Did you hear where Interior Secretary Donald Hodel learned logic? It was from the guy who, when told that most accidents happen within 10 miles of home, decided to move. That's the kind of reasoning displayed by Hodel in firing Chrysler boss Lee Iacocca as chairman of the board advising the government on the restoration of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Because Iacocca had been instrumental in raising $233 million for the restoration, the auto man's advice on how to spend it, intuited the secretary, was "a potential conflict of interest." Somebody, call the movers.
For me, the jury is already in on this dispute: Iacocca, by a split decision. For spotlighting, and probably sabotaging, the Privatizers' plans for a pricey hotel-conference center on Ellis Island, Iacocca wins my vote. What was to be next -- an ultrasuede boutique in Independence Hall, a private spa and mesquite grill upstairs at the Smithsonian? But through his role as the celebrity-underdog-chief executive, Iacocca has already spawned too many imitators. For that most dubious legacy, Iacocca still has a lot to answer for.
To his credit, Iacocca remains the nemesis of the virulently antigovernment crowd, to whom he stands as brassy, breathing evidence that a major initiative of the federal government -- saving Chrysler -- did work. As my friend Fallon sees it, that transaction may have disqualified Iacocca for national leadership, not because he sought and accepted a government loan, but because he paid it back in full and early. Still, according to the most recent Gallup Poll on the subject, Iacocca is the third most admired man among Americans, trailing only two perennial survey favorites, the president and the pope. No other business or labor leader made the list.
Back to the legacy. Iacocca is Chrysler, its institutional voice, face and personality, as well as the subject of the biggest-selling autobiography in history. Now, meet Victor Kiam. For those who may have spent the mid- '80s in a semi-comatose state and somehow missed his numerous TV appearances, Victor ("I bought the company") Kiam, 59, is the boss of Remington Shavers and soon to be a better selling co-author of his own book, "Going for It!" It's an up- through-the-ranks success story that follows Kiam from Lever Brothers (soaps and toothpaste) through International Playtex (bras and girdles).
Some $4 million will be spent, much of it on TV spots featuring the irrepressible Kiam, to promote sales of "Going for It!" Is that a big advertising budget? Well, compare it to James Michener's latest triumph "Texas," which reportedly had a Christmas season promotional budget of $125,000. An admiring Remington colleague of Kiam's, when asked if his boss had "political ambitions," answered, "No doubt about it." In an interview, Kiam admitted he's interested.
So what do we have to look forward to? The collected sonnets of Frank Perdue? Will that man who owns the soft ice cream company decide to run for lieutenant governor? When do we get to read the full story of the mystery man who was the genius behind Vegematic, the unsliced and undiced truth?
Remember it all began with Iacocca, the man who stood on national TV in an expensive British raincoat and lectured the rest of us to Buy American. He may have admirably stopped the Ellis Island Plaza and polo field complex, but he could have started something a lot worse.