In the spirit of this season, in which it is more blessed to give than receive, Lee Iacocca is being urged to make of himself a gift to the nation. He does not find the idea of being president either tiresome or disproportionate to his capacities, but although he is flattered by the attention he is repelled by the prospect. So he says. Now.
In the auto industry, the key word recently has been "down-size." Iacocca is in no way scaled down -- not in physical presence or energy or certitude. If confidence were chrome, he would be the human equivalent of a mid-'50s Chrysler Imperial. He wears worsted the way roughnecks used to wear chain mail, and he brandishes a cigar like a lance.
He is the conspicuous star of ubiquitous television commercials that may incidentally sell cars and certainly solve every politician's first problem: name recognition. As director of fund- raising for the restoration project, he is going steady with the Statue of Liberty, a romance sufficient to cause the most hardened political consultant to swoon. And then there is The Book.
It is breathtakingly successful and as breathtakingly awful. There are 2.5 million hardback copies in print, and it does not even tell you Princess Di's path to thin thighs. What it does tell you is stuff like this: "John Ricardo and his wife, Thelma, were two of the finest people I've ever met. Unfortunately, the crisis at Chrysler was so severe I never really got to know them."
Lots of people -- none of them literary critics -- are beating a path to his door to try to seduce him into politics. Some people think that is like seducing Catherine the Great, such is the strength of the tendency. But he combines canniness with an oddly engaging ingenuousness, and he knows that politics "is not my business."
Martin Van Buren was described, not admiringly, as one who approached power with muffled oars. People like Iacocca because nothing is muffled as he approaches anything. People like his off- the-cuff pugnacity, and they think they would like that attribute in a presidential candidate. But his say-it-and-see-what- happens spirit is what causes some professional politicians to say that the only way he could be elected is to nominate him in Barbados in the middle of October and keep him there for the next three weeks.
However, the professionals are speaking from vocational vanity. They probably are right, but it would be amusing for him to see if the nomination marathon can be, just once, an amateur's hour. People like his cantankerousness, so he could make it his tactic, even his platform. He could say: No way am I going to Iowa in winter. Or New Hampshire. My campaign will be part McKinley, part McLuhan. I will come out on my porch every day or so and snap at Sam Donaldson.
Detroit perfected "dynamic obsolescence," the steady alteration of fashion to keep consumers itching for the latest model. It is said that models of men, like models of cars, come to seem dated. Iacocca is both up-to-date and dated.
He is in tune with the times in that he resembles Ronald Reagan, in one particular: he has erased the line between public and private personas. That is all very well if you are, like Reagan, a placid lagoon. If you are, like Iacocca, a human emery board, you have to wonder whether you will wear well over the long haul.
Iacocca seems, if not dated, certainly sailing against the wind in his thinking about public policy. Most politicians economize ideas the way some farmers economize water, knowing the supply is not plentiful. Iacocca is a Roman candle of ideas for things Washington should do. Lots of them involve taxes -- a value- added tax, a gasoline tax. On those he is probably right, but in politics that is no excuse. He also is hot for an "industrial policy."
The country, however, is skeptical about agenda-setting in Washington. And the decline of liberalism is directly related to the perception that it has embraced what a critic calls the Quantity Theory of Policy -- the more policy the better. Furthermore, in spite of all the oceans of malarkey in his book about "motivation" ("The only way you can motivate people is to communicate with them"), a chairman of a corporation is in a command position. A president is in a persuasion position. Persuasion is for the patient.
So, Iacocca for president? The answer probably is: good man, wrong job. But, then, that is what Sam Rayburn said about another political newcomer -- Dwight D. Eisenhower.