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Corporate Heroes, Where Are You?

Over the past 25 years, the high-profile business leader has seesawed between outlandish social pariah and esteemed cultural paragon, a hero of the Republic. In the 1980s, Lee Iacocca was so idolized for his exhumation of the cadaverous Chrysler Corp. that people all over the United States burned the midnight oil reading his otherwise unreadable …

Over the past 25 years, the high-profile business leader has seesawed between outlandish social pariah and esteemed cultural paragon, a hero of the Republic. In the 1980s, Lee Iacocca was so idolized for his exhumation of the cadaverous Chrysler Corp. that people all over the United States burned the midnight oil reading his otherwise unreadable books. He grew so popular that there was serious talk about his running for the White House.

Shortly thereafter, the brash, vulgar real estate developer Donald Trump burst upon the scene. Envied for his chutzpah and pizazz, Trump was so admired by people across the U.S. that they burned the midnight oil reading his otherwise unreadable books. There was even talk about his running for the White House. Not serious talk, but talk.

Ross Perot, noted for his pluck and panache, was so admired by the American people that they actually supported his quixotic presidential campaign. I can’t recall whether Perot wrote a book about his exploits, but if so, I’m sure many Americans burned the midnight oil reading it, even though it was probably unreadable.

There is a simple message here: The American people are not satisfied with having charismatic politicians, uplifting religious figures, amusing movie stars and fiercely competitive athletes to inspire them. The psychic health of the nation also depends upon the presence of larger-than-life corporate titans whose job it is to promote investment, motivate workers, inspire youth, and on occasion, allay our deepest fears. The American people know that the business of America is business, and if its leaders can neither be liked nor trusted, we’re in big trouble. With guys like Ken Lay and Bernie Ebbers running amok, things are looking pretty bleak.

Over the past quarter-century, the corporate leader as public figure has come in many different styles, depending on the temper of the times. There was a period when predatory types like Carl Icahn and Henry Kravis were admired for their revolutionary zeal and determination to light a fire under entrenched, under-performing managers even if it meant massive, painful restructurings. But with the passing of the Mike Milken Era, these tough-as-nails honchos ceded pride of place to more benevolent figures such as Sam Walton. With him came the idea that if you priced merchandise competitively and treated your employees fairly, you could become the wealthiest man in America-and a good person, too.

Unfortunately, Walton wasn’t around long enough to become a truly inspirational public figure. And when Bill Gates tried on the role of the philosopher CEO, his plan backfired, in part because Microsoft was being targeted by the Feds, in part because Microsoft’s stock took a nosedive, in part because Gates’ just-plain-folks sweaters were never terribly convincing and in part because of his unreadable book. That left Jack Welch, who enjoyed a brief period in the limelight, thanks to a bull market, a best-selling memoir and a fearlessly fawning press. But then he retired, and GE’s stock went into the tank. Exit Jack Welch.

In today’s troubled times, America badly needs a CEO it can admire, respect, emulate and even love. That’s why I was happy to hear that Wendy’s was thinking about running some of its Dave Thomas TV ads even though Thomas is no longer with us. Calculatedly homespun, cunningly low-key, Thomas was the type of reassuring pater familias whose presence on the TV screen assured Americans that there was still room in this society for folksiness and tradition, that we weren’t going to hell in a hand-basket.

In his heyday, Thomas was probably America’s most recognizable and beloved business leader. Even in death, he’s a lot more charismatic than Charles Schwab, Augie Busch Jr. or Peter Coors, all of whom have appeared in pretentious, self-serving commercials. Until somebody comes along and makes Amtrak profitable, thus becoming the sagest financial wizard since Colbert, Thomas must remain a ubiquitous presence in our society. Dave Thomas would never have shredded documents, misstated earnings or robbed his own employees. And he is the one corporate leader all Americans continue to hold in high esteem. True, he’s dead. But you can’t have everything.

Joe Queenan is CE‘s longest-running columnist.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.