The phone rings and Hoot McInerney, the legendary car dealer, is on the
other end of the line.
"People don't like us," he tells me. "The three of those guys" -- GM
chairman Rick Wagoner, Ford CEO Alan Mulally and Chrysler CEO Tom LaSorda --
"have got to get together, stand up and say we know the other 48 states
despise us and say, 'We've changed.' "
McInerney, consigliere to auto bosses past and present, dealer for 50 years
with an empire that once stretched as far as Hawaii, a plain speaker when
far too many pull their punches, is just getting warmed up.
There is Washington's unofficial declaration of war on Detroit, evinced by
the Senate's aggressive fuel economy bill. And the nagging (mis)perception
that metal coming from Motown plants is still as crappy as it was in the
'70s and '80s. And the reticence of Detroit to make its case -- all of it is
eating at the 78-year-old.
"But they don't do it, and why they don't, I don't know. People don't think
we have to do that," he disagrees, offering his own riff on redemption. "We
were wrong. We weren't around then. We are here to say we're different. We
don't have those kinds of attitudes. We don't build that kind of product."
Most of which, I agree, is true. GM played the contrition card a few years
back, calling the campaign "the road to redemption." It got some attention,
but not nearly enough to erase decades of ill will shaped by a toxic mixture
of shoddy products, towering arrogance and very little of either from its
fiercest foreign competitors.
Ol' Hoot has diagnosed a problem and proffered a treatment. But his patient,
already scarred by multiple surgeries, transfusions and amputations, feels
like it is closer to being too far gone to save than it has probably ever
Outside the industrial heartland (and inside it, depending on who you talk
to), the distaste for Detroit and what it supposedly represents is palpable.
You can see it in message boards and e-mails or hear it in voice mails, the
poisonous rhetoric coming from Democratic leaders (and some Republicans) in
Congress and attack ads from moveon.org.
You can see it in derision for the United Auto Workers, experiencing the
most painful smackdowns -- health care givebacks, the concessionary Delphi
contract, plant closings and massive buyouts -- in the union's history.
You can see it when explanations of Detroit's predicament are dismissed as
"whining" and "complaining" and punctuated with the kind of Schadenfreude
(German for joy at someone else's pain) that's not only mean, but shocking
in its intensity.
'No one is coming to save us'
As he often does, Hoot's got a good point when he generalizes that "people
don't like us." Here's another generalization, borrowed from Detroit Mayor
Kwame Kilpatrick's last State of the City speech, that applies, too:
"No one is coming to save us," he told Detroiters. He couldn't be more
right, whether about the city he leads or the indigenous industry that built
Both are on their own. Republicans and Democrats outside Detroit's shrinking
sphere of influence have moved on, a big chunk of Wall Street is moving on,
growing numbers of consumers are moving on.
What's it going to take to reverse that dynamic? Probably more of the tough,
transformational change we've seen in Detroit the past two years --
recapitalization, rationalization, products for the times, a competitive
business model that embraces the world as it is, not as it was.
"We're paying for those sins," McInerney tells me, rightly. "We can turn
Daniel Howes' column runs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. You can reach him
at (313) 222-2106, firstname.lastname@example.org or
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