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February 16, 1986

What is it about Reagan Administration secretaries of Interior that they insist on doing dumb things? (Excluding the virtually silent and invisible William P. Clark Jr.)

Dumb is about the only way to describe Secretary Donald P. Hodel's decision to fire Lee Iacocca as chairman of the federal advisory commission on the restoration of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the historic gateway of American immigration.

There are other words: Unnecessary, doltish, klutzy, silly, daft, etc. But dumb will do just fine.

Iacocca is, after all, about as close as you can get in America today to a Ronald Reagan-Horatio Alger success story and folk hero. This is the son of Italian immigrants who still smarts from being called "dago" and "wop" in his boyhood Allentown, Pa., who became president of Ford Motor Co. only to be fired and humiliated and then to rise from the depths of his career to turn the moribund Chrysler Corp. into the success story of the recent industrial age.

Here is the man who went on television for Chrysler to testify that the American free-enterprise dream lives; who wrote one of the best-selling autobiographies of all time; the man who almost single-handedly raised $233 million to restore the aging statue, to be unveiled in a grand patriotic celebration this July Fourth.

Just as well smear Santa Claus or Charles Lindbergh; Andy Jackson or Yankee Doodle. Dumb.

This project was the ultimate in Ronald Reagan volunteerism. Here were people stepping forward on their own to do something noble for their country. There were, of course, those who bristled at the commercial tinge that product sponsorship brought to the campaign, but that is inherent in this sort of fund raising. Dumb.

We know what happened when James G. Watt, Hodel's former boss, besmirched the all-America image of the Beach Boys in conjunction with the Fourth of July. The final undoing of Watt came after his insensitive slurring of minority groups that were among the huddled masses and wretched refuse specifically welcomed to American shores by Miss Liberty's outstretched torch. Dumb.

What conflict of interest? No matter what Iacocca did as head of the private fund-raising group or the federal advisory committee, the Administration still would have the final say on the development of Ellis Island. Ellis, incidentally, is where Iacocca's parents started their own American dream along with others bearing names like Cuomo and Deukmejian. Now, it is certain that Congress will see that it gets its say, as well. So be it.

You think there has to be more to this than meets the eye--fears of Iacocca using the statue commission as a springboard to the presidency or a bitter ego battle between Iacocca and White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan, the former Wall Street titan. But Hodel and his aides insist there is not; that the White House was not consulted in advance. That makes it seem even dumber.

His dismissal may not quite border on being un-American, as Iacocca claimed, but it certainly was, well, dumb.

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