October 6, 2010

Onward Christian Moguls



The second time the beach ball hit me on the head, I started feeling motivated.

Not to become an instant millionaire with the help of Jesus and some cheesy business evangelists. Rather, I felt motivated to flee the 9-hour, $9.95 Get Motivated! seminar at the Verizon Center, which had devolved into a faux beach party with DJs playing ’80s music and audience members tossing around plastic beach balls and dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Van Halen’s “Jump.”

But I stayed in the church of capitalism, determined to hear what wisdom headliners Colin Powell, Rudy Giuliani, Dan Rather, Steve Forbes and Terry Bradshaw would dispense.

Aren’t these guys affluent enough without whatever exorbitant fees they were collecting for their bromides to the beaten down?

Nearby, Fortune was hosting a gathering celebrating the nation’s most powerful women, drawing speakers such as President Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton.

But the sports arena featured some weird counterprogramming: famous men who once were considered prospects for president, now buck-raking and giving a patina of legitimacy to carnival barkers pushing quick-cash schemes bathed in Biblical inspiration and patriotism.

Thousands of people mired in the new Age of Anxiety turned hopeful eyes to the parade of Professor Harold Hills, waiting for that one elusive diamond of advice that could change their lives.

Never mind that it was all a variation on “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” or the scene in “The Wizard of Oz,” when Glinda the Good Witch reveals to Dorothy that she has had the power to get home all along.

Except at Get Motivated!, the seminar organizers entice audience members to sign up for more seminars that, for a fee, will teach them the secrets of cashing in on stocks, real estate and the Internet.

I arrived at 8:30 a.m. as Steve Forbes was talking. Naturally, it was still about the flat tax, with the same lines he used when he ran a geek-chic campaign for the G.O.P. nomination in 1996.

Rick Belluzzo, the former chief operating officer for Microsoft, told us we need to “own our own development” and that “perseverance can pay off.”

Then football analyst Terry Bradshaw lumbered on, momentarily alarmed when the shooting fireworks on stage nearly singed his backside.

“I need a woman with money,” Bradshaw cackled, noting that he was a 62-year-old mama’s boy with three ex-wives. He seemed more like a man who could use some advice rather than one paid for giving it.

“I’ve never really motivated anybody,” he announced cheerfully.

The former Steelers quarterback grumbled that quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Donovan McNabb get paid millions more than he did to follow plays dictated by coaches.

After noting that “Jesus is my savior,” he shared this life lesson with the would-be entrepreneurs: When your receiver is about to be tackled, “Keep it simple. Chuck it to him anyway.”

After the audience was wooed to sign up for more sure-fire money-making classes and DVDs, Colin Powell came out to a rain of red and blue streamers.

He was the most charming speaker, confessing that he coped with being out of the limelight by driving a Corvette, at 73, around suburban Washington. His advice? Be nice to the little people, the ones who clean your office and park your car. Write thank you notes on 4-by-6-inch cards. “I write with a fountain pen,” he said. “Never a Sharpie. Never a ballpoint pen.”

Then came another sales pitch from a guy who said he went from being a homeless drug dealer to the “world’s No. 1 Internet wealth entrepreneur” with a $2.4 million estate in Texas. He offered a course at an airport Marriott valued at $11,226.90 for a bargain $29.

When it was his turn, Rudy Giuliani began with a few choice words about Al Gore and global warming, before moving on to his pearls of wisdom.

The first one was: “You have got to have a computer.” As he explained to the diminished crowd that remained: “That other world that used to exist doesn’t exist anymore.”

Having advised the audience to get computers, he went on to counsel on ways to “protect yourself against the information revolution.” The first was: “Read books.”

He even got a little touchy-feely. “The government has to have a safety net. I’m not disputing that. But it’s not important. The one that’s really important is the one you create for yourself.” He concluded, “You know how you do that? You love people.”

I came away with one important new insight about getting rich quick: An easy way to do it is to dole out fortune-cookie maxims at get-rich-quick seminars.