The soon-to-be ex-president is planning to “replenish the ol’ coffers” on the lecture circuit. Will anybody be willing to pay?
The lecture circuit is the fate that awaits all ex-presidents of the United States, and a little over a week from now, it will be President Bush's turn to take the gilded podium. According to one industry source, Bush is already in talks with Washington, D.C., lawyer Robert Barnett, who helped manage Bill Clinton's transition to the private sector and negotiated Laura Bush's recent book deal. (Barnett declined to comment for this article). Bush has wondered aloud about his after-dinner career. In an interview for Robert Draper's 2007 book Dead Certain, Bush said that he planned to “replenish the ol' coffers” on the lecture circuit, where he could make “ridiculous money.”
“My feeling is that for the first year there probably will be minimal interest in him,” said one agent who works in the public speaking business.
“I don’t know what my dad gets. But it’s more than fifty, seventy-five [thousand],” Bush told Draper.
But Bush, of course, is a unique ex-president. He’s far less popular than his dad, or Bill Clinton (who earned more than $50 million in speaking fees from 2001 to 2007) or Ronald Reagan (who once made $2 million for a single set of speeches in Japan). Throw in the toxic economic environment that emerged on his watch, and it’s worth asking just how much Bush can hope to earn with a speech.
“I imagine people will not pay the same dollars that a compelling speaker like Bill Clinton could command,” says speechwriter Mark Katz, a former Clinton speechwriter who heads a consulting company, the Soundbite Institute. “The George W. Bush years are going to be like our collective junior high school years, something we had to endure but engenders little or no nostalgia.”
Another industry veteran said that Bush will find it rough going at first, but that his value might increase over time, perhaps even approaching Clinton's standard domestic fees of $100,000 to $200,000 a speech if the economy bounces back. The assessment echoes similar valuations of Bush’s planned memoirs, which some think would be worth more if written after a few years have passed.
“My feeling is that for the first year there probably will be minimal interest in him,” said one agent who works in the public speaking business. “There have been other former presidents who've been unpopular leaving office, but nobody's ever been this unpopular. After a year, though, people forget and then he'll have a very lucrative career.”
Bush’s ex-presidential career may get off to a quicker start than that. According to David Wheeler, president of Chicago-based public relations firm Embark LLC, there's always a demand for members of the elite ex-presidents club, even the members who were all but run out of office.
“I'm certain there's going to be a lot of interest among different organizations around the country and around the world,” Wheeler said. “I don't necessarily agree with him and a lot of others don't I'm sure, but a lot of people didn't agree with Bill Clinton and he was obviously very popular on the lecture circuit.”
The fact that Bush isn’t a good speaker shouldn’t impact his value. “We'll probably be surprised at what he'll fetch simply because—and this is the dirty little secret of the lecture circuit—people want to be able to say 'I had dinner with President Bush last night,’ said Christopher Buckley, a former chief speechwriter for Vice President Bush and a veteran speaker himself. “It's about the photo-op beforehand, the meet and greet. They're not paying for the pearls of wisdom.”
Whether a world leader can command top dollar also depends on the global economy. Tony Blair (who also left office with dismal approval ratings) was paid $500,000 for a November 2007 trip to China. Yet top Clinton clients like Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and Lehman Brothers are worse off than they were during the last three years, when the three companies shelled out a combined $1.5 million for Clinton’s speaking services. The nightmare scenario has Bush settling for small-time gatherings, like the orthodontist convention Richard Nixon listlessly addresses at the beginning of Frost/Nixon.
Which isn’t to say that Bush couldn’t take unilateral action to drum up interest in his services. According to Katz, Bush's best bet to increase his value is to make headlines with a more candid assessment of his record than ever before.
“He's someone who seems to have a fixed perspective and what you want to hear from a former president is the acquired wisdom, the hard-earned wisdom that they acquired in the Oval Office,” Katz said. “We haven't heard many inklings of that so far and that’s what he needs to bring to a speech to really make an impact on the presidential circuit.”
Of course, if that doesn't work, the former president could always go back to the cagey tactics his PR team brought to the White House.
“If I were his booking agent I'd play up the fact he was a living U.S. president,” Katz said, “But I'd try not to be too specific about which one.”
Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.