Richardson’s Nod from an Icon

Leadersdsc_2255In his book, “Where Have All the Leaders Gone?,” Lee Iacocca runs down the list of presidential candidates and perhaps reserves the most praise for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson — with one obvious caveat.

“His biggest challenge will be getting his message out in a crowded field,” Iacocca writes.

So on Tuesday, the business icon, who officially endorsed Richardson earlier this month, backed up his words with a fund-raiser and press interviews with the presidential candidate at his Bel-Air home.

In Iowa polls, Richardson trails Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards, but his campaign is confident that if he places in the top three in the Jan. 3 caucus it will be enough of a surprise jolt to give him momentum for other states. Richardson has made it into the double digits in the state, ahead of Joe Biden and Chris Dodd.

“He has been the chief executive of New Mexico for eight years and he has done a helluva job,” Iacocca says in an interview from the marble foyer of his mansion. At 83, his voice is a bit softer and less rigorous than in the 1980s, when his turnaround of Chrysler thrust him into the national spotlight. He considered his own bid for the presidency in 1988.

“I have followed his career. I have read his books and he makes sense. And competency is the key. I identify that in my book, character and competence, and this man has it.”

Iacocca, Richardson said, “is not just a normal political endorsement. His is an American icon who is one of the most admired people in the country.”

Although its debatable on how much endorsements translate into votes, campaigns have been making the most of celebrity nods, whether it be Magic Johnson for Clinton, or Oprah Winfrey for Obama.

Amigosdsc_2167_2 If anything, Iacocca is boosting Richardson’s campaign coffers with the fund-raiser that drrew such entertainment industry figures as Lionsgate’s Jon Feltheimer, Mark Manuel and John Delaverson, Warner Bros.’ Steve Papazian and Sony Pictures TV’s Ed Lammi. Martin Sheen, who until now had yet to contribute to a presidential candidate, was the co-host.

“I think this endorsement is going to mean a lot not just in Iowa but around the country, especially with CEOs and the business community,” Richardson says.

Naturally, any mention of Iacocca begs the question of just what kind of relationship he can expect from the auto industry. Richardson’s rival, Barack Obama, often uses a story on the stump of going to Detroit and telling executives that they havve to raise fuel economy standards, to the sound of crickets in the room. Obama uses the point to show how he’s telling people “not what they want to hear.”

Richardson, too, has an aggressive plan to raise fuel economy standards: Among many other energy and environment proposals, Richardson is calling for doubling average fuel economy standards to 50 miles per gallon by 2020.

So how will such a proposal go down in Detroit?

Iacocca says, “We shouldn’t try to get them to go from 27.5 mpg to 35 by saying, ‘Let’s demand it.’ You can’t do it that way. We should get to 30 first, and maybe by 2015. They have done very well, the auto industry, getting to 27.5. The technology is getting better, and they should raise the bar, but not just arbitrarily say, ‘Let’s get to 50.’ I tell that to Bill. Let’s get to 30 first, then we will try 35. That’s a big number, by the way, in terms of where we are. Percentage wise, that is huge. It scares the hell out of them.”

Richardson responds, “Look, I want us to get to 50, but it has got to be a goal. It has got to be sustained. You have got to keep moving up. What we need is a comprehensive plan to wean ourselves away from foreign oil and we need to become energy independent.”

That policy nuance aside, Iacocca says that “if gas goes to $4 or $5 a gallon, the market takes care of that. It is going to hurt consumers.”

A self-described independent, Iacocca voted for Bush in 2000, but “didn’t make that mnistake the second time around” and switched to Kerry in 2004. His book is so damning of the Bush adminstration that it perhaps rivals any of the Democratic candidates’ attacks on his tenure.

Iacocca says, “Look at the energy policies of the past eight years. I don’t think we’ve had one. It’s been run by the oil people in the business starting with Dick Cheney and Halliburton. I would like to see the minutes of the meeting that they had on energy policy, two weeks he arrived as vice president. No one has subpeonaed it yet. I would love to see those before I die.”

Can Richardson persuade him to go out on the stump? Perhaps not. “Twenty years ago, I was going to run for president, but I was 63 then,” Iacocca says. “I am 83 now. Are you kidding?”

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