After the competition, up steps Steve Forbes, still advocating for a flat tax and delivering a critique of the nation's health-care system that's too serious for this hopped-up Midwestern crowd. And then, at 2:25 p.m., when all anybody in the arena wants to do is hear Laura Bush and Colin Powell, Michaelsen announces that it's time for "one of the most popular speakers we have ever had at our conferences."

Time for another infomercial.

If Bob Kittell is the smooth face of the Get Motivated! sales pitch, James Smith represents its scruffier underbelly. The Utah-based Smith looks like a cross between comedian Richard Lewis and Steve Buscemi and displays a bit of a standup comedian's contempt for his audience. "MBA? Hell yeah, I got a major bank account," he says. "I graduated dead last in my high school class, but you know what I've learned about real smart people? You can be so smart you're stupid. You can go so far north you're south."

Kholood Eid
Scottrade Center is packed on April 27, with attendees lured by the promise of cheap tickets to see everyone from Rudy Giuliani to Lou Holtz. For more photos, check out our full slideshow Get MotivatedÖto Hand Over Your Wallet.
Kholood Eid
Scottrade Center is packed on April 27, with attendees lured by the promise of cheap tickets to see everyone from Rudy Giuliani to Lou Holtz. For more photos, check out our full slideshow Get MotivatedÖto Hand Over Your Wallet.

It takes a bit more down-home wisdom and a few more insults directed at the audience before Smith gets to his point: "You're so busy being busy, you don't have time to get yourself right-side up." The only way you're going to be able to afford to retire is if you make some money, he says — and he has just the investment vehicle to get you from here to there:

Real estate.

If this seems to you like an odd time to be pushing real estate as an investment strategy, Smith has news for you: Everything's about to collapse, and the only way to survive is to start laying the groundwork now.

"God brings freaks and weirdos into villages to warn them that all hell is going to break lose — and then the dude leaves. You're going to see the most inflation you've ever seen your life," Smith promises. But "you do not need to get hurt — you can get ahead if you get in the game."

The James Smith Company's three-day seminars usually go for $1,495, Smith imparts. But Get Motivated! has again played the role of an angel and convinced him to slash the price to $49, provided people sign up right away, today. And if you sit through all three days, you'll get a $50 Visa card for your pains.

"If I made it free for you, would that work for you?" he elaborates. "None of this Ginsu knife stuff, but really free?"

Once again the audience traipses out to the concourse, and a few thousand people grab clipboards and begin filling out credit-card slips. (One woman does think to ask, even as she completes the form, "If it's free, why does he need my credit card?")

If Smith's introduction served to paint him as something of a "freak" or "weirdo," there's something of a madness to the methods he suggests the crowd might use to become rich. For example, he notes that there are a lot of "retarded children" in this country, and the government will pay you $600 per month per bedroom to set up a group home.

And though Smith asserts that he is running a nonprofit company with the simple goal of "educating ordinary people on how to be extraordinary," neither of the companies he's promoting, the James Smith Company nor the Coaching Company LLC, is incorporated as a nonprofit entity. (Another curious detail: Smith's website features two videotaped testimonials, one of which is delivered by a woman named Kari Waldock — which happens to be the married name of former child actress Kari Michaelsen, emcee of today's event.)

Smith did not respond to e-mails seeking comment for this story.

By the time Smith is finished peddling his strategies, the crowd looks a little saggy around the edges, and Colin Powell and Laura Bush, who follow him to the stage, are each greeted with a warmth tinged with weariness. Both are pros, and both earn the applause they get.

But pity poor Howard Putnam, former CEO of Southwest Airlines, who comes directly after Laura Bush. It's 5 p.m., and only about half the audience has stuck around to take in his folksy, airline-related advice.

And Putnam is not the day's final speaker. When Putnam makes his exit, Michaelsen, trouper that she is, begs the stragglers to stick around just a little longer for some computer advice from Stephen Pierce.

Pierce is clearly on last for a reason. His claims are increasingly wild — riches! Amazon rankings! Google placement! — his pitch so breakneck, that no sentient person could keep up, much less one who has sat through nine straight hours of being lectured to. "This is not get-rich-quick," Pierce calls out as folks head for the exits.

Pierce winds down at last, and though Michaelsen is beseeching those who remain not to leave without filling out a credit-card slip — she went to his seminar herself, and "it was so amazing, so incredible; I've been able to use it in my life!" she swears — only the desperate or morbidly curious are left in their seats.

After Michaelsen says her final "God bless you" and the few who've gotten their entire $9.95's worth are free at last — once they face the gauntlet of credit-card clipboards one final time — only to discover that outside of Scottrade's doors it is pouring down rain.

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