Try likening it to the 1947 classic "Miracle on 34th Street" when big, bad Macy's tries to fire Santa Claus, and the world goes berserk. This week the strong arm of Washington came down on America's beloved Lee Iacocca and his crusade to restore the Statue of Liberty, and they might as well have gone out and publicly disavowed apple pie.
"Washington is a city of guile and Lee is a person of guts," says Joseph Califano, a friend of Iacocca's, who sits on the Chrysler board. "Most of Washington hides behind a veil, and Lee's just not built that way . . . I also think there's an awful lot of envy when it comes to him."
But there is another side to the Chrysler chairman that evidently does not command the same kind of affection from power Washington, and it culminated this week with his abrupt firing by Interior Secretary Donald Hodel from the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Centennial Commission.
Simply, he doesn't play by inside-the-beltway rules.
"Here's a guy whose company is now existing because of help from the federal government and still, he spends all of time publicly rebuking the federal government," says a Republican who had been involved in the Chrysler bailout in 1980. "It seems rather opportunistic to me."
Iacocca has been an enigma to Washington ever since he burst onto the political scene in 1979 with his unprecedented demand for $1 billion in federal funds to save his company from bankruptcy. While Washington officialdom has been at once impressed and galled by his aggressive personality and blunt talk, America has embraced him without reservation.
"Most people believe he is charismatic," said David Cole, director of the Office of Automotive Transportation, University of Michigan. And most, including detractors, have a high regard for Iacocca's salesmanship, Cole said.
His autobiography -- a personal tale of love and greed and success, published two years ago -- is the third biggest selling "adult general interest" book in the history of publishing. It has sold 2.6 million hardcover copies, is in its 51st printing and trails only "Gone With the Wind" and "Jonathan Livingston Seagull."
He's the man America loves to love, as he travels the country straight-talking and bad-mouthing The System. He still receives almost 500 letters a day from fans -- consoling him on the loss of his wife in 1983, saying they too were fired, as was he in 1978 from Ford Motor Co., urging him to run for president and sometimes simply sharing with him intimate troubles.
And yesterday, even though Iacocca is a registered Republican, the Democrats were out with a full force love-in, defending him. Iacocca has often been mentioned as a possible Democratic candidate in 1988, and has spent the past few years loudly criticizing this administration's economic policies.
So despite the fact the White House spokesman Larry Speakes strongly denied that chief of staff Donald Regan had ordered Hodel to fire Iacocca, there was another view on the Hill.
"The fix is in for George Bush," said Christopher Matthews, spokesman for House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill. "From everything we have seen in this administration, a decision such as this would have to cross Don Regan's desk. This was obviously cleared by the White House. Our party has a number of heavyweights and they are sending out hit squads on each one of them."
"The Bush people got on the White House, and Don Regan, who does not like Lee Iacocca," says Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich). "It's clear Iacocca's involvement with the Statue of Liberty gave him a forum, and that's a potentially big problem for them next summer when the project is complete."
Administration sources and others close to the Chrysler bailout proceedings of 1980 and 1981 say it was then that bad blood developed between then-Treasury Secretary Regan and Iacocca. Two people pointed to a disagreement about whether Chrysler officials should be allowed to have continued use of a corporate jet while they were using taxpayer money to save the company.
The federal Loan Guarantee Board, which was administered by the Treasury Department, had required cost-cutting measures that ruled out use of the plane. Iacocca, according to the two sources, launched an all-out lobbying blitz to persuade Regan to allow him use of the plane. Then one day Iacocca showed up at the Yankees' spring training camp in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and according to the sources, Regan bristled at the thought that Iacocca might have taken the jet down for it. In fact, he hadn't, a company spokesman said yesterday.
"That is what pushed Don out of shape," said one former Treasury official. "Iacocca then started going around Regan to the White House, which really annoyed him."
"There's no love lost between them," confirms Richard Muller, spokesman for Chrysler in Washington.
"I think in the upper reaches of the Reagan administration he creates tensions because he cuts a pretty large-size figure," says Sen. Don Riegle (D-Mich). "I don't think they like outspoken people. They feel he crowds them a little. After the guys raises $250 million and is a terrific personal example of what it's all about [Iacocca's parents came through Ellis Island when they arrived from Italy] -- to boot somebody like that out -- it's outrageous on its face. It's a small petty act that reflects pretty badly on Hodel and everyone who was behind it. If anything, it enhances his stature."
For all the political jockeying, Iacocca has steadfastly denied that he will run for president in 1988. "Politically, I was never trained for that . . . I would be a lousy president," he has said. "It's not having a short fuse. I don't have that good spirit of talking things to death and compromising."
Still, what even Iacocca's critics and enemies agree on is that Hodel's firing of Iacocca could not have been politically thought out. This, they say, is the kind of fanfare and fight the Chrysler chairman savors.
"My God, he loves this kind of thing," said a top Ford Motor Co. official. "He's going to come out looking like a hero and the government is going to come out looking like a bum when all of this is over."
"It wasn't a very good idea," says a top Bush strategist, who denied any involvement by the vice president. "Anyone who knows Iacocca and Regan knows that they are exactly alike. They have the same operating style, the same ego. This was inevitable."