DaimlerChrysler AG is a thoroughly German company. It's based in Stuttgart. Juergen E. Schrempp, its chairman, and Dieter Zetsche, the president of its Chrysler division, are Germans who have spent their entire careers at the company that many Americans still think of as Daimler-Benz, the maker of Mercedes Benz.
But here in Washington last week DaimlerChrysler did everything it could to prove that it's as American as apple pie. Literally. On the lower level of the Washington Convention Center, the company spent several million dollars to build a mock American town, dubbed Independence, U.S.A, to tout its many connections to this country. The movie-set-style village, which featured the company's cars and trucks, included an ersatz restaurant -- Carla's Big Rig Diner -- that served pecan, peach, blueberry and, yes, apple pie.
Why stage such a charade? Why did a German company spare no expense to portray itself as American in the nation's capital? The reason is simple: It wanted to increase its influence with the federal government.
A foreign company has little or no clout with U.S. lawmakers and bureaucrats. But a company that's seen as American -- regardless of the location of its headquarters -- is a real contender in the high-stakes hunt for the billions of dollars in benefits that the United States dispenses each year.
That's one competition that DaimlerChrysler dearly wants to participate in, and to win if it can. "Not much goes on in Washington that doesn't have some implication for us," said Dennis B. Fitzgibbons, director of public policy for DaimlerChrysler in Washington.
The company's public relations effort last week, which it unsubtly called Impact on America, made clear that it wants official Washington to consider it homegrown despite its foreign base. Company officials are determined not to leave a single tax break, emissions standard or research grant unvied-for in the rough and tumble of the capital's lobbying wars.
This bid for acceptance, while extreme, is increasingly typical for multinational corporations. Not long ago, such companies dealt with Washington by keeping their heads down. Now, with globalization in vogue, there's a full-time trade association in town that consists of U.S. subsidiaries of companies that are based abroad. It's called the Organization for International Investment, and its executive director, Todd M. Malan, was one of the DaimlerChrysler event's most enthusiastic boosters.
"Americans could care less where the CEO lives," Malan asserted. "They care where the jobs are."
Making that case is precisely what DaimlerChrysler did last week. In a pretend newspaper called the Independence Post, which it distributed at the convention center, and in speeches and signs sprinkled throughout its fake village, the company highlighted how deeply rooted in America it is. To wit: More than 100,000 Americans work for DaimlerChrysler. The company has 37 facilities in 13 states. Its divisions include the nation's largest maker of commercial vehicles (Freightliner), as well as major U.S. manufacturers of yellow school buses (Thomas Built) and red fire trucks (American LaFrance).
Hardly a moment passed over two days that audiences weren't reminded how American the German company is. A D.C. high school band kicked off the ceremonies on Monday, followed by the singing of the National Anthem. Schrempp welcomed the crowd of think-tankers, governors, ambassadors and other opinion leaders with a rousing and patriotic speech.
His English was heavily accented, but his message was strenuously homespun. He reminded everyone that Chrysler Corp. and Daimler-Benz merged in 1998, creating what is now one of the world's largest automotive employers. That very large company, he explained, churns out Mercedes M- and R-class cars in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and 18-wheel trucks in Oregon and North Carolina.
Schrempp noted that in the 1980s he served briefly as president of one of Daimler's ultra-heavy-truck divisions in Cleveland. "I came to love and admire this magnificent country," he said. "I still do."
With revenue in North America of $100 billion, he described DaimlerChrysler as "one of this country's largest and most successful companies." He added, "We are proud to be part of the industrial backbone of America."
Schrempp ended his speech by saying, without any hint of shame, "God bless you and God bless America!"
The next day, members of Congress were invited for a special reception and were treated to the same type of propaganda. The company's contract lobbyists, including such heavyweights as Jack Quinn of Quinn Gillespie & Associates and David A. Metzner of American Continental Group, stood by to help guide the lawmakers around. The elected officials were asked to autograph a red, white and blue Jeep that will be auctioned with the proceeds going to help U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Even the menu was painstakingly American. In addition to the "homemade" pies at Carla's, the company served popcorn, hot pretzels, ice cream, beer and hot dogs (with no bratwurst in sight).
Zetsche treated the lawmakers in the audience to his own jingoistic litany. As a loyal American auto executive, he professed to be thrilled that the Detroit Pistons had reached the National Basketball Association finals. He also boasted about DaimlerChrysler's sponsorship of the National Anthem Project, which will try to re-teach Americans the words to their own "Star-Spangled Banner" over the next few years.
As corny (or borderline offensive) as these efforts may seem, they worked -- at least among the lawmakers who looked on. "Doing something like this can only help," said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). "Members of Congress can see for themselves that this is a company with a great American presence."
Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.) agreed and added that until he visited the village he hadn't been aware that American LaFrance manufactured fire engines in his own home state.
"We live in an international marketplace, and there are a lot of Missourians who are employed by Chrysler," Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) said. And that's plenty good reason to support the company.
"They're in our state employing our workers, creating jobs," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). "They're ours."
DaimlerChrysler couldn't have asked for more.
Jeffrey Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. E-mail him at email@example.com.