Former U.S. Secretary of State and retired Army Gen. Colin Powell speaks… (Kristen Hines/ASSOCIATED…)
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.