A Day Spent In Hell
Getting Motivated at Bush's First Public
Appearance as Motivational Speaker
by Ethan Persoff
Colin Powell, the whitebread Afro-Carribean, is onstage joking about his wife's henpecking. I'm in a Fort Worth arena with ten thousand Republicans at a motivational business conference entitled Get Motivated. It's only 8:45 a.m., and already I realize the full day will be an exercise to not get nauseated. But I'm here, in a floor seat, eight rows from the stage, having snuck up to a "VIP" section directly in the center. I know the next eight hours will be a waiting game until I see George Bush try to convince me he's a man of brave decisions, and not our nation's greatest and most damaging asshole. At the very least, he's in a good place to pull it off.
Get Motivated events are strange situations. Think a rock concert without the music, or a super-sized pep rally without the youth. The day-long Festival of Blight mixes business with religion, and is the proselytizing brainchild of Tamara and Peter Lowe. On first impression: Peter has a very disturbing face. Sort of an adult-aged man-fetus with bulging bug eyes, prickly red hair, pasty skin, and buck teeth. All of it grinning at you. His wife and business partner Tamara appears equally shady, yet in a more scolding and shrill sort of way. The couple includes a picture of themselves kissing on their website to prove they are intimate. Neither seem impressive as people, and that's part of the riddle: Somehow they have access to the most notorious political losers on the planet. These events are their showcase for such connections, having previously paraded Reagan, Bush Sr., even odd imports like Gorbachev and Goldie Hawn. How is this possible?
Anyway, on a broader level, I know I'm here at a scam. My ticket was only $5.00 and there's no way that makes sense unless this day is a sort of cult indoctrination into some lifelong commitment of my money for their nonsense. Think a live produced Nigerian email racket. So I'm here and just want to see how they'll grab me. Best of all I've been promised from them a certificate for my participation.
Most of the people here are attending on an even cheaper ticket. Entire offices are welcomed for the price of $20, with a promise that "you can save thousands of dollars," implying a single twenty dollar bill will cover 50, 200, 300 people, no limit. Obviously the intention is to get on Accounts Payable to a full business, spun into annually-reoccurring "professional development". The best example of this is Franklin Covey's Seven Habits program. I don't need anymore habits. Covey's Scientology-seeming gibberish is now so much a part of our failing economy the term "Big Rocks" is a detrimental measurement tool. Covey is even presented by Human Resource personnel at many of our largest universities to faculty and staff. So there's a precedent. Still, at what point does this become profitable for the event?
"You Can Not Pay Me. America Has Paid Me."
— Colin Powell onstage during his presentation
Bullshit, Colin. I think we're both talking speaking fees. I'm looking at the day's presenters and see a Nuremberg Trial cast of Bush, Powell, Giuliani and others. Surely Powell wouldn't agree to make fun of his family for any less than $50,000, and Giuliani has to demand no less than four times that amount. Bush? Add in the rest of the day's lineup of serious business lecturers (a CEO and a couple of other book-on-tape celebrities) ... Add to that arena rental and staff, insurance, security, and I have to low-ball the fees at half a million per event. If there are 10,000 people in here we should really be in at hundred dollar a seat. It makes no sense. One should joke that day of the event tickets at the window were a staggering $250.00 - proving that exchanging my name, address, email, credit card, and phone number online in advance was worth a price reduction in information sharing of $245.00 to these people by way of a pre-purchased ticket.
Or perhaps this is a completely intended loss-leader, designed to lose money for fostering more sympathy, and recruiting more Republicans. A political rally, charading as self-improvement. Who can say.
I look up and Powell is finishing his talk. He's veering into blue territory with a rusted stand-up bit about being strip searched at the airport and dog's sniffing him. I can't make this up. Still, you can tell he's robotically told this joke a thousand times. On a pre-program, Powell barks out the words "Osama Bin Ladin" to huge cheers and then jokes about driving a Corvette with an unintended semi-suicidal quip, "I want to live life through the front windshield." Climaxing with "We are safer today than before 9/11 -- Because of PRESIDENT!! BUUUUSH!!!"
Very loud applause. Dear God I'm really here, aren't I? I suddenly realize I'm in a room of noise where I can scream anything. "I love your colon!!" sounds just like "I love you, Colin," and a man next to me looks near tears in agreement, stuck in an awkward salute. Good job on a speech full of apologies, with self-deprecating statements and little resemblance to the uncorrupted military leader Powell once represented. He's now the opening early-morning vaudeville act as The Great Apologist where he shines his former abusive boss' shoes in platitudes and revisionism. Oh Mammy.
Suddenly I have to take a shit. I worry it will be a day full of bathroom breaks, as my system isn't used to this rhetorical bombast. I ask the saluter to hold my seat. Not a problem - everyone here, all ten thousand of us, goes on an honor system, leaving something personal as a place holder. In the funniest example of willing victims, people have left their purses and jackets on their abandoned seats. I put down a business card I'd found on the ground. Looking up I see the crowd. Most faces are desperate or dopey and grinning; many are fat and bored. The current economy doesn't paint the best varnish on this sort of thing, and most of the audience are the cultural achieving opposite of its presenters. Bathroom was sparkling clean, however. Later, I'll learn the toilets will back up and certain stalls will be closed off with yellow tape. Get Boweltivated! But I get in early and taking Colin Powell's advice, live by the driver's seat. Back to the show.
An attractive enough blonde woman in a boring outfit is holding the microphone announcing "THE DAY'S FIRST GIVEAWAY!" It's an HDTV. We were asked to attach our business card to a portion of our ticket to enter a sweepstakes. It was a detachable part, showing an inviting image of a hand fanning out $10,000 in cash that will be won today (they claim), among other prizes. Smallest print on the back of the form indicates the personal information we provide will be sold to others, and that we'll be included in other offers ad nauseam from other companies. Not the worst crime, but also not the most advertised part of the entry.
They announce a name for the winner of the TV, and I look around and don't see anyone respond. It's a circular, tightly packed, two-level arena, and you can easily scan the whole place with a head turn. They don't repeat the name, clapping a congratulations for this person who isn't anywhere, and move on with the show. Perhaps the winner is in the toilet, or perhaps there's no free television at all. Who can say.
Lights dim and it's another presenter. I'm told coming up is a "Former Vietnam Vet and Green Beret - who has taught more people about investing than ANYONE." It's a guy named Phil Town, and the Fort Worth arena is so excited it's special effects crew ejaculates green firecrackers and farts out dark grey smoke. Incoming!!!
Phil Town doesn't seem like the worst guy in the world. His voice is the reassuring sort that sounds great tossing a set of Porsche keys to a valet, or propositioning a stewardess into one more drink at the airport bar. His face is incapable of not smiling. Today he's telling all of us his financial secrets to multi-millionairism. I'm excited for the 10,000 millionaires that will be leaving today after learning these secrets. He flashes a chart on the huge screen showing a graph, and we are told to buy and sell according to when three market situations are spiking together or declining together, information he sells. I'm not here to make a million dollars so instead I get up to walk around.
In the corners of the arena, staff members are positioning buckets full of clipboards. A lot of clatter. Each clipboard has a sheet with the logo WEALTH MAGAZINE imprinted on it. I look up and Phil Town is showing a series of pictures of himself smiling in a car, at his ranch, and on top of a mountain ski resort. This is the first time I decide I dislike him. What a putz. Each image has the exact same perm-a-grin face, as if he was born instantly with a full set of teeth connected directly to his vertebrae, and that he is physically unable to pose any different for a camera, otherwise risk injury to the spine.
He now has four or five women on stage with him, and he's asking them about becoming a millionaire. One of the women suddenly grips him in a hug, picking him up off the ground and shaking him (maybe to get the change from his pockets). Phil coughs out my favorite quote of the day, "I Love ...St-Strong Women!!!!!" He repeats this, the large woman continuing to shake him up and down like he's the stuff of dreams.
I'll admit at this point to enjoying the show. All of a sudden an employee for Get Motivated walks up to me with a warning: "Just a heads up, bro. We're about to do a real major sale here." I'm inadvertently standing next to one of the tables with the Wealth Magazine clip boards. I should probably move.
The stampede begins. Phil Town has gotten everyone into a frenzy for the full secret to wealth and happiness. He's about to sell access to a workshop and a subscription service. He's shown how much this information should cost: $3,150 (with $150 every six months afterward) but today he's offering a seminar for only $99! Just sign up! (clicks light) at the table right there! All of a sudden they're storming at me. Credit cards in hand, wildly pushing into the dark and breaking collapsible chairs. Like they might miss out if they don't HURRY!
Part II. Fingering the Red Bags
People are in a mad rush to search out a Red Bag. This has been what Phil Town has been pushing. To get the Red Bag, which contains a folder with seminar information, you hand over your credit card numbers and billing information, and are now signed up to a special "2-Day Wealth Magazine Investor Workshop." Each carbon form indicates this workshop costs, on print, $299.00 - but has been individually crossed out to indicate a hand-written "Only $99.00" in ballpoint. Each form has been altered by hand, showing a trusting personalized touch.
Phil ends his speech with instructions for those left in their seats. "YOU GO BACK THERE -- GET THAT RED BAG -- THEY'RE GOING FAST, FOLKS! JUST REGISTER TODAY. HAVE A GREAT WORKSHOP, SO LONG FOLKS!"
So long, indeed! The lights are now bright. Practically everyone is rushing to the Wealth Magazine tables to grab their Red Bag. The music during this is "Learning to Fly" by Tom Petty. I'm too cynical to not laugh. Let's remember some lyrics:
... Well the good ol' days may not return ...
... And the rocks might melt and the sea may burn ...
I'm learning to fly, but I ain't got wings.
It's an uplifting power chord -- but there isn't a line in "Learning to Fly" that isn't about delusion, crashing, and burning, with rock's greatest bummer "coming down is the hardest thing" ... Do they play this every time?
What follows next is still a shock to my system. After about twenty minutes of bright lights and credit card pilfering, the room room has fuzzed grey. I feel like I'm in a basketball gym. You see the zombies wandering, Red Bag dangling, many with a nervous look that suggests they've just spent too much money. All of a sudden the lights shift to black and onstage is Leon Patello.
I don't expect you to know who Patello is, but if you follow religious pop music he's been an alternate reality radio mainstay for decades. His big hit is "J-E-S-U-S," but today he's clapping his hands and switching style in a frenetic hurry, as if he's being paid by the quantity of genre, and not the quality of song. The blend is delivered loudly: 1950s American Bandstand, funk, rap, and gospel. The soundboard mix is horrible and disorienting, like gunfire. You almost can imagine the stage instructions, "We've got their money. Now just confuse them!"
Patello is singing to us about being motivated. I feel like I'm in kindergarten. "You are a winner!" "We know you need that hug!" And finishes with a gospel rap about money. The crowd is whipped into clump-footed dancing like Barney the Dinosaur screaming, by instruction, the Otis Day Animal House hit: "SHOUT SHOUT SHOUT SHOUT!" Patillo screams: "You are a winner!", returning to Otis Day: "make me want to "SHOUT SHOUT SHOUT!" I want to scream Shoot! Shoot Shoot! but heck, I bought a ticket. Plus, there are lots of Secret Service everywhere.
Leon Patello thanks us and leaves in a puff of glittering wind.
The silence feels like a room quiet after hours of jackhammering.
And now, one of the reasons I came here today: Tamara Lowe.
Tamara Lowe appears like a substitute teacher out to punch you in the gut. She is very proud of herself, selling what she calls "Motivational DNA" ... The first thing you respond to is her pitched tone. Appearance: If you could mix Amy Sedaris' Jerry Blank character from Strangers with Candy with the entire cast of the Eight Is Enough and then blend it with equal parts bitchy and nattering, there's a chance you'd have the Tammy Lowe genome. Throw in a chubby Candace Cameron for the face, and former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris for the attitude.
Tammy is dressed in her best imitation Laura Bush: a red sexless coat and skirt. For a few boring minutes she presents her credentials as a professional speaker, and then inserts a lampoon-worthy validator: "I am a former drug addict! — and dealer!" Following, "with an eighth grade education."
So what? Some of our best minds fall into all three categories. But Tammy is here to say this is the dark pit she clawed out from under, and that drugs are worthless compared to the very good non-narcotic work she is now doing. She's still a peddler, though. Also, my bullshit buzzer is ringing so hard I'm numb. I'm thinking Tammy's worst drug experience was over-doing it at an Orange Julius. I crave details. She soon provides them: "If you could smoke it, toke it, or poke it, I did it!" ...
After spending a few minutes defining herself as a person of drug addiction she muses that "Your past does not define you," and then continues to define herself as a person qualified by her past.
Tammy gets cheeky,"I would love to play with you all day but I suppose I have to teach you something!" quickly turning to: "I promise you, there is a God."
Do not be led away by strange teachings
Keep your life free from the love of money
"Now, I'm going to show you pictures of me with famous people, but it's really just to illustrate purpose!" We are shown pictures of Tamara with Jerry Lewis, Mother Teresa, I think Bill Cosby and maybe Jack and the Beanstalk ... About what feels like seventy others, dignitaries and celebrities, one click at a time.
Soon after the slideshow, Tamara makes fun of her husband, implying she is the driving force in the success of their company, hollers, "It's all about me, baby" and finishes with, wait for it, a freestyle rap! Her rhyme is delivered slowly and stilted, like she's reading cue cards and has to squint for each verse. The subject of the rap is Jesus Christ.
She then proceeds to attempt a conversion of everyone in attendance:
"Lord Jesus I need you. Because I need to become the person I need to be." Very quickly she throws in the bit about anyone here accepting Jesus as a personal soul savior, etc and then it's over. Fuck you, Tammy Lowe. What a snake.
Now that we've all been converted to Jesus, she gives us orders. "I'm going to leave you with a challenge. Go out and change the world. America has a lot of problems and WASHINGTON DC is not the answer. You are the answer. It has been a privilege to be with all you World Changers."
And she tells us the seminar will resume after a precisely 57 minute lunch break.
Part III. Intermission Beach Balls
Lunch ends and the room fills once again to people finding their purses and business coats where they left them. I look over and chuckle at a sign intended for accessibility: "Deaf Executive Seating" and wonder where "Dumb" and "Blind" are meant to park. I'm tightly packed in now with some Dallas business guy types with huge legs that take up more space than is allotted. They are hugging and slapping shoulders. They clearly just had a very good liquid lunch and I've made enough jokes to be included in their family.
"Was Colin Powell the first presenter?" I ask them. I'd gotten here a half hour late (Fort Worth morning traffic is horrible) "No," one of them tells me. "Schuller, Robert Schuller."
"Dammit!" I say. I'd really wanted to see him. Schuller is a televangelist whose face always creeps me out, sort of like there's an extra face of skin stapled over another face, stapled upon another one. "What did he talk about?"
"His speech was entitled 'Nothing's Impossible'." Ah, that's okay, "How was he?" I ask.
"He kept on announcing how long he had left on stage," they tell me, "Well I've got fifteen minutes ... Well I've got eleven minutes," they're quoting. I laugh, and they mention he wasn't very good at all. I like the time keeping, though.
The room soon shifts dark and disco lights and colors start circling around. A man is onstage to announce lunch is over and time for our Disney Beach Party. They are now giving away the paid vacation - but only to the best dancer in the arena. Everyone around me begins to dance madly to the Beach Boys "Surfin' Safari.". There isn't enough room for this, and I'm surrounded by forty or fifty dancing adults. You can hear the bodies cracking and creaking and heaving. The largest businessman next to me, 6' 4" jumps on his seat, pulls back one leg, holding a foot behind his back, and proceeds to do what is referred to as "The Chicken," with his crotch as the pivot, in front of my face.
The Fort Worth arena shoots hundreds of inflated red white and blue beach balls into the crowd. Balls are bouncing everywhere. The lights are spinning, and everything is very loud.
There's a white MC on stage, rapping and grunting. They're playing a medley of MC Hammer, followed by Van Halen's Jump. "Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to pretend it's 1984!!"
Tamara Lowe reappears to select the best dancers onstage to compete for the Disney vacation. About ten people appear. Two are immediately the front-running dancers, a middle-aged guy whose dancing feels like he's a professional clown, and a very carefree girl in her twenties. They are the two winners for the vacation. Again, like the TV, something doesn't feel right, particularly their reaction to winning, which is a shrug. They both walk off stage like they were actors. Who can say.
Part IV. Bush
After whipping the crowd into a frenzy, it's big time for the main act: The announcer begins, "The next speaker is a former President of the --" and the crowd shrieks in response like it's giving birth to a fat cancer. The gigantic video screen shows a close-up. Bush is walking in from an entrance on the ground level. Face is horrifying ...waxen and molded, deep features showing those dumb predatory bead-sized crossed eyes and that perfect sculpted hair, puckered truck stop cigarette lips. He is the day's cheap wrestler - and we're all very aware of the fact that this is a fixed fight of audience versus bullshit. Bush begins slapping and shaking hands, nodding and winking. God, I fucking hate him.
Reality quickly warps. I see Bush overhead on the video wall and look forward about twenty feet and see him in front of me in clear view. This just feels nauseous and frightening. Time seems to slow down and speed up in a loop, colors blur and shift, sound goes faster in pitch and slows at the same time. I begin to worry about what anyone would in this situation: I naturally worry about dying. No suicide bomber yet. What a relief, only cheering. But that feels like its own death. To be in any room that would welcome this guy with such enthusiasm. I pray for a detonator.
One of my businessmen friends is screaming and slobbering so hard he's spitting uncontrollably like a dented lawn sprinkler. My neck and cheek get hit by something close to mucus, but I won't be touching that to make sure. I make a mental note to clean as soon as possible, and quickly dry off with a napkin. His moisture makes sense; the entire crowd feels like it's mating with itself ... the king flower in the center, appropriately named after a female entrance. Years of feminism destroyed by a single unfortunate name.
Bush likes to fuck his own face, puffing his nostrils in and out before he starts talking. This is very noticeable once you're close to him in person, and it must have driven world leaders crazy during their struggled intellectual exchanges with him. A puff in, and a flair out, over and over like a cocaine caboose. You see his face twitching like a farm rat waiting for the applause to dim. I want to see a blood vessel burst, and love the idea of him performing to the arena with a bloodied face. No such luck. The crowd doesn't realize its power to make Bush uncomfortable through applause, and soon calms to allow him a place he knows all too much better: Silence, and expectation. His nostrils calm down and his speech begins with a pair of Thank you's: "Thank you. Thank you."
He laughs to himself and begins to talk about moving back to Northern Texas. What a haven that must be to him. A joke about his wife (as is the custom, given the day), and chats about what table he picked for his room in the Oval Office (it was Lincoln's; sorry Abraham, I know you were already depressed enough!), and then, like a book report, Bush moves into his thesis statement: Redefining his failure as President.
"I wasn't there to win a popularity contest." This brings quick cheers. What an empty and transparent comment. Of course you weren't, George. But cut the shit; let's be serious: The last six years of Bush's attack on U.S. freedoms were a complete popularity contest. Selfishly, and at our loss. It was the SUPERBOWL of popularity contests. Any psychiatrist can tell that, even without a degree. From the start, Bush was out to win popularity over his brother and for dad's favor; Bush Sr. His father of course being a heavy participant of every terrorist (excuse me, intelligence) problem we've had since Ford (or possibly since WW II) ... This isn't a simple episode of Leave It to Beaver where the Beave steals Wally's paper route to get dad's good glance. This is poisoned politics, and a serious criminal problem, involving concessions to corrupt business, a destruction of environmental ethics, spying on Americans, battering thousands and MENTALLY TERRORIZING BILLIONS ON THE PLANET, all with that swaggering implied middle finger - all in a publicly viewable effort to prove he's a team player to Nixon and Reagan's surviving geriatric backbone ... but I digress. It's clearly upsetting. That Bush Jr. has to redefine himself as a brave leader is explainable, just to keep himself from self-effacing collapse; but to concoct what should be a full concession of egregious behavior into brave decisions is something else, and is purely insulting. Any man (and I use the term without gender, just implying any strong grown adult human) in his position would apologize, but he's a dickless boy baby. Hotlines for battered spouses have been constructed to explain this kind of redefining bullshit, and it's referred to as a controlling complex, where an abusive asshole tries to explain his actions after smacking you in the face. "Popularity Contest" is not the word for it - No! it is simple battery after the fact. I'm reminded of another song, much worse than Tom Petty's. Bad Medicine, by Bon Jovi:
Your love is like bad medicine
Bad medicine is what I need (?)
Shake it up, just like bad medicine
There ain't no doctor that can
Cure my disease
For fifteen minutes Bush muses on his moral and intellectual strength. He is simply an unpopular harmless monk, able to rise above every criticism ever lauded at him. He then shifts to motivation:
"I know you can spend your money better than the Government can spend it."
Huge applause again. But at a financial conference of this sort that's akin to Paul Stanley of KISS mentioning what city he's playing in. And a fine segue - but like a teenager playing with bulging acne, Bush can't leave the scab alone, and goes back into the popularity bit. He's still very very upset about his problems as a person. And whether or not he realizes it, his speech on motivation is a conceding, if over-scripted, speech on "Yes, I fucked up."
Still, for someone who wants very much to have a sober and correct memory of Bush's years as President, the reaction from the crowd, and this dumb talk, is very tough to handle. We're not dealing with a president who dropped a bowl of soup on the way to the dinner table. We're dealing with a gigantic crisis that threatened to destroy every freedom that America was built on. That this can be reduced to "unpopular decisions" and "bravery to proceed with making them" is beyond reproach.
Bush repeats the phrase "not a popularity contest" a number of times. By this point I've been fighting back gunshots of vomit from my gut and have blown my cover, finally burping out some puke with a "fuck that" belch, and I'm getting glares. Who cares. Fuck that, George. And fuck yourself.
Bush ends his talk with lines that make no sense, needing no explanation as to their dishonesty:
"I never sell out the loved ones for pure politics, and take my word I never did."
Following, confidentially: "By the way. I never wanted to be a wartime President. Just so you know."
A veer into religion: "The greatness of America is you can worship anyway you want. America doesn't tell you what to believe."
It ends, like a fifth grade essay with a reprisal of his thesis statement, "Sometimes you have to make unpopular decisions to be a great leader."
Thank you and good night. Jesus, I'm thankful. My stomach could barely take any more. But here's something else: regardless of words, it was horribly boring. What a dull, stupid, ridiculous waste of time. 10,000 people screaming and I still know I'm looking at nothing. The only thing Bush really represented was a knife held up to America's throat for eight years. Now he's just the touring jackass followed, and not preceded, by Terry Bradshaw.
The presentation ends with Bush thanking us, but he fucks it up!, saying it in a mumble, "Thank you for letting me talk, say, explain that - it to you, all. Today. Thanks." It's his only spoken blunder of the day, but I love it. His last words, essentially, "Thanks for letting me bullshit."
So that was George Bush's first big showing since dropping to the farm league. I'm not surprised he's a dull oaf. I'm relieved he has nothing, no power or charisma left. But, of the day, I am very surprised about this:
I've been to a number of political events, rallies and a few debates, and to get in the door has always involved a ridiculous amount of scrutiny. Anticipating this, I packed as light as possible and planned on a delay. There was absolutely no security. Zero, zip - not even a bag check. Once you picked up your ticket you had your choice of seven or ten doors, all unmonitored. My ticket wasn't even checked.
Obviously, there were about five or six clothed police and Secret Service roaming, and I'm sure countless more out of uniform, and unseen in the bleachers, probably a sniper rifle; but I was very surprised at the ease of entry. We all were wearing shoes, for instance. What if all of a sudden a flood of footwear launched at the stage? And I saw people walking around with duffle bags and gigantic trench coats. There were baby strollers and other pushable equipment that would never be allowed at a real event. And trashcans everywhere. Was I really in a world where 10,000 people were screaming in favor of George Bush and not the slightest thought of door security was necessary? And in a room of 10,000 not a single hostile outburst? And in a place full of pyrotechnics and smoke to cover over real gunfire?
I couldn't help but enjoy an idea that at least five hundred people were there to ridicule and shame Bush. A mass attack of pies ... or even just a sudden display of sex in the crowd. Someone making loud fart sounds. A holler of "murderer" .. A couple banners quickly unrolled in Arabic. I mean, something! Someone could have screamed Jihad, someone else ... my real worry ... someone else could have blown themselves to pieces.
The fact no one showed up to ruin the day is the psychological moment of comfort, for me, with George Bush. At the beginning of the day I was somewhat worried about my safety. Especially once I realized there was no security to speak of. I was only twenty feet from the guy. For a few hours I was worried about getting blown to pieces. But at the end of the day I realized George Bush is so boring and unnecessary these days that he isn't even worth a suicide bomber's stick of dynamite in a Fort Worth theater.
He's now just another puckered freak onboard a very odd traveling circus sideshow. And that irrelevancy makes me somewhat optimistic about America.