The Politics and Personality of Chrysler's Baron


Iacocca: An Autobiography, by Lee Iacocca, New York: Bantam Books, 352 pp., $19.95

It is common knowledge that Lee Iacocca has an engaging manner and what used to be called the gift of gab—to say nothing of a positive genius for self-promotion. As one writer pointed out recently, "Not since the early part of the century, when tycoons like Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller commanded headlines almost at will, has a businessman etched himself into the public's psyche quite like Iacocca."

He's everywhere. Selling Chryslers on television and radio and in newspapers and magazines. Begging for the Statue of Liberty. Winning a Wall Street Journal survey as the most-respected executive in America. Coming in a close second to Ronald Reagan in a Junior Achievement survey to determine which American leaders business-minded teenagers admired most. Many Americans, myself included, find Iacocca considerably more personable and congenial—politics aside—than the supposedly irresistible Ronald Reagan.

But of course it's impossible to put politics entirely aside when you're talking about Lee Iacocca, for there never was a more deeply and incorrigibly political animal than he. Far and away his greatest achievement as chairman of Chrysler Corporation has been his lobbying for government favors for the company.

Little wonder, then, that rumors persist of Iacocca's secret plans to run for the presidency himself. He persists in denying these rumors, of course. But how can anyone believe him? As he himself points out, "Even the real candidates tell you that they're not running until they finally decide to go public with their ambitions." And far too many of Iacocca's activities are impossible to explain if we assume that he's merely a charismatic businessman who wants to sell cars. How except very indirectly does drumming up funds to fix the Statue of Liberty sell cars? How does addressing a meeting of House Democrats bent on finding a new agenda for the Democratic Party (as Iacocca did early in March) help to sell cars? Presumably the chief executives of General Motors and Ford want to sell cars too, but they don't publish autobiographies and devote the last few chapters to passing along their recommendations for American public policy.

Iacocca, however, has seen fit to give us his recommendations. In one chapter, called "Public Man, Public Office," he even acknowledges that he "might enjoy being President." He goes on to list what he fancies are his qualifications for the job: "I'm a good manager. I can cut costs and make money and manage a large institution, and if there's anything I'm sure of, it's that. I know how to control a budget, and I've had experience in turning around a failing company."

Iacocca is convinced that these qualifications are in demand among voters. "Americans," he says, are "looking for a leader who can balance the budget as well as restore a sense of purpose to the country." Says Iacocca, "People are hungry to be led."

Moreover, he says, "our national leadership consists of too many lawyers and not enough people from business. I'd like to see a system where we brought in twenty top managers to run the business side of the country and maybe even paid them $1 million a year, tax-free. That would be a real incentive, and then we'd see a lot more talented people interested in public life."

Immediately, at the first mention of that tax-free million, a lightbulb goes on over the reader's head—over this reader's head, anyway. Could it be that Iacocca would be interested in the presidency if it paid better? He says he stayed on at Ford long after he'd worn out his welcome there because he "found it almost impossible to walk away from an annual income of $970,000." And he says the "humiliation" that pushed him to take on the chief executive's job at Chrysler in 1978 was being assigned to a small cubicle of an office in a dingy warehouse during his last days at Ford (he'd been forcibly removed from the presidency of that corporation by that time).

As Iacocca points out, he was used to far better than that. "Only yesterday," he writes, "I had been working in the lap of luxury. The office of the president was the size of a grand hotel suite. I had my own bathroom. I even had my own living quarters. As a senior Ford executive, I was served by white-coated waiters who were on call all day. I once brought some relatives from Italy to see where I worked, and they thought they had died and gone to heaven." I'll lay odds that Lee Iacocca would run for the presidency of the United States in half a minute if he could have that tax-free million-a-year as his salary.

And if he ran, what would be his platform? As he spells it out in his autobiography, his platform would have six points. First, we should impose heavy taxes on gasoline so that Americans will buy more of the sorts of small, fuel-efficient cars that Lee Iacocca now manufactures. Second, we should set specific upper limits on Japan's market share in the automotive industry—again, so that Americans who want small, fuel-efficient cars will have to turn to Chrysler for them, rather than buying them from Nissan or Honda or Toyota. Third, we should "face reality on the costs and funding mechanisms for federal entitlement programs," whatever that means. (Perhaps it means nothing more than that Lee Iacocca has a talent for the sort of meaningless doubletalk in which politicians specialize.) Fourth, we should subsidize the education of engineers and technicians—the kinds of people Lee Iacocca needs to hire at Chrysler. Fifth, we should subsidize research and development and factory modernization "in critical industries" such as the one Lee Iacocca works in. And sixth, we should rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, so that Americans will have good roads and bridges on which to drive Lee Iacocca's cars.

Since this book is called an autobiography, it doesn't devote all its many pages to political matters. A little over half of it is given over to a not-at-all-unpleasant recitation of the main points of Iacocca's business career. (As I said, the man has an engaging manner and the gift of gab. When he isn't talking about politics, his book is highly entertaining and readable.)

Iacocca was born in the '20s, the son of a successful and affluent Italian immigrant who lost everything in the Great Depression. He excelled in school and went off to Lehigh University and then Princeton to study engineering. He then took a job with the Ford Motor Co.—the only employer he ever had until he went to Chrysler. He worked his way to the top during the quarter-century between World War II and the early 1970s, by helping to create several of Ford's biggest successes, most notably the Mustang, the Mercury Cougar, and the Continental Mark III. He also helped to create the infamous Interlock seat-belt system that disfigured American cars for a couple of years a little over a decade ago.

To this day, Iacocca travels around the country lobbying state governments to make seat-belt use mandatory. He likes the idea of building every car with "a special light…that would show green when you're wearing your seat belt and red when you're not. Whenever your light showed red, you would be fined." He thinks an attractive refinement of this system would be "something similar to a radar gun, where the police don't even have to stop the offending car: they just send the driver a ticket in the mail."

Iacocca emerges from the pages of his book not only as a rather authoritarian personality but also as an astonishingly uneducated man. His grasp of history is shaky and utterly uncritical. He hasn't the foggiest notion what true laissez-faire economics is—he thinks Ronald Reagan espouses it. And his command of economic theory is most conspicuous by its absence.

Moreover, he emerges from his book as a startlingly uncouth and vulgar individual. He dismisses the arguments of those who objected to the government bailout of Chrysler in 1979 as "bullshit." He dismisses the Ford Motor Co. as "a chickenshit outfit." He informs us that when he took over Chrysler and discovered how bad the financial situation at that company really was, he felt "lower than whale shit." And he tells us that when he won his first election, in a ninth-grade bid to become student body president of his school, "I thought I was hot shit." Whatever one might think of Iacocca's apparent preoccupation with excrement, one has to admit that Henry Ford II had a point when he told the press after Iacocca's firing that his former president "lacked grace."

Grace, and a few other things as well, as we have seen. It is understandable that the American public should have taken Lee Iacocca so much to its heart, for the public typically judges individuals by their personalities, without bothering to look more deeply into their character and convictions. But it is profoundly to be hoped that the American public resists any impulse it might feel to place Iacocca in the White House.

Jeff Riggenbach is the daily economics commentator of CNN Radio and the executive producer of Perspective on the Economy, the Reason Foundation's nationally syndicated daily radio program.