Fireworks shoot up from the stage. A trapdoor in the ceiling opens, and red, white, and blue confetti showers the stadium. “He will always be known as a great American hero,” says the announcer, and the crowd of 18,000 begins to chant—“Ru-dy! Ru-dy! Ru-dy!—as he sprints onto the platform.
If this were the 2008 Republican National Convention, Rudolph Giuliani would be in heaven. Sadly, it’s not even close. This is the “Get Motivated” business seminar in downtown Des Moines, featuring a motley assortment of speakers doing extended infomercials on the secrets of success. There’s Steve Forbes on the stock market, George Foreman on his boxing (and grilling) career, and Rudy on “Leadership,” the title of his recent book.
He arrived in Iowa the night before to speak at a couple of fund-raisers and feel out the local hierarchy, to see “whether it makes sense to run for president in 2008.” (Iowa holds the first presidential caucus, and the hopefuls line up there years in advance.) There are ample reasons why it may not make sense. Giuliani, after all, is not a man who naturally channels heartland values. He loses his temper publicly, calling people “jerks” and worse; he’s lived most of his life in New York; he’s twice divorced. And that’s before we get into the actual issues (he’s pro-choice and pro–gay rights, which alienates him from Iowa’s many social conservatives).
The national reporters on early campaign duty took the time to follow Giuliani around the state, though they seemed dubious about his prospects: Don’t you think you’re out of step with the GOP mainstream? Is being a New Yorker a handicap? Is the party’s tent big enough to include you? I saw none of them at the “Get Motivated” seminar, a nonpolitical event sandwiched between political fund-raisers. If they had peeked in, they would probably have been slightly embarrassed by the perky up-speak coming through the boom mic: “Good morning! Welcome to the ‘Get Motivated’ seminar! It’s going to be an outstanding day that will change the rest of your life!” But if they had gotten past the kitsch and hyperbole, they might have seen how Giuliani can possibly fix his glaring flaws as a candidate—and witnessed perhaps his best hope for connecting to a conservative base with which he has little in common.
It’s not the first time Giuliani has been the keynote speaker for a “Get Motivated” audience: he’s been doing this, in different cities, nearly every three weeks for about the last three years. Standing there on the stage in Des Moines, surrounded by patriotic symbols and enough screaming midwesterners to fill a small town, the former mayor of New York seems like a guy who just might be presidential material.
Americans expect their president to talk like them, especially when it comes to matters of faith. This has little to do with actually going to church; it’s about the delicate art of mastering what speechwriters sometimes call “evangelese.” About 13 percent of the population constitutes what we think of as the hard-core Christian religious right; beyond them are a vaster number of what could be called “values voters.” Values voters are generally Republican and less rigid on the usual cultural issues—they might accept gay civil unions, for instance, or abortion under certain circumstances. They don’t shout their demands from the steps of the Supreme Court, nor do they much want them shouted. When they evaluate political leaders, they’re often looking for different, more subtle cues. They might want to know that a candidate’s faith was deepened by a personal experience, that his or her life can be summed up as a story of struggle, redemption, and growth. Or they might just tap into a candidate’s general sense of optimism and contentment—a belief, rooted in Genesis and coloring all of life, that things happen for a reason. “Creationism Lite,” you might call it—an affirmational creed that carries its own emotional and intellectual style of thinking and speaking.
Candidates woo values voters with varying degrees of success. George W. Bush reached them by telling the story of his recovery from a dissolute youth—how he was a fallen man, drinking and wasting his time, until Billy Graham set him straight. Hillary Clinton has so far expressed herself crudely, saying, for instance, that an immigration bill would criminalize “Jesus himself.”
Giuliani’s steadiness after 9/11 endeared him to most Americans, and at that time he called upon his faith—he’s a lifelong Catholic—at the appropriate moments: when he walked among the ruins of the Twin Towers, for instance, he famously said to each worker, “God bless you.” But in calmer times he has had a way of undercutting himself. He opens his book by thanking God for directing him to begin thinking and writing about leadership just before 9/11, when he would need it most. But in the next few paragraphs he gives the advice “Don’t assume a damn thing,” and then offhandedly mentions his marriage falling apart. At one point he tells a story about how, as a lawyer in 1992, he saw smoke coming from a historic church and rushed in to save a priest. He then saw some thieves taking a candelabrum off the altar and yelled, “Put that fucking stuff down!” This is Rudy on Rudy, so we commend him—even admire him—for his honesty. And if all America were made up of reporters and New Yorkers, such foul-mouthed candor—“anti-evangelese,” one might call it—would serve him well. But alas, much of the rest of the country is not so fond of jaded, thuggish, neurotic New Yorkers, particularly not as presidential candidates.
Now put Giuliani in an entirely different context. Inside the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, the mood is like a tent revival, with a particular focus on the prosperity gospel. Speakers of greater and lesser fame tell their stories of success and urge the crowd of mid-level managers and salespeople to: Go the extra mile! Have all you want! Double your savings in six months! The speeches run the gamut from the practical (investment advice) to the purely inspirational. They are patriotic and, in a majority of cases, deeply religious. Foreman’s speech crescendos as he recalls the day he found himself in a “deep dark yard,” feeling like he was “about to die,” when a big hand pulled him up. “I became an evangelist for the Lord Jesus Christ,” he says, and the crowd goes wild. Zig Ziglar has been on the circuit for eighteen years and is a marvel to behold, a sweating caged animal of a preacher who takes the crowd back to "Joo-ly the Fourth, 1972, the day I committed my life to Jesus Christ and my entire life changed.” Two decades of American motivational jargon flow through him, from folksy slang to self-help to management-speak to megachurch preaching.
Giuliani can’t do southern preacher. Yet there’s a current of spirituality running through his speech on the subject of 9/11, and how much that day shattered and then changed him. The crowd has waited eight hours to see him, so he is greeted as the star act. When the roaring dies down, he begins by poking fun at his own reputation for being controversial,” telling a joke that features Pope John Paul II as the hero. Then he masters a trick all good politicians pull off: making his own success—and thus himself—seem accessible to anyone in the audience. “Are leaders born or made?” he asks. And of course he concludes they are made—self-made—by anyone with the will.
His speech continues as a list of “leadership principles” the political culture now considers close cousins to a conservative God-fearing temperament. “You’ve got to have a set of convictions,” he says, and praises Ronald Reagan’s belief that the Berlin Wall could not hold. “You have to be an optimist,” he says, and encourages the members of the audience to “follow your hopes and dreams.” You’ve got to have “courage, and be able to deal with fear,” he says. When he gets to principle No. 4—“Be prepared"—he veers into what could almost pass for a religious testimonial. The morning of September 11, 2001, he says, was the “worst experience of my life … You prepare for everything you can think of, but you can’t prepare for this.” He says he stood watching debris fall from the Twin Towers and realized that it was, in fact, people jumping. He was lost, without a plan. Yet somehow he found sources of inspiration and strength. He remembered what he’d always known: the “value of teamwork,” the need to “be there when the going gets tough.” This is when people in the front rows of the audience begin to take out their cell-phone cameras and snap pictures of him. For a few moments the business seminar has taken on shades of something deeper, more meaningful—a great political speech, church, Oprah.
He ends on a note of hope, telling a story about one of the New York City firefighters giving a bear hug to President Bush. Giuliani does not mention God except once, in a joke. But his speech is infused with the kind of uplifting message that, these days, shares boundaries with preaching: “You’ve got to care about people,” he says. “In fact, you have to love them.”
Peter Lowe started the “Get Motivated” seminars twenty-five years ago, and he prides himself on his talent scouting. He’s featured plenty of famous people—Mikhail Gorbachev, Colin Powell, Norman Schwarzkopf, Bill Clinton—but he says Giuliani is one of the best. “You can see from the audience how he connects,” says Lowe. “He has a special gift.” Lowe has never polled his audience members on their politics, but he guesses that most are Republicans; about 80 percent are businesspeople, he says, and a third are in sales. (In Des Moines one of the loudest applause lines was for Steve Forbes, when he called the tax code an “abomination and a beast.”) The seminars almost always sell out enormous stadiums; in Des Moines, that means about a tenth of the city’s voting population attended.
Giuliani’s advisers say these motivational seminars are not part of his campaign strategy. Yet if he does run, Giuliani should thank Lowe for helping him find his voice. Jeff Shesol, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton who continues to write for other prominent Democrats, told me that George W. Bush’s campaigns
have alerted us all to the coded speech where lots of winking goes on to evangelicals, lots of loaded words that resonate with millions of people that the rest of us may not even notice. Some of our folks think they can quote some scripture they found on the Internet and reach these people. But there are some really seasoned professionals out there. Giuliani wants to be one of them.
And thanks to Lowe, he’s well on his way.
Forget about abortion and gay rights for a moment. In the “Get Motivated” world, it doesn’t matter what you’re selling; it matters who you are, and how you sell. It matters that people believe you, trust in you. Giuliani “is like Reagan, only more results- oriented,” says the Republican pollster Frank Luntz. “And people are willing to vote for people they don’t agree with if they see character. They are so desperate for someone to lift their spirits.”
In Iowa, Giuliani was up to principle No. 2 (“Follow your hopes and dreams”) when he was interrupted. From down in the audience, just beyond the stage, he heard a cell phone ring. He stopped in the middle of telling a story. “It’s okay, you can answer your cell phone,” he said. “You won’t interrupt me.” The woman whose phone had rung was mortified; he had just embarrassed her in front of 18,000 people. In the “town hall” meetings he used to conduct as mayor of New York, through a radio show, Giuliani was not known for his good-natured populism. He was known for making fun of constituents who called him with what he thought were petty problems. This is the dark Giuliani, and here he was, making an unwelcome appearance. He shifted to a long digression about the scene in Dr. Strangelove where General Buck Turgidson answers a call in the middle of a crisis and whispers sweet nothings to his girl on the phone, as the nation’s political and military leadership looks on impatiently. “Just tell him you love him so I can go on with my speech,” Giuliani said. No one was laughing. Giuliani actually waited for the woman to hang up. Then, after a painful minute or so, he was back in candidate mode, talking about Vince Lombardi and the mind of a champion.