With a coyness that his audiences now recognize as an art form, Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee Iacocca denied that he was running for president in such a way yesterday that many of his listeners figured he must be running for president.
"I want to make it perfectly clear that I'm not running for anything, except probably my life," Iacocca told the American Society of Newspaper Editors, meeting here.
"Everybody tries to run me for something, and I wish all you people in the room would stop it," he said, pausing for effect, "because you're making my campaign staff nervous as hell."
But just when it began to sound as though he might not be joking, the man many Democrats hope will be their political salvation in 1988 remarked that the editors had heard earlier this week from his potential running mate -- sex therapist and counselor Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
"I would tell everybody what to do, and she would tell them how," he said to guffaws from his audience of about 800.
Iacocca's comments struck some listeners as all the more interesting because a candidate would never dare say them. Describing a recent news conference in Atlanta, he said reporters asked how he would handle Libya.
"I thought, 'Hell, I don't even know how to handle the UAW [United Auto Workers],' " he said. At another point, he said that "some of my big-business friends go off the deep end and call me a Democrat. Dammit, that really hurts."
His serious point, one that the average political adviser also might counsel against, was that a tax of 15 to 25 cents a gallon should be added to gasoline at the pump while prices are dropping. Such a tax, perhaps coupled with an oil-import fee, would help stabilize oil prices and prevent the country from slipping back into the "drug habit" of cheap energy, he said.
"We're at the top of the roller coaster right now, but we ought to know what is coming," he said, adding later that "we better watch out because oil prices are going though the roof again."
Iacocca, who said that Chrysler's V-8 models are sold out as consumers watch gas prices drop and switch to luxury cars, also urged editors to push to preserve the government's higher mileage requirements. Chrysler has met those requirements, he said, and exemptions would particularly benefit General Motors and Ford.
Iacocca defended Vice President Bush, who drew criticism recently when he suggested that oil prices had fallen too far and too rapidly. "I don't think George Bush said anything wrong. He's just sending out a warning" that spiraling prices would jeopardize U.S. independence from oil imports.
"Mr. Iacocca, you've made a hell of a case this afternoon," Louis D. Boccardi, president and general manager of the Associated Press, said during the question period. "Why won't you run for president and be done with it?"
He replied: "I've been all around the country, and I've said, 'No, I'm not running for president,' but the audience comes back and says, 'Ah, when they say no, they say yes,' so I've started saying yes."
Resuming a more serious tone, he said he had been in the car business 40 years and was not trained as a politician. He said his family has said he is "getting old" at age 61 and "I'd probably end up mediocre anyway because I'd take too long to learn it."
As he put it at one point: "I can't switch from brain surgery to being a chiropodist."