So, it’s time to ask: How might history remember this man?
He made his name in one of America’s most important industries. A consummate salesman and brash self-promoter, his outsize ego was matched only by his ambition.
His companies built things with steel and glass, reflecting the tastes of the time. He was a patriotic pitchman, never skipping an opportunity to extol the superiority of American enterprise. At the same time, he shrewdly negotiated government loan guarantees to fund high-stakes projects.
He became a household name in the 1980s, known as much for his wealth as anything else. Never shy, he put himself in a starring role in his company’s promotional materials and made cameos on TV shows. “A corporate capitalist with populist appeal,” wrote Time magazine.
His sharp tongue meant he was always good for a quote, and expensive tastes helped hone his larger-than-life profile. “Every day he gets up and every day he attacks,” said a contemporary.
He became something of a sex symbol. He married three times.
His successes made big waves in business, and his failures—there were plenty of those, too—became a source of ridicule. He could be hard to work with, burning bridges with several partners over the course of his career. He was “too conceited, too self-centered to be able to see the broad picture,” said one.
He filled a bestselling book about his life with stories and advice drawn a career of dealmaking. And, as could be expected from a master marketer with one of the most recognizable names in America, he waded into politics. He lamented wasteful government spending, high interest rates, and US industry’s loss of competitiveness to Asian rivals (with thinly veiled racial undertones).
Both Republicans and Democrats, he wrote, “must embrace the end objective, which is to make America great again.”
Lee Iacocca died this week, at the age of 94. The legendary Ford and Chrysler executive considered parlaying his popularity into a run for president in 1988. But in the end, “you can be a success in business and not have the temperament to be president,” he wrote in 2007. “For myself, I concluded long ago that to run for president you’ve got to be overambitious or just plain crazy.”
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