If Chrysler Chairman Lee A. Iacocca is right, the economy is headed straight for a telephone pole at 60 miles an hour, and when the collision comes, the American public will be looking hard for someone to blame.
The debts piling up because of budget deficits, and the hemorrhaging by U.S. manufacturers because of the the high dollar eventually will stop the economy, Iacocca says. "The IOUs are too big . . . They're going to break us. The IOUs are going on your kids," he tells a group of journalists.
As he sees it, the White House and the rest of official Washington is filled with people who have no answers, no plans to avert the collapse he sees ahead, between now and 1988.
Iacocca has answers. The man who saved a hopeless Chrysler Corp. from bankrupcty is full of them.
He spent four fruitless years trying to get the Reagan administration to listen to him, and now, he says, he's stopped. "I'm telling you I am out of breath for the next three years . . . Everybody's heard my story."
But Iacocca is never really out of breath. He's just changed targets.
Iacocca has found an audience with his new book (entitled "Iacocca" -- and any other title would have been deceptive advertising) -- his account of how he saved Chrysler and how he proposes to straighten out a lot of other problems. It has sold 1.6 million copies, racing to the top of the best-seller's charts, to Iacocca's great surprise.
And it has unloosed a flood of letters from readers to Iacocca, people he has touched in one way or another through the book.
"I get 500 letters a day on the book. Don't ask me why. I just get them. But my poll of those letters is better than Gallup could ever do."
What they are reacting to, as Iacocca acknowledges, is his public image -- the man who saved Chrysler, who speaks his mind.
He said he was with a group of friends at Frank Sinatra's house recently, arguing about the book's surprising success, and Sinatra told him, " 'Hey, don't get complicated. People like a guy doing it his way and succeeding.' And he started singing. . . ."
What Iacocca has now is a public personality. A guy who did it his way. And he knows that is a priceless political attribute. "You got to be a TV personality" to succeed in politics. "TV is the monster. Like it or not. The guy who can succinctly project himself on television is going to win."
Listen to Iacocca in this vein for very long, and he sounds like a future presidential candidate. But an Iacocca audience feels like they're watching a wedding where the groom reaches the altar -- and walks out.
Asked to name a political figure who measures up to his standards, who has the answers and the star qualities, Iacocca comes up empty.
But even though there's no real competition, he's not interested in filling the void, he says.
"Politically, I was never trained for that . . . I would be a lousy president. It's not having a short fuse. I don't have that good spirit of talking things to death and compromising. I really don't. I would get in trouble."
What would Iacocca do as president? This is an auto industry executive talking. You bring the parties together. Sit them down. Start banging out the answers and nobody leaves until there's a deal.
Iacocca and Chrysler lobbied as hard as they could to persuade the Reagan administration to see that the voluntary restraint agreement (VRA) on Japanese cars was continued past the March 31 expiration date.
In exchange for a continuation, he proposed to go to the United Auto Workers with a pledge that Chrysler would not increase the amount of foreign components it buys overseas for its cars beyond current levels, to protect American jobs.
In turn, the UAW would have to agree to radical changes in its work rules, to reduce labor costs.
"Then together we go arm and arm. We kiss each other and we go in to see Reagan." And they tell the president, "now you give me VRA until you straighten out your problem."
And the president's problem, says Iacocca, is the deficit, the debt and the currency imbalance between a high dollar and the Japanese yen, which acts as a crippling tax on many U.S. manufacturers. The restraints should have stayed on until political Washington had produced an answer to these problems, he says.
But the administration allowed the restraints to end, and as a result, says Iacocca, an economic collapse is inevitable. When that happens, the public will be looking for scalps.
"That's what I'm finding out in my letters. . . . It's a sense of fair play. We are getting very close to testing the fairness issue in trade and a lot of other things," he says. Americans will wake up one day and realize that they have been operating on one set of rules, offering essentially free access to the U.S. market, while foreign rivals have been playing by different, less equitable rules. "I don't like the rules. I think it stinks for America.
. . . . But hey. I'm going to wait. I did my thing -- I got the company ready to hang in there for three years. What's going to happen then, I don't know. But I'm ready to pounce, whichever way it goes. We're going to adapt."
Iacocca is right about the rules, in large part. He is right about the huge damage being done to U.S. manufacturers by the effects of the deficits and the dollar.
But the dealmaking he talks about -- between the UAW and the auto industry -- was a crucial factor in putting the American car makers so far behind the Japanese.