Where are the luckier-than-lucky 3 percent of U.S. households that have not seen a Lee Iacocca TV commercial? Time magazine, in its recent coverboy story on the Chrysler chairman and chief car seller, reports that 97 percent of America's households have been reached.
The reaching has averaged 63 times apiece. There's no getting up for Cheez-Its to avoid him. He'll be on the screen soon after you're back, going for number 64. That, along with 1.5 million sales of his autobiography, prompts Time, in a flacking profile that itself reads like a commercial, to announce on its cover that "America Loves Listening to Lee."
Not quite. A few Americans are still out there who prefer to get the news from Detroit from other sources than huckstering 30-second TV spots. They are the same ones who wonder why, for all of Iacocca's alleged greatness, his career is a long record of fighting the safety and environmental regulations of government -- but then hitting up the government for money when his own Chrysler hide is threatened.
They ask also why the country claps its hands for little more than another celebrity millionaire whose highest ambition on leaving graduate school was to chase "after the bucks."
The applause is helped when journalists are among the seduced, as in Time's promotional, which hypes Iacocca with such skid-out phrases as "superstar," "folk hero," "a no-holds-barred guy." He has "Trumanesque candor," which led Time to fantasize -- seriously -- how the country would fare under "a President Iacocca."
To show that the candidate has universal appeal, the profile states that "even the left-leaning Nation magazine permits kind thoughts for this particular captain of industry." In fact, Captain Lee was the object of only a few words of praise in a book review by an outsider last fall. More recently, a reportorial article in the Feb. 16 issue showed that the Nation, whichever way it is said to lean, isn't falling for Iacocca's schemes and scams. The article documents -- by way of Oval Office tapes by Richard Nixon in 1971 -- how Iacocca, then with Ford Motor Co., ranted on about the persecution of the auto industry by consumerists and environmentalists.
In his years of congressional testimony and speeches to businessmen, that belief has been a persistent delusion of Iacocca's. In the White House with a sympathetic Nixon ("You can talk to me in complete confidence"), the Ford president whined that "safety has really killed all of our business." He then called on Nixon to suspend the then-pending air-bag rule. Soon after, it was. The Nation article concludes that "tens of thousands of lives have been lost in the past decade that might have been saved had the 1973 air-bag rule gone into effect."
About that White House meeting, Ben Kelley, former senior vice president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, was quoted by the Nation: "That conference and what apparently flowed from it have made a very important contribution to the fact that, still today, Americans cannot buy air-bag protection at any cost, in any car."
In his autobiography, the no-holds-barred guy bars any mention of the air-bags meeting with Nixon. Instead of braking for the facts, he accelerates into nonsense about the safety device he has been opposing for 20 years. Iacocca tells of "a retired safety engineer in Michigan" who once proposed "that air bags would offer a humane alternative to the electric chair and to other forms of capital punishment."
Iacocca explains: "In his application to the U.S. Patent Office, the inventor stated that by inflating an air bag directly under a condemned person's head, the force of 12,000 pounds can instantly snap the guy's neck far more effectively than the hangman's noose, and so quickly as to preclude any pain whatsoever. I'm not sure I'd want one of those gizmos in my car."
Until now, legitimate arguments have been advanced that air bags will not prevent auto deaths in every situation. But here is Iacocca intrigued with the idea that the device is an ideal way to kill convicts.
There is something wilder. He calls himself "a safety nut." That, from the president of the company that gave America the Pinto, everyone's favorite roadway fireball. Iacocca briefly discusses the ill-designed car and says that the vehicle "was the fault of Ford's management -- including me." That's all: no sense of the suffering inflicted on human beings, no expression of contrition toward the victims. Iacocca has announced that all earnings from his book -- said to be $4 million to date -- are going to a health center in Boston. Such largess would be even more impressive if a few nickels were given to the Pinto victims. It would be justice, not charity.
Iacocca survived his sacking by Henry Ford. He's on top again, he's a pal of Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope, and he's going like 60 to get into those 3 percent of the households where he's still just another hustler on the corporate make.