WASHINGTON — On a night in 1993 when Congress cast key votes to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement, just-retired Chrysler Corp. CEO Lee Iacocca was a guest at the Clinton White House.
As a reward for leading a business lobbying campaign for the treaty, Iacocca spent the night in the Lincoln Bedroom. Joining him at the White House was Robert Liberatore, Chrysler's chief Washington lobbyist.
"It was one of his great thrills," Liberatore said of Iacocca's visit. "It's too bad he didn't stay involved in the public policy world."
Fifteen years later, Liberatore's recollection is important for several reasons:
-- This presidential campaign year, Democratic candidates — including Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, who was first lady in 1993 — have attacked the watershed U.S. trade deal with Mexico and Canada.
-- Democratic candidates and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the all-but-certain Republican nominee, have condemned the role of lobbyists in shaping national policy.
-- The anecdote offers a reminder that Liberatore's recent retirement, after 23 years of representing the industry, is costing automakers one of their most seasoned keepers of institutional memory.