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Remembering Lee Iacocca

Remembering Lee Iacocca

Jerry Krase (July 12, 2019)
Jerry Krase

In the 1960s and 70s, youngish half-Italian-American-activist-scholars, like myself, were often confronted with well-deserved negative stereotypes derived from the actions of real and imagined bad guy goombas. For us who were combating ethnic biases, it seemed hard to find Italian Americans who captured the nation’s imagination like Lee Iacocca.


Last week, in addition to an obituary and a major article on him was a full-page spread “In Memory of Lee A. Iacocca” It featured a photograph of him on a boat with the Statue of Liberty seemingly superimposed behind him.


“All the success I’ve had, all the jobs I’ve saved and the lives I’ve influenced would never have happened if my parents had been turned away at Ellis Island.”

With Much Love and Respect Your Family


In a small, but important way, mine was one of those lives he influenced.

In the 1960s and 70s, youngish half-Italian-American-activist-scholars, like myself, were often confronted with well-deserved negative stereotypes derived from the actions of real and imagined bad guy goombas. For us, who were combatting ethnic biases, it was hard to find Italian Americans who captured the nation’s imagination; outside of more and less successful mobsters whose nasty exploits frequented the newspapers and the big and small screens. Therefore, when one emerged, such as Mario Cuomo or John Sirica we were quick to embrace them as our ethnic heroes. Iaccoco, didn’t seek that distinction from his co-ethnics. He was the ultimate corporate leader, but like others who shared our common Italian cultural heritage, it was something he could not escape. In later years he made up for it by spearheading a project to restore the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. (It should noted up front that “Lee” felt it would be helpful changed his name from “Lido” when he was starting his corporate climb. He was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania and his parents were immigrants from San Marco, Italy.)

Every cultural heritage has its good and bad traits. For Italian Americans, to be Numero Uno amongst one's good or evil peers is the most powerful of all.  Iaccocco was no exception to the rule. Gerald Meyers, the former chairman and chief executive of American Motors was quoted thusly for Lee's New York Times Obituary “His ego was gigantic, and if you were to oppose him, you’d be overwhelmed.”

It is also true of the culture that members try to undermine the rise of others, but once they reach the pinnacle they are both worshiped and feared. This trait is what social scientists call the “Authoritarian Personality,” which is, not limited to “us;” we just have more of a “flair” for it such as that currently exhibited by “America’s Mayor” and “The President’s Lawyer,” Rudy Giuliani. 

In politics, the ethnic pride test is voting for them. Had Lee run for President, a prospect people spoke of in the late 1980s, I would have voted for him, even as a Republican. I never voted for Rudy but I did for Mario. In business, the test is putting one's money where ones mouth is. 

After Iaococa “left “ Ford in 1978 after having resurecting it, a few months later he became the CEO of the failing Chrysler Corporation. I had a small Merrill-Lynch brokerage account at the time.  Certain that his captaining would right this floundering auto-making ship, and that the United States Federal government would not allow Chrysler to create a  vortex that would bring the rest of the industry down during the recession, I called M-L and bought 100 shares, which had a hit a new low in stock price. I was sure that with him at the helm the stock would soar. Unfortunately, it quickly dived to an unprecedented low of about $1, and my ethnic pride and pocketbook was sorely injured. I kissed the money goodbye and resolved never to follow my ethnic instincts again.
At the end of the month, I was shocked to see a $$$ increase in my M-L cash account. When I called my broker for an explanation, I was complimented as being so astute as to “short” the stock. Being a novice investor, I had no idea what that meant. He had misheard my instructions and sold 100 shares. I pocketed the difference. Emboldened by my luck, I poured the money back into Chrysler shares. A short time later, in 1979, Chrysler was given a $1.5 Billion dollar Federal loan guarantee from Jimmy Carter and the stock really took off. For my investment, I also got some prefered shares as a bonus. Some years later, when my "stake" was worth about $6,000. I sold some the shares and bought; you guessed it, a brand new Chrysler K-Car stationwagon. Ethnic pride follows the money. 

As noted by Keith Bradsher, Mr Iacocca's desire to dominate every opponent, in Detroit and Washington alike, was remarkable even in an auto industry known for strong-willed leaders with outsized egos. Mr Iacocca was already known in business and auto circles in the 1970s when he sought a lifeline for Chrsylser from Washington bringing government and industry together in ways that would have been almost unthinkable in earlier decades. And according to Robert D. McFadden, for some, he was a huckster and he also partied hard, enjoying the perks of his position like a private Boeing 727. Lee also lavashly entertained in posh hotels with the likes of Frank Sinatra. For me he was just easy money.

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