May 30, 2009: Barry Cauchon
May 29, 2009 - President George W. Bush and President Bill Clinton in Toronto during the moderated section of "A Conversation with Presidents" event. Courtesy of Reuters
Yesterday the city of Toronto, Canada was host to a unique and first time event. President George W. Bush (43rd) and President William Jefferson Clinton (42nd) met publicly for the first time since President Bush left office in January, 2009. They were in Toronto to have a ‘moderated conversation’ in front of an estimated audience of about 5500 people.
I am a senior volunteer for the Power Within (co-producer of the event) and a real fan of sharing what goes on ‘behind the scenes’, I’ll fill you in on how the day went and a little bit about how events like this come together. For the record, I have been volunteering for the Power Within since 2007 and have enjoyed working their events and interacting with the audiences they attract.
As a brief introduction to the public speaking event industry, the producer of the event is responsible for pulling the show together. They may come up with the concept themselves or coordinate it on behalf of other parties. Don’t be fooled. This is not a simple task. This is show business. And what it takes to ‘put on the show’ is a massive coordinated effort. Hopefully in the end, the audience sees a seamless and enjoyable presentation. In the case of yesterday’s program, two ex-Presidents of the United States shared the same stage together and talked for about two hours on 21st century world issues. On the surface, that is what the audience came to see. What went on behind the scenes prior to the event is what this article is about.
For any event, once the program is defined and the talent (in this case the Presidents) contractually confirmed, then the show itself has to be pulled together. A venue is selected, the solicitation of sponsors begins, PR & marketing kick into gear and the early stages of logistics ramp up. Once the basics are in place (the who, what, where and when), ticket sales are started. I’m making it all sound simpler than it is. In reality it is a highly coordinated effort with many disciplines interacting with each other. As many of you know, I was the Sr. Project Manager for the King Tut exhibit that started touring the United States in June of 2005. The process for that, and most other well-coordinated shows, is almost identical to this. You will notice that when I mentioned the ‘who, what, where and when’, I left out the ‘how’. Well, that’s what ‘logistics’ is all about.
Logistics involves thousands of details being planned and executed. To name just a few of the basics, you need to deal with transportation, lighting, audio-visual requirements, staging, staffing, venue coordination, food and beverage, washrooms, tickets, seating, VIP considerations, speakers and their staffs’ needs, sponsors and their needs, medical and EMS requirements, fire and safety, and of course security.
With regards to security, you can imagine that to protect not one, but two Presidents of the United States in one location is a logistical nightmare. President Clinton and President Bush each have their own Secret Service details. Then there is the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police who protect all government officials and visiting dignateries to Canada), local police and venue security staff. All parties work hand-in-hand to protect the Presidents and make the event secure for the people attending.
Please let me state that in no way am I personally involved with any of the arrangements mentioned above for the Power Within or any of the security forces mentioned. As a volunteer I have my own ‘job to do’. I just wanted to make you aware of what goes on in setting up such an event like this.
Now let’s get to yesterday’s event.
The event had about 5500 paid attendees ranging from about C$200 to C$2500 per ticket. Now before your jaw drops about the higher priced ticket, this was for people who desired to attend a private luncheon and photo session with the Presidents before the event.
The location of the event was the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. The doors opened to the public at around1:00 pm with the event scheduled to begin at 3:30 pm. A volunteer orientation meeting was held the night before where 70+ recruited volunteers attended. The purpose of the meeting was to go over the logistics of the event and visit the room where the event will take place. They volunteers learn what their job will be the next day (doing everything from working as a ‘greeter’ in the lobby to assisting at the photo op with the Presidents and their special guests. I’ve worked all these positions at one time or another and frankly love them all. Yesterday, my job was to coordinate with two other Senior Veterans and manage about 40 volunteers assigned as “IN ROOM USHERS”. IN ROOM is the term we use for the actual room where the event takes place. Our job was to get all 5500 people seated and ready for the show and deal with any problems that may arise. Seating 5500 people is no easy task. Events of this type attract dignitaries, celebrities, CEOs, Presidents, sponsors and groups, the general public and people from all over the world. There are different ticket prices and you need to be sensitive to everyone’s needs and requirements. In the end, you have to have everyone seated and ready to go when the event begins. Yesterday went fairly well. Typical problems usually involved people sneaking into sections they were not supposed to be, people saving seats for others, impatient attendees wondering when the event would start, etc, etc, etc. No big deal. In general, this audience was really great and once everyone was seated and the lights turned down, the show began and everyone forgot any issues they may have had earlier in the day.
The event: I won’t get into all the nitty gritty of the actual content of the event as news stories have been run in all the major publications, news services, MSNBC, CNN, television and radio news, and has been fodder for Jay Leno and David Letterman. But here are my impressions.
The stage was set up with one podium on the left side of the stage. To the right of this were three big comfy green leather chairs with tables between each holding water bottles and hand microphones.
After being introduced, President Clinton was first to come out and spoke briefly in his usual easy going, confident and charming way. I have seen the President speak five times now and his natural charisma just captures and holds an audience’s attention. He joked and spoke about what he is currently doing as an ‘ex-President’. He humorously bemoaned the fact that of all the things he has missed since leaving office was that during personal appearances they no longer play ‘the song’ (Hail to the Chief). He really misses that. The crowd ate it up. After his short 10 – 15 minutes talk, he took a seat in one of the chairs on stage.
Next President Bush was introduced. Where President Clinton has been a consistent visitor to Toronto and a good friend to Canada, people were apprehensive about how the audience would respond the Mr. Bush in his first public appearance in Toronto. As expected, protesters were camped outside of the venue with signs and chants showing their disapproval of President Bush’s policies and involvement in the war. Also, there was the perception that the President might struggle with his public speaking. Well, all those fears were dispelled very quickly as he stepped onto the stage looking relaxed, stress-free and confident, and then launched into a series of ‘one liners’ that had the crowd laughing and quickly on his side. His jokes were often self-deprecating and genuinely funny. He mentioned that like most A-type people he needs to stay active. Now that he is out of office he is writing a book, which was a surprise to many, because they figured he has never even read one! This also got a great laugh from the crowd. Whether well-coached or genuinely looking and feeling relaxed, President Bush came off as enjoying himself and thoroughly having fun with this event. I felt that the audience really enjoyed it too.
The next phase of the event was where Frank McKenna, former Canadian Ambassador to the United States in 2005, moderated a series of questions as they all sat in those big green comfy leather chairs. Early on, both Presidents joked that the audience had come to see the event in hopes of witnessing fireworks between the two of them. For the most part, although the questions were moderate in nature, very few differences of opinion came from either gentleman. In fact, both President Clinton and President Bush backed each other when a policy issue or international event was discussed.
When President Clinton took personal responsibility for not reacting fast enough to the genocide in Rwanda (800,000 were killed in 9 days), saying that in hindsight he should have sent troops into Rwanda to stop the carnage and perhaps save 300,000 to 400,000 lives. He was defended strongly by President Bush saying that it’s not easy being President. You just can’t send 20,000 troops into action. There is a process that is required. Approval from various levels of the US government, other governments and the UN. Then there are the sheer logistics of mobilizing 20,000 troops and their equipment and weapons, transportation, food, etc. It just can’t happen in a short period of time.
All in all, I believe the audience had an enjoyable and entertaining time hearing these two former world leaders speak. Regardless of everyone’s politics, the presence of these two men had everyone hanging on their every word.
From a personal point of view, I really enjoyed this event. But what I liked best of all was the fact that several audience members I met had brought their teenage kids with them to see these two world leaders. So few proud Americans, let alone their kids, will ever get the chance to see a President speak live. As a kid, I was lucky enough to see a speech by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the late ’60s that my father took me to. I was with the Cub Scouts at the time and I’ll always remember how amazing it was to see the President of the United States speak in person. I carry that same feeling to this day. And I’m glad that these parents were able to find a way to bring their kids to this event. I truly think it will stay with them for the rest of their lives as it did with me.