Last Friday, February 6, an outstanding TD Ameritrade conference suddenly turned into a WWF-like smackdown event when an advisor, trembling with rage, lashed out at former White House advisor Karl Rove. Billed as a left-right political debate between Rove and retired General Wesley Clark, both men began the general session with partisan opening statements. Clark lamented the decline of American prestige, power and prosperity during the past eight years, making clear who was responsible for it, while Rove ridiculed the then-proposed stimulus bill, intimating that the new neophyte president had already let his agenda be hijacked by extremists in his own party.
So the stage was set, as the unlucky moderator quickly turned it open to questions from the audience. One of the first questioners began by reciting a long litany of charges against the Bush administration: leading the nation to war under false pretexts, vastly inflating the federal debt and going down in history as a worse administration than Nixon's or Carter's. So what was his question? Best I could tell, it was why should anyone listen to Rove. Of course, no one forced this man to listen. At least he didn't throw his shoe at Rove, who easily deflected that question, and many others, with quick one-liners and factoids.
Thereafter, many advisors followed with serious, intelligent questions. Sometimes, Clark and Rove responded in kind. But all too often, the two men degenerated into superficial trash talk, with large elements within the audience alternately applauding or hissing. The ballroom at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas wasn't quite a Roman coliseum, but it was a spectacle to behold. I remarked to the advisor seated next to me, Ron Roge of Bohemia, N.Y., that it was reminiscent of my local bar at 11 p.m. on a Friday night before Election Day. Like many others, I eventually walked out.
If this were an isolated incident, it would be insignificant. But it's clearly a sign of the times, and outbursts like these are not always about politics. Last October, I was moderating a panel discussion at the Financial Advisor Symposium we produce with Intershow, and attendees crossed the line in attacks on several panelists. It wasn't pleasant.
One attendee saw fit to dress down Standard & Poor's equity research guru, Sam Stovall, for the role S&P's debt-rating arm played in the mortgage meltdown. Never mind the fact that Stovall, a class act if ever there was one, had virtually zero contact with the debt-rating agency in his 20 years there, speaking once at a meeting for S&P debt clients.
Another very distinguished-looking attendee interrupted another panelist in mid-sentence and yelled, "Bull----." It should be noted this incident occurred on one of those October days when the DJIA tumbled about 700 points.
These are stressful times for everyone, particularly for advisors who find themselves being tested intellectually and emotionally as never before. When a caring professional bears responsibility for dozens of individuals' life savings and both clients and advisors are bombarded daily with tales of Wall Street fraud and greed, the desire to lash out is only human.
But there is a line between spirited debate and boorish incivility, and many thought it was crossed during the Rove-Clark meeting. Others didn't. Any speaker who agrees to take questions at a conference should expect to be seriously challenged-in a polite manner.
Reliable sources say the gentleman who lit into Rove is a decent, civilized person. Even before he pounced, both Clark and Rove had kicked off the proceedings themselves with invective comments that came very close to crossing the line. Equally depressing was the way that pair frequently took serious questions from subsequent advisors and parlayed them into opportunities to exchange zingers that obscured the questions rather than illuminated them.
Two years ago, TD Ameritrade held a similar general session with Bill Bradley and Newt Gingrich, and it was a fascinating and friendly give-and-take discussion. I've seen Gingrich and James Carville do the same in other formats. What a difference two years and a recession make.