Iacocca on attack in new book

U.S. auto industry, Bush White House are 2 of his targets

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April 13, 2007|By Justin Hyde | Justin Hyde,Detroit Free Press

WASHINGTON -- Former Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca tears into the Bush administration and the U.S. auto industry in a new book, saying America's political leaders have failed the nation and urging voters to pick more carefully next year.

Iacocca, 82, who was urged to run for president in the 1980s after turning Chrysler around, says he's for higher federal fuel-economy standards, warns that Chrysler could become a "shattered remnant" if sold and offers suggestions for Detroit's automakers to turn their businesses around.

"We've got a gang of clueless bozos steering our ship of state right over a cliff, we've got corporate gangsters stealing us blind and we can't even clean up after a hurricane, much less build a hybrid car," Iacocca and co-author Catherine Whitney write on the first page of Where Have All the Leaders Gone? "I hardly recognize this country anymore," Iacocca wrote.

The book, Iacocca's first in more than a decade, combines a name-dropping memoir, business advice and harangues about politics and the state of the U.S. economy that sound more like filmmaker Michael Moore than the man who shot campaign ads for Republican gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos last year.

Iacocca, who did not return a message seeking comment, eases up on the auto industry, critiquing its decisions but praising General Motors Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer G. Richard Wagoner Jr. and Chrysler Group President Thomas W. LaSorda. He calls GM Vice Chairman Robert A. Lutz, who chafed when Iacocca passed him over for the top job at Chrysler, a "savvy veteran."

He saves his most blistering criticisms for former Chrysler Chairman Robert J. Eaton and Juergen E. Schrempp, the former head of Daimler-Benz who oversaw the DaimlerChrysler merger. Iacocca describes the morning in 1998 when he found out about the merger as "the lowest low. ... I gave 15 years of my life to saving that company, and now I wondered if it was worth it."

He acknowledges scaring Eaton by supporting billionaire Kirk Kerkorian's 1995 bid to take Chrysler private. Eaton and Chrysler's board fought off that bid, but Eaton was concerned that Chrysler needed a partner to survive and Daimler-Benz was the most willing alternative. Iacocca says Schrempp outmaneuvered Eaton, who gave up Chrysler's heritage too easily and allowed Daimler-Benz to buy Chrysler rather than form a true merger of equals.

Those feelings eased a bit when Dieter Zetsche arrived as chief executive at Chrysler in 2000 and sought out Iacocca for advice. Iacocca praises Zetsche, but warns that the damage done to Chrysler might be irreversible.

"I'll always believe that if I hadn't chosen Bob Eaton to succeed me as chief executive at Chrysler, it would still be a strong, profitable, American car company," Iacocca writes. Iacocca warns that if Chrysler "is kicked to the curb, it will be a shattered remnant of the great American car company it once was."

Eaton, who has avoided giving interviews since leaving Chrysler, could not be reached.

As for the rest of the auto industry, Iacocca advises several strategies for turning business around, including building smaller cars and hiring smarter executives. He says higher fuel-economy standards and a gas tax would help reduce oil consumption, and that the Detroit automakers will not succeed in the long term without agreements from the government and the United Auto Workers on pensions and health care costs.

Since retiring from Chrysler in 1992, Iacocca has dabbled in several ventures, from electric bikes to olive oil, never shying from the spotlight or the occasional stunt. Before Chrysler resurrected his career as an auto pitchman in 2005 with ads starring him and rapper Snoop Dogg, Iacocca had freelanced, riding one of his electric bikes around TV talk show host David Letterman's studio.

Iacocca's political history has as much seesawing as his post-Chrysler career. He was a friend of Ronald Reagan, but became an avowed Democrat after Republicans opposed the Chrysler bailout in 1980. He turned down Democratic offers to run for president and attacked Al Gore's environmental positions in 2000, but backed John Kerry in 2004 and praises Bill Clinton in his book.

Iacocca says he campaigned for President Bush in 2000, because he was a friend of his father. But the first 20 pages of the book are devoted to a blistering critique of the president and his policies.

"George Bush doesn't have common sense. He just has a lot of sound bites," Iacocca writes after listing his "nine C's of leadership" and the ways in which the president fails on each.

White House spokesman Alex Conant said the administration "does not do book reviews."

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