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An autumn storm soaks the streets and paints the outdoors a dull shade of gray, but inside the Fort Worth Convention Center the scene is all bright lights, pyrotechnics, and red, white and blue. More than 12,000 people have packed the arena for a one-day dose of inspiration at Get Motivated!, paying less than $5—or $19.95 for a whole office—to see an all-day speak-a-thon featuring former Secretary of State Colin Powell, aging motivational sales guru Zig Ziglar and former President George W. Bush. At the center of the floor, on a stage decorated with yellow chrysanthemums and periodic columns of fire that shoot toward the ceiling, a perky woman in a bright red suit and matching lipstick stands smiling while the throngs leap up and down and pump their fists in the air. Her name is Tamara Lowe, the woman who for the past 25 years has presided with her husband over this traveling spectacle—an odd blend of QVC, tent revival and Fox News on the Fourth of July.
As if to magnify the corny, old-timey feel of the place, The Beach Boys' "Surfin' Safari" blares from the sound system and Lowe invites a few people from the audience to lead the crowd in an impromptu dance-off. A middle-aged man takes the stage and does a jerky wave. Next to him, a 20-something woman in a cardigan shimmies. And then an army of red, white and blue beach balls materializes, seemingly out of nowhere. The crowd tosses them into the air, and the building resembles a massive, patriotic popcorn popper.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Lowe cries, "I want to introduce a two-term governor of Texas and two-term president of the United States: George W. Bush!" The crowd goes nuts. They're shouting, jumping and clapping, many of those relegated to the upper floors streaming down toward the stage to get a glimpse of the former president, who today marks his first major public speech since he left the Oval Office amid two unpopular wars, a tanking economy and record-low approval ratings. Clearly, these folks don't share the views of the woman who stood outside in the rain earlier holding an "Abolish Bush" sign.
The 43rd president takes the stage to "Hail to the Chief" and waves until the audience quiets down. "It feels good to be home," he says. "Thanks for that warm Texas welcome."
Bush begins with a few anecdotes about the curious onlookers who flocked to his Preston Hollow cul de sac after the announcement that he and wife Laura had purchased a home there and a joke about getting caught on camera walking his dog Barney while holding a doo-doo bag. Then he turns to the task at hand: motivation.
"The thing about life is, you gotta live it to the fullest because you never know where it's going," he says, kicking off a string of vague clichés that hinge on values and principles. "Every man, woman and child should be free, that's what I believe," he says. "I believe it's in our interest to help people realize the blessings of freedom for the sake of peace." He veers from motivation to a spirited defense of his record, saying he made decisions based on his principles and not on "the politics of the moment."
"I never wanted to be a wartime president," he goes on. "Sometimes you get dealt a hand you don't want to play—the question is how you play it."
As he talks of being a father—"tough choices"—and the sacredness of America's religious freedom, scattered cheers and uh-huhs erupt throughout the audience. To succeed and remain motivated, he says, each individual, at the end of the day, must answer to himself and his own conscience. "It doesn't matter, your political party," he says. "What matters is how you live your life and how you act. It's so simple in life to chase popularity—but popularity is not real—what is real is principles. Always follow your conscience, so when you look in the mirror you're proud of what you see."
Bush's appearance after lunch stokes the most enthusiasm of the day so far, but it's only the midpoint of a seemingly endless parade of speakers spouting can-do slogans and pitching books, online training programs and financial seminars. Get Motivated!, with its array of celebrity speakers that changes depending on the tour stop (Suze Orman, Larry King and Bill Cosby have made appearances, as well as Joe Montana and Goldie Hawn), is a particular brand of motivational seminar. Its hallmarks are patriotism, sales and the more than occasional mention of Jesus Christ. But the business, which Lowe lauds as "the biggest business seminar company in the world," is just one piece of a sprawling industry that, according to MarketData Enterprises Inc., was worth $11 billion in 2008 and seems to be swelling despite the recession.
Peter Lowe, referred to in company literature as "America's Success Strategist," grew up the son of Canadian missionaries, became a computer salesman and emerged in the '90s with a Tampa, Florida-based motivational seminar organization called Peter Lowe International. In 2000 he merged his operation with a joint venture between Success Magazine and the Champions Tournament, a popular tennis event. But what was to be a multi-faceted motivational bonanza spiraled into a financial mess that left investors millions of dollars in the red and resulted in dozens of complaints from people demanding refunds for canceled seminars or inspirational tapes that never arrived or didn't deliver what they promised.