The news of Lee Iacocca’s recent death saddened me because we had become friends in the early 1980s.
In those days Iacocca, the CEO of Chrysler, was often in Washington, D.C., preparing the payback of the $1.5 billion loan we in Congress had voted to provide the automobile company only two years earlier. As a supporter of that Chrysler loan legislation, I was working to assure the loan included financial support for the company’s workers.
I suppose those efforts were the reason Iacocca and I first met and struck up our friendship. Although he was 12 years older, we had other things in common. Both of our parents had owned a restaurant. His mom and dad were immigrants from Italy and my grandparents were from Ireland. We both had a thing for handsome convertibles, including the Ford Mustang.
I was having dinner in D.C. with Iacocca and, at the time, there was considerable buzz about him as a candidate for president, so I asked, “Lee, are you a Democrat or Republican? “Well,” he chuckled, “it depends when I’m asked,” and went on to explain.
He recounted his life, beginning with his memory of the Great Depression, recalling, “During those hard times, I suppose almost everyone was a Democrat and I was too.” He told me he had attended both Lehigh and Princeton University, where he recognized the increasing number of students depending on the GI Bill and knew it was Democrats who provided the majority to pass that historic legislation. “That’s when I became a real Democrat,” he said.
Next, Lee explained, he went to work for Ford Motors and made his way to the top of that company in record time. He laughed as he told me, “I looked at the dent in my paycheck made by taxes and decided I was a Republican.” As president of Ford and later CEO at Chrysler, Lee continued to support mostly Republican candidates. “Until,” he told me, “a couple of years ago when I needed this billion-dollar-plus loan to keep Chrysler afloat and you Democrats made it possible. And now, Pat, I’ll tell you what, I’m one hell of a good Democrat again.”
That was Iacocca: frank, funny, truthful. If it was good for him and his company, he liked it; and if not, he didn’t. First a talented engineer and later a sensational marketer, Iacocca moved from Ford and the fame of his Mustang to Chrysler and his TV ad, “If you can find a better car, buy it.”
After a long life of determination, leadership and charity, Lee Iacocca died in his 94th year.