From all over the country come the gifts, adoring memorabilia from Lee Iacocca's unofficial fan club: a pair of snowshoes (tags still on); a box of chocolates, each gold-foil-wrapped piece imprinted with the outline of his face; three portraits of himself by various artists; replicas of the Statue of Liberty, for which he heads the restoration committee; toy versions of the Mustang, the car that made him famous; and a box of Fiberall, a natural laxative. ("Don't put that in," jokes the chairman of Chrysler Corp., who has often touted the benefits of fiber-filled foods.)
Then there are the letters. Piled neatly in a corner of his desk, they are the one thing Lee Iacocca wants to talk about today. Box-loads from Taiwan to Tulsa, arriving here at Chrysler headquarters. On a big day, there may be as many as 500. "I try to read a hundred a night," he says. "If they take the time to sit down and write, the least I can do is read 'em."
They urge him to run for president, console him on the loss of his wife two years ago, and share with him all of their pains.
"You hear so much . . . They pour out their feelings. With some of them, I feel like I'm a psychiatrist, and they're on a couch with me," says Iacocca, 60, stretching back on his tweedy chair in an office as big as a parking lot. "I wish I could explain it rationally," he says, referring also to the seemingly interminable success of his autobiography, "but I can't. It's endless, it's a bottomless pit."
And then, coughing out a cannonball cloud from his Montecristo cigar, it comes to him: "It's almost like -- I wanna say -- the priest in confession."
I have just finished your autobiography, and I believe you are the most pragmatic, aggressive and charismatic man I ever read about . . . -- A man from Dallas
In Boston, women begging autographs are kept off a hotel stage by Chrysler security guards. House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) lists him among the more viable Democratic presidential candidates for 1988 (and Iacocca's a registered Republican). The 2 millionth copy of his nearly year-old autobiography -- "Iacocca" -- has rolled off the presses. The book -- a tale of power plays and ambition and sentiment -- remained No. 1 on best-seller lists for 38 weeks, only recently slipping to second place.
In an age of disposable heroes, the depth of Lee Iacocca's attraction has been nothing short of stunning. "Some heroes are longer-lasting than others," he quips. "I liked Ike a long time. I still like him. He's been dead a long time."
Iacocca is considered by some to be a political Eisenhower of the '80s, a man whose appeal seems to transcend party and class, a man America seems to see as a mirror view of itself.
"I'm the image! Now I'm the image," he says, during an interview in this tiny suburb of Detroit. "They identify with a piece of the book they want to identify with, such as life is full of adversity but don't let it knock your socks off, okay? Keep your feet on the ground, grit your teeth, move along and in this great country you'll have a second life.
"It's adversity. They want to talk to someone who suffered a little. They don't look at me as a multimillionaire. They don't want to hear about that. They want to hear that you had a tough time and how you weathered the storm . . . There's a common thread: people like grit and perseverance."
But it may be more than that.
Humiliated by Henry Ford II, a member of this country's business aristocracy, Lido Anthony Iacocca did what many fantasize about doing when they have been wronged: He didn't get mad -- he got even, by sketching a scathing portrait of Henry Ford in his book, and by aggressively going after the company's market share.
Is there a special message in his firing that seems to strike a chord among his many pen pals? "Yeah, the bigger they are, the harder they fall," he says, and then paraphrasing the letters, " 'Thank God, it's not only the little guys who get fired . . . Look, he was on top of the world and he got fired, too. He came back, so you can come back.' I betcha that has been repeated 80,000 times at breakfast tables."
Perhaps, though, Lee Iacocca is most recognized and admired for the job he took on the rebound. In 1979, he said he would revitalize Chrysler, as the company approached annual losses of more than $3 billion. And he did. Personally lobbying Capitol Hill and the White House, and effectively mobilizing the unions and the banks, Iacocca secured $1.2 billion in loan guarantees from the government. He paid back the notes seven years before the due date, and last year Chrysler turned a $2.4 billion profit.
He's tough-talking and bullish, using profanity frequently to emphasize his thoughts. "The man speaks bluntly," says William Novak, Iacocca's collaborator on the book, who deleted all the expletives except for one. His sharp, staccato style seems more compatible with the assembly line than the boardroom. There are "these guys" and "those guys." And with syntax ricocheting and vowels flying, his rapid-moving monologues are often sprinkled with "betcha" and "lemme tell ya."
He could be the man next door, who just happened to earn $5 million last year. Expensive, Italian-cut suits hug a round body. He goes to mass on Sunday and gave up chain-smoking his beloved Montecristos for Lent.
One minute, he's Mr. Mush -- as his two daughters call him -- taking a cooking course, and canceling meetings to answer phone calls from them or his fiance'. The next, he's Mr. Macho, rejecting a $10,000 contribution from a billion-dollar corporation to his pet project -- the Ellis Island/Statue of Liberty Foundation -- calling its meager size an "insult."
There's a lot of straight talk from this son of immigrants, a man who within a period of a few years lost the father he idolized and watched the world he so neatly arranged collapse, only to come full circle.
"He's the great American success story, that's what it is . . . An ethnic Horatio Alger," says his friend, attorney Joseph Califano. "What you see is what you get."
I had known the courage of your wife, Mary, long before your book was published, as I too have been a diabetic for 25 years. -- A man from Topeka
Lee Iacocca can snap and rail on against Henry Ford or how he battled the odds of life. But ask him about the death of his wife of 27 years, and watch his combat demeanor vanish.
In fact, when pressed, Iacocca gives what may be the most telling reason of all for writing his book. "I promised my wife," he says. "We had a lot of cries and a lot of laughs . . .
"A death in the family gets your life straightened out in your head quick," he says quietly.
"That's real. The rest of life is meaningless -- making money or building the '89 car on time. I mean, what the hell? Yeah, my life got put in perspective. Oh, I thought I had my feet on the ground and it was in perspective, but something like that is the best condition to get your own values straightened out. Ya know: What the hell are ya trying to do in life?"
Mary McLeary Iacocca died in 1983 after a 30-year struggle with diabetes, at a time when Iacocca was still dealing with the death of his father a few years earlier. Both are said to have had an enormous influence on his life. In fact, Iacocca calls his work on the restoration of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island his "labor of love," since both his parents came into this country from Italy through the formidable inspections of Ellis Island.
"I've seen my dad cry more in the past few years than I have in my whole life," says Kathi Iacocca, 26.
Today, Iacocca insists that his daughters, Kathi and Lia, 21, routinely be tested for diabetes, as it is known to be hereditary. He is donating all the proceeds of the book to the philanthropic organization he founded to help fund research for diabetes. To date, that is an estimated $5 million. The Iacocca Foundation, based in Washington, is headed by Kathi Iacocca.
"I think we all would like to find a cure, I know he does, because I'm sure he feels it's a living memorial to my mom," says Kathi over breakfast one recent morning. "We lived with it every day. People say, 'How do you get so involved? You have diabetes, you take a shot. Big deal.' Wrong. I lived with paramedics, and I lived with emergency rooms and IVs all my life. I mean, being a young kid and never knowing whether your mother was coming home again . . ."
Iacocca writes in his book that throughout his corporate climb, he always put his family first. Still, he is asked if there is some residual guilt about his wife's death.
"A little bit," he says. "I think the guilt comes from -- just as we were seeing daylight at Chrysler, she got so sick and had the stroke. And there's a little bit of that. I wish she had lived a little longer and saw that. Very often I think of her seeing the book."
Kathi says that in the beginning she took it the hardest, and on two occasions, her father flew to Washington to bring her back to their home in Bloomfield Hills. He often takes flowers to the cemetery near his home, and this year he and Lia visited the grave site at the precise moment of Lia's birth: 9:07 a.m., July 16.
"He just misses her," says Kathi. "My mom was an incredible support system for my father. She was behind him all the way, and it's tough. He loved her very much."
The Iacoccas are described as a close ethnic family that includes his 81-year-old mother Antoinette. All of them went on a five-week vacation to Italy this summer. Lee Iacocca is a very protective father, and his daughters say they have a direct phone line to his office.
"He's my father but he's really my best friend," says Kathi. "I talk to him at least once a day -- at a minimum. He always makes time, and it's not always urgent. I'm buying a town house, and we have these discussions about bathroom tiles. I asked him about white, and he said, 'No, get bone.' "
Iacocca is engaged to 34-year-old Peggy Johnson, a former Pan Am flight attendant, whom he met at the Ellis Island/Statue of Liberty Foundation, where she is a volunteer. His remarks to the press earlier this year were not those of a man eager to marry.
He said, "I gave the girl a ring, but marriage is not in the offing. I haven't thought about it. We'll see. I don't know if I'm ready. I've set no marriage date. I hope everything works out well, for myself and, of course, for her."
Today, he tells friends that the prospect of having another family doesn't appeal to him at his age.
"No, no way," says Kathi. "There are different reasons. He has his family. Also, at his age it's about time he had some fun. Who in God's name at 60 wants to get up for feedings?"
Says Lee Iacocca now: "I am engaged but it is a tough decision. My wife has been gone 2 1/2 years now. I have kids. They're not married. One was engaged and it broke off. One finishes college and I'll think about it. It's difficult. Those are difficult personal problems."
The reason I am writing this letter is to let you know that I share a lot of the same trials and tribulations that you went through . . . at Ford. I was fired from a job which I felt like I had a bright future . . . -- A man from Albuquerque
He has just been asked the impact of the fan mail on his ego. It's an ego that has gotten considerable attention over the years, and its size is not one of Lee Iacocca's favorite topics. His throat starts croaking out words through the mist of smoke.
"The letters mean more to me than what you're going to write about them," he snaps. "Everybody printed 20 years ago that I had a big ego . . . I think I lost that 20 years ago . . . I'm far beyond that. I hardly need any more ego-building, if that's what you call it. My profile is high enough. I really don't need to expand it. I am looking for some privacy."
He is still in his office at corporate headquarters, a plush, hushed world of warm beiges and cool salmon marble. A guard, who also serves as the receptionist to the fifth floor -- Iacocca's inner sanctum -- monitors four closed-circuit televisions, and all cameras point to Iacocca's door.
Iacocca seems very relaxed here, much more so than when speaking publicly or being besieged by fans. This represents 35 years of his life, and essentially the sum total of his ego fulfilment.
A few miles away is Dearborn, Ford Motor Co.'s world headquarters, and the rest of the subculture of the auto industry that surrounds Detroit. It was to that company Iacocca first came from Allentown, Pa., in 1946, a young engineer with a bachelor's from Lehigh University and a master's from Princeton, heading for the place he always dreamed of working.
He rose through Ford's hierarchy to become its president in 1970, having made his name in the early '60s as a young vice president overseeing the development of the Mustang, one of the fastest-selling cars in the industry's history.
Nearly two decades later, in what has come to be described as one of the ugliest internal battles in corporate history, Henry Ford dismissed him, reportedly saying simply, "I just don't like you."
Iacocca says criticisms of how Henry Ford treated him account for only a slim part of his mail. But it is his telling of that tale in the book that is likely to be most remembered. It details Iacocca's ultimate humiliation in the profession that became his life: his relegation to a warehouse office after the firing by a man he portrays as a petty bigot.
Listen to Harold Sperlich, the president of Chrysler, who also worked with Iacocca at Ford, offer this explanation of why Iacocca needed to write the book:
"He is a poor loser. He's the kind of guy who simply can't tolerate the thought of losing and it motivates him to be a man of action . . . to make sure he is a winner and not a loser. My guess is that it also contributed to the impact that his problem with Henry Ford had on him. I think he was outraged. It almost drove him mad, the idea of being dropped by Henry Ford.
"I think for a man driven as he is to win, his firing was unconscionable, which I'm sure caused the book to be written, and caused him to want to go back into the car business and prove to the world that he wasn't a loser."
Says William Fugazy, a friend of 30 years, who owns the large New York travel and limousine service of the same name: "I don't think Lee will ever get over the humiliation. We all implored him to tone it down. My advice to him was, 'Hey, you made it. He's nothing today. Why dignify him with this? Just ignore him.' "
But he couldn't, and as a result some in the auto industry saw the book as petty and vindictive. Henry Ford has consistently declined to comment on the book.
"Mr. Iacocca's view of Mr. Ford is a pretty one-sided view," says Gerald terHorst, former press secretary to President Ford, and now a spokesman for Ford Motor Co.
Iacocca has tried a variety of answers when asked why he publicly took on Henry Ford. He once said, "I was going to show this guy for what he really is." More recently, he told Time, "Maybe I shouldn't have written a few of those things."
Today, it seems, he has tired of apologizing.
"I took a lot of shots from critics in the business press who saw it in its narrowest view, that I was fired and had to get that off my chest. I wrote my life as I saw it. It was my catharsis," he says. "You can say that if it was a catharsis, 'you could have written it down and not published it.' . . . I cut out two chapters that I thought would be hurtful to Ford the company . I left all that out . . . If I really wanted to be vengeful you should really turn me on."
It is essential that you serve in this country's most powerful and influential position -- President of the United States. This nation's economic stability is dependent upon its being managed by business people, of which you are evidently the best . . . I am willing to do any work for you, and support you by any means possible. -- A young girl from New York City
Although Iacocca is a registered Republican, he spends most of his public speaking capital criticizing the economic policies of this administration. He is widely thought to be a Democrat. Yet, as in the case of Dwight D. Eisenhower after World War II, both parties want to tap into his popularity. Walter Mondale considered him as a running mate in 1984, and Ronald Reagan reportedly considered him for his secretary of transportation, before Elizabeth Dole was selected.
"You can't ignore someone with 100 percent name recognition," says Lee Atwater, a political consultant who was deputy campaign manager of Reagan-Bush '84.
At the same time, both parties are equally wary, and it is simply unclear whether his popularity can translate into votes. "I think Iacocca is a mirage," says Democratic consultant Robert Squier. "The Democrats have been out in the desert so long with Ronald Reagan that they are are starting to see things, and he is one of the things they are starting to see."
Against this backdrop, Iacocca continues to raise his profile, seems to enjoy the attention and speculation. Last year, he gave 50 speeches nationwide (out of 12,000 invitations, according to his spokesman Baron Bates), and he has increased the role of Chrysler's Washington office under Vice President Robert Perkins. Earlier in the year, he hired Rob Liberatore, a former top aide to Senate Minority Leader Robert Byrd, to lobby for Chrysler on Capitol Hill.
He's even starting to travel like a candidate, always accompanied by security guards and spokesmen.
Political observers say that should he decide to run for president, his negatives would rise to the surface quickly. For one, he will readily concede that he has neither the patience nor the inclination to watch what he says publicly. Detractors point to an awkward flap Iacocca found himself in with Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Calif.) at a meeting of congressional leaders earlier this year.
Speaking before the meeting at a West Virginia resort, Iacocca gave one of his would-be stump speeches, which invariably include criticisms of the inequitable nature of American trade policy with Japan. Matsui, of Japanese descent, accused Iacocca of being "racist," and at a press conference charged him with "stating the same things my parents heard and I heard before we were sent to internment camps." One of Matsui's complaints was that Iacocca used the word "sayonara," in a way that was offensive to the Japanese. Iacocca eventually apologized to Matsui.
Iacocca nevertheless remains undaunted, charging forward to college campuses and congressional hearings, screaming for deficit reductions, calling for a comprehensive trade policy, telling students to "Get mad," and fight the system.
" 'Look, don't worry about it,' they tell the kids," he says. " 'Let the kids fend for themselves in 20 years.' Well, who are we kidding? There's not a war going on, we're in prosperity and we still have this $225 billion-a-year deficit!!"
All the while, though, he insists he doesn't want to be president, and in fact, presents his argument like a man who knows his limitations.
"No, no," he says. "Every little kid says he wants to grow up to be president. I don't want to grow up to be president. It's not my cup of tea . . .
"It's not all bad -- the politicians. I don't say they lie, but sometimes they color what they think and what they believe and what they say . . . I would get in trouble. They would claim it was a gaffe when I was telling the truth. I can't play the game -- even when I'm visiting Washington.
"You gotta to live within yourself," he says. "You have to know what you're good at, and you also got to know who you are. I think I know my limits . . . I'm a great believer that in life you are what you are."