Lee Iacocca came to town to hand out an award and eat some chili. And while the chili was pretty hot, his words were hotter.
"Will Rogers said he never met a man he didn't like," Iacocca said last night, "but if he lived in this town today, there's a couple of guys I'd like to introduce him to."
Lee Iacocca had a lady on his mind. Lady Liberty, that is. He was still smarting from his abrupt dismissal by Interior Secretary Donald Hodel as head of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Centennial Commission, a move some sources have said was decided several months ago by White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan.
"I have some advice . . .," said Iacocca. up in a tough neighborhood. But: Never screw around with anybody called 'a Don' or 'the Don' or just plain Don. Never touch it in this town. I know two Dons here, and I still don't know which one put out the contract on me."
The 500 or so folks who came out to the J.W. Marriott Hotel hooted with delight. They were there for the second annual Will Rogers Chili Humanitarian Award Gala to benefit the James S. Brady Presidential Foundation. Race-car champion Carroll Shelby, a 25-year pal of Iacocca's, was given the award for being the kind of person cowboy humorist Will Rogers would have enjoyed "talking politics with over a good hot bowl of chili."
But it was Iacocca's night, and he made the most of it. Alluding to reports that Regan's antipathy for him was so great that the chief of staff had asked for a car other than a Chrysler as his official vehicle, the Chrysler chairman said:
"Can you imagine? Chrysler's market share is up all over the country, all over North America, a couple of points, except now for the White House fleet. All 70 cars were Chryslers just 10 days ago. Now we're down to 69 out of the 70. There's one old beat-up Mercury station wagon for you-know-who."
The other speakers got in on the laughs. Frank Resnik, CEO of Philip Morris U.S.A., which cosponsored the event, said, "On the face of it, Lee and I would not seem to have much in common. He's a tough son of a mustang, I'm a quiet Marlboro man . . . My products make smoke, Lee's aren't supposed to. I'm on nine committees, Lee has trouble staying on two."
But Iacocca laid it on the thickest.
"I looked at my calendar this morning and it said I had to be in Washington tonight -- it was sunny in Detroit, by the way -- and you people have no idea what kind of pain this causes me," he said. "I was here just two weeks ago and in the morning, funny town, they give me $224 million and in the afternoon they called me in, I thought I was getting the key to the city and instead I got the shaft.
"So I told my pal Shelby here tonight, whatever they give you, grab it and get the hell out of town. He's a little nervous about being seen with me here tonight. He says in his own drawl, you can get mugged down there if you're seen with the wrong kind of people."
Even the menu provided fodder.
"I'll be honest with you though," said Iacocca. "Chili wouldn't be my first choice, but the way things have been going I don't think there's much chance for linguine."
And to top it off:
"Frankly, I never associated 'humanitarian' with chili," Iacocca said. "Metamucil is humanitarian, not chili."
The dinner, complete with sourdough steak, pitchers of beer and tin cans of chili plopped on each table, was partly sponsored by CHILI-USA (Chiliheads Interacting for Legislative Initiative in the United States of America), a "gastro-political" lobbying group out to have chili declared America's official food through a joint congressional resolution introduced by Rep. Jake Pickle (D-Tex.).
"I love it," said emcee Gov. George Nigh from Oklahoma. "The Pickle resolution deals with chili."
Earlier at a VIP reception, Iacocca was much more serious. Asked whether he'd continue to protest his firing, he said, "Why? What good does it do? We've got a celebration to plan and anyone who gets in the way of that is a bum."
He added that donations to the restoration fund have been pouring in this week.
And as to those recurrent rumors that he'll run for the presidency: "I'm not a politician. I'm a businessman."
His buddy Shelby was vehement about Iacocca's firing. "They fired an American hero," he said.
Shelby agreed with his friend about the presidency. "He doesn't want to run. He wants to be ambassador to the Vatican. He loves Italy. He loves his Italian heritage. I think that's what he really wants to do someday."
Iacocca wasn't the only one whose wit was inspired by the chili.
At the VIP reception, Shelby commented, "To tell you the truth, I ate a bowl of chili at lunch and I felt like I swallowed a cannonball."
And Resnik may have gotten it right when he said, "Chili and tall tales go together, and that's what you've been getting tonight."