A brash, outsize personality and best-selling autobiography. Private jets and multiple wives. Frequent subject of Time magazine covers. A taste for the lavish lifestyle. A celebrity transcending his industry and an ability to sell anything to anyone. Sound familiar? This reads like a description of Donald Trump, but it is also true of Lee Iacocca, the automobile executive who died Tuesday at 94.
In his heyday, Iacocca was not just the face of Detroit but, to everyday Americans, the face of American business. He was also, in critical ways, the archetype of the persona Trump has long projected but seldom embodied. Lift the curtain on Trump and the chimera is revealed: a name chiseled onto a building facade, stitched into a golf-course towel, stamped onto a wine label. Lift the curtain on Iacocca, and even if you can see the hucksterism there, it’s backed by powerful machines parked in millions of American driveways and tens of thousands of American jobs. Iacocca kept his name for himself, but his products were so closely associated with him that he might as well have branded them with it: the Mustang, the K-car, the minivan.
While Trump was the businessman to gain the presidency and Iacocca only flirted with a run for the White House, Iacocca was the true master of the art of the deal - the king of CEOs to Trump’s naked emperor. And he was popular in a way that Trump’s vivid imagination could appreciate - at one point only the pope and Ronald Reagan were more respected by Americans.
Even the Fourth of July offers a point of comparison at which Iacocca casts a shadow that eclipses Trump. The president gets his military “Salute to America” on Thursday, with tanks parked nearby, jets flying overhead, fireworks and a stage at the Lincoln Memorial. Iacocca had “Liberty Weekend,” the 1986 extravaganza celebrating the centennial restoration of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Iacocca chaired the commission that oversaw the restoration, culminating in a four-day event that included battleships assembled in New York Harbor, a flotilla of tall ships, a blimp race, the presidents of the United States and France, an army of celebrities, a laser-lighting of the Liberty torch and a monstrous fireworks display. Also, a naturalization ceremony featured the chief justice of the United States swearing in a group of immigrants.
Trump’s ghost writer, Tony Schwartz, has said he cobbled together “The Art of the Deal” from his subject’s often rambling thoughts to create the image of a dynamic New York developer. Iacocca’s ghost writer, William Novak, had plenty of life story and business accomplishments to work with in “Iacocca: An Autobiography,” which dominated the non-fiction best-seller list in 1984 and 1985 and became a true global publishing phenomenon.
Unlike Trump, who has told twisted tales about his family origins, here was the son of Italian immigrants, born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, who leveraged an education at Lehigh University into a job at Ford, where his marketing flair and ambition got him all the way to the executive suites in the Glass House, as Ford’s Detroit headquarters is called, and eventually to Chrysler, where I interviewed him in the mid-1980s for the first of a half-dozen times. By then, he overshadowed every other business leader in the city, even Roger Smith, then at General Motors, eclipsing his former boss, the patrician Henry Ford II, as an instantly recognizable business personality.
Iacocca was more like a European titan of industry than a bland American manager. He was also like Trump in his admiration for excess, which he may have learned from his boss, Ford, who eventually fired him. Years before Trump bought Mar-a-Lago and built Trump Tower with its gilded escalator, Iacocca was using the Ford plane to run errands for Henry II, once bringing back an antique fireplace for him from London, he wrote in his autobiography. One day Iacocca decided to find out why Ford was only satisfied with hamburgers prepared for him in the company dining room. He asked the chef to show him how he made one. “He went over to the fridge, took out an inch-thick New York strip steak and dropped it into the grinder,” Iacocca wrote in his autobiography. Trump might have appreciated this kingly quirk as much as Iacocca did, although the president is known to love a fast-food hamburger.
Like Trump, whose real estate company sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection six times, Iacocca also stumbled in business. In 1987, Chrysler decided to buy American Motors Corporation, the smallest U.S. automaker, and the complexity of the merger almost sank Chrysler once more. But unlike Trump, who has threatened lawsuits and blamed regulators for his woes, Iacocca always focused on how he could fix things. He was a man who outlined strategies and then executed them, whether it was convincing consumers to take a chance on his failing car company by offering them rebates, persuading Congress to approve a bailout plan for Chrysler (and paying off the $1.5 billion federal loan guarantee ahead of time) or marketing vehicles like the Ford Mustang and the Chrysler K-car and minivan to the baby boomers who still dominate American auto sales.
Trump, by contrast, lied about his finances and walked away from failures and debts as he leveraged his empire for personal gain.
While Trump has repeatedly declared, “I’m the only one that matters,” Iacocca was the one that mattered, so much that he became Chrysler’s feisty spokesman in years of TV commercials. Chrysler even brought him back in 2006 for one last round with Snoop Dogg.
Iacocca expressed a few thoughts about Trump in a 1991 interview with Playboy magazine. “I know Trump fairly well,” he said. “Now that’s an ego that’s gone screw-loose, gone haywire. What the business establishment of this country has to do is get away from this new financial-transaction mentality. It used to be that Wall Street, the financial markets and the banks were there to promote and fund the companies that produced goods and created jobs. Now they’ve taken on a life of their own: ‘What’s the play? Where can we make a fast buck?’ What we really need to do in this country is get back to the factory floors. Whether it’s Chrysler or McDonald’s or whatever, you’ve got to stand for making good stuff or you’re not going to win.”
Iacocca straightened out the merger mess with a sparkling technical center in suburban Auburn Hills, Michigan, where vehicle development could be shared by departments. And Chrysler got Jeep, which yielded huge profits in the 1990s, shoring up the company’s fortunes. Jeep continues to be a money maker today. Still, Chrysler was continually dogged by the poor quality of its cars. “We shipped a lot of junk in those days,” Iacocca admitted in a 2010 interview. But he always had a way to deflect attention from creaking doors and shoddy construction. In 1988, he stunned his competition by announcing that Chrysler would put airbags in all its cars, a reversal from his previous denouncement of the safety devices. Chrysler immediately began touting its safety advantage, proving Iacocca the salesman was firmly in charge.
While Trump keeps going into his mid-70s - as president of the United States, no less - Iacocca, who left Chrysler in 1992 at age 68, admitted to Fortune magazine that he exited the scene too soon. At the height of his popularity, he had put an end to talk of a run for the presidency. “I believe that if I wanted to be president, I could be president,” he said with Trumpish confidence in a 1986 interview with Life magazine. “But I’m not the guy.”
Longtime Trump associate Roger Stone concurred at the time. “It is the kind of candidacy that looks terrific on paper and would positively not be viable in reality,” Stone told The New York Times in 1986. “The thing most Americans admire about Lee Iacocca is that he’s blunt. He’s a man who won’t be constrained, and politics is constraining. There are certain things that can’t be said because they’re impolitic.”
That was then.
And yet, a poll by the magazine Regardie’s at the time showed Iacocca beating the eventual 1988 winner, George H.W. Bush, in a general election, and sailing past most of the potential Democratic primary contenders, including, by a margin of 70 percent to 30 percent, then-Sen. Joseph Biden Jr.
By the last decades of his life, Iacocca was thinking about the future of the auto industry that he helped build. In our last conversation, he expounded happily about EV Global Motors, an electric bicycle company he had invested in. He’d been watching the development of the auto industries in India and China, he explained, and saw electric bicycles filling a void for those who could not afford cars. By 2010, he predicted, millions of electric bikes would be on American streets. Iacocca’s timing was off with that idea, but he had the thread of something that was coming. Electric scooters have popped up everywhere in American cities, and electric bikes are talked about as a way for the boomers, to whom Iacocca sold millions of cars, to stay mobile when a non-powered bike is too difficult to pedal.
As Trump gets ready for his military parade, one can almost envision the spirit of Iacocca gliding by the tanks too heavy to drive on Washington’s streets, whether on an ebike, in a K-car or in the driver’s seat of a Ford Mustang convertible.
Micheline Maynard is an author and journalist who was Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times.