presidential scandal.

This desire for insider information, plus the abundance of news outlets that have turned talking heads into household names, has transformed civil servants into celebrities and stoked reported $40,000 paydays like those of former White House press secretary McCurry's.

This newfound fame is one of the attractions for groups who extend speaking invitations to these quasi-celebrities who explain Beltway politics to their annual conventions and board meetings.

Special-interest groups like the tobacco lobby and petroleum industry pay the highest dollars. Colleges and universities also pony up huge sums to hear the opinions of newsmakers.

Demand swells most during an election season. But as scandal mixes with the constitutional process in the post-election showdown between President Clinton and Congress, demand is expected to remain high.

"Each year, the price is ratcheted up," observes James Thurber, director of The Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington.

Speaking fees range from a few hundred to $100,000 and usually include first-class accommodations and airfare for the speaker. Speakers are found through speakers bureaus that charge 10 percent to 50 percent of their client's fees. Goody baskets replete with everything from clothes to 35-mm cameras are a standard tip for speakers.

Golden tongues

Former President Ronald Reagan is believed to hold the record for most money earned in a single appearance. He was paid $2 million by the government of Japan. Former presidents are consistently large draws, a singular group whose value is little diminished after leaving office.

"You are treated like a celebrity. You can get used to doing that," says former Rep. Fred "Gopher" Grandy, a "Loveboat" alum. Currently the head of Goodwill International, Mr. Grandy now speaks principally to benefit his organization.

Factors that determine a speaker's fee are proximity to power, amount of face time on television, and the ability to entertain as well as inform. Speakers often mingle with the audience, pose for photos, and expound on the issues of the day one-on-one before and after their presentation.

Inside scoop

After a few weeks' rest, McCurry is now hitting the road. With his West Wing chair still warm, his lectures are in high demand. He is reported to be worth an estimated $40,000 a speech and have more than 40 reservations in his daybook.

"People expect to hear inside stuff," says talk-circuit veteran Marlin Fitzwater, who served as Mr. Reagan's and President Bush's press secretary.

McCurry gave his Pittsburgh hosts their money's worth last week, revealing his thoughts about Mr. Clinton. He is a "richly qualified leader," McCurry said, who was "exasperatingly stupid" in his personal life.

With a new book hitting the shelves this week titled "And The Horse He Rode In On: The People vs. Kenneth Starr," it's not hard to guess what 'Ragin' Cajun' James Carville discusses during the hour or so he gives each group that pays him top dollar to appear. "It's a combo now of election and the effects of the Lewinsky thing," Mr. Carville says, admitting he never writes his speeches in advance and never knows what he is going to say until he gets there. "Last night was a college. Before that was a group of utility executives," he recalls.

His latest rant? "Give a little man a lot of power and you have a tragedy," he laments. What is the ballpark figure to get Carville in front of your group? "There is one, but I'm not going to tell you what it is," Carville winks.

"People also want to hear election commentary," says Mr. Fitzwater, who breaks his speeches into three parts. The first is political humor. The second is a recollection of glory days - standing near Reagan as he called on the Soviets to tear down the Berlin Wall, and traveling across the sands of the Middle East after the Gulf War with Mr. Bush. The third: current affairs.

"The first thing you have to learn is it's show business, and if you aren't good, you aren't going to get speeches," he says.

What does Fitzwater charge? "I'm worth 10 times what I'm paid, and it's always negotiable," he smiles.

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