For $15,000, you can rent Henry Kissinger for some after-dinner chitchat—but his bodyguard expenses are extra. If you prefer an ex-President, Jerry Ford will press the flesh, taste the rubber chicken and say his piece for $13,000. Ex-NATO commander Alexander Haig collected $500,000 in speaking appearances in just six months last year. With figures like that, the lecture circuit has become an industry complete with trade associations and conventions where club and campus bookers audition lesser names and compare notes on how the past year’s guests delivered.
At the 1980 gathering of the leading trade group, the International Platform Association, recently held in the windiest city, Washington, the consensus was that media stars are now becoming the hottest properties. Mike Wallace and Barbara Walters, for example, each fetch $10,000 a gig. TV exposure obviously makes a difference (Johnny Carson gets top dollar of $40,000), while the print press, says IPA director Dan Tyler Moore, comes cheaper. Columnists Jack Anderson and Art Buchwald collect only $4,500 per.
The convention was a sort of smorgasbord of after-dinner fare. Clairvoyant Jeane Dixon previewed her new act, which for $4,000 offers such predictions as Reagan winning in November, lame duck Carter facing a Soviet confrontation right after the election and the OPEC alliance crumbling. Watergate felon G. Gordon Liddy offered to unbutton his lips for $3,000 a pop. “Ask me anything you want,” he challenged the audience. “I’m perfectly safe—I’m unarmed.” Poet John Ciardi lent some middlebrow culture to the event, and comedian Mark Russell won the IPA’s Mark Twain Award as favorite humorist of the year. Former Ford administration gag writer Bob Orben gave some evidence why his side lost with lines like: “You have to admit that Billy Carter is really down-to-earth. The question is, how did he get down to earth, and from what planet?”
Even ABC’s belligerent White House correspondent Sam Donaldson found the occasion somewhat intimidating. “The group is dangerous,” he said, “because they’ve heard it all before.” PBS Wall Street wag Lou Rukeyser pulls $10,000. But business groups tend to favor governmental heavyweights, paying $13,000 for the wisdom of former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Arthur Burns and $10,000 for former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. Ex-U.S. Cabinet members Joseph Califano and Juanita Kreps are also in that ballpark. Among athletes, Muhammad Ali still is the Greatest on the dais, pulling in $10,000 to Bruce Jenner’s $7,000.
IPA organizers warn that the circuit is faddish and fickle. Old lions of the wine-and-Brie set like William Kunstler, the acidic Timothy Leary and Betty Friedan have pretty much gone the way of George Jessel; but Ralph Nader can get $3,000 a night and Jane Fonda still holds campus appeal. In the future, some IPA delegates predict, excommunicated Mormons-for-ERA leader Sonia Johnson will be a big draw; right now she’s a bargain at $1,000.
Still, the prime beneficiaries of the lecture circuit have always been pols. William Howard Taft reportedly made more from speaking than his White House salary; Ronald Reagan salted away money for his current campaign from lecture fees ranging up to $10,000. And if seer Dixon is correct, Jimmy Carter won’t have to go back to peanuts come January. IPA bookers peg him at $15,000 to $20,000 a night.