What’s interesting about public perception is how Wilson’s quote is viewed today. To begin with you’ve probably heard it, or rather, probably heard something like it. It’s more frequently misquoted than quoted accurately, enough to be in books about frequent misquotations. “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country,” is a part of lore, not quite urban legend, but based enough on reality to circulate without challenge. I started using Google as an admittedly rough tool to examine how people perceive GM today. “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country” yields 3,030 hits. Not only is that a misquotation but it’s not very favorable to GM, making it seem like he is putting GM before country rather than, well, vice versa. “What’s good for the country is good for General Motors,” another misquote, though more accurate and less negative about GM (or big business in general), yields only 742 hits. “What was good for the country was good for General Motors,” accurate but favorable to GM, yields 1,190 hits. “What was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa,” accurate but fully in context and balanced, gave 969 hits. As a rough estimate of people’s perception of GM today, that’s 2,901 hits on more or less accurate accounts of the former GM CEO’s statement that are favorable or balanced with regard to GM vs 3,030 misquotations whose language place GM in a poor light.

Now I didn’t check to see the exact context in which Wilson’s words were quoted or misquoted, but I did a search for “General Motors,” “good for,” and America. There were 795,000 hits. The first page of results on Google were all quotations, misquotations, or paraphrases of Charlie Wilson’s remarks before Congress.  Looking at the first few results, only two citations out of 14 accurately quoted Wilson. Four references were in what I judged to be a “GM neutral” context, five were positive, and six were negative. These results pretty much confirm impressions from the search on the actual quotation. It’s often misquoted and more often than not given a negative spin about General Motors. To give you an idea of the flavor of some idea how negative, the title of two of the items were:

What´s Good for General Motors is Bad for America


What’s Good for General Motors Is Killing America

Okay, so that last one is from The Progressive. I wouldn’t expect a left-wing publication to be nice to a major corporation, but that’s what most people see when they use things like Google for information. The way Wilson is misquoted to GM’s detriment doesn’t seem fair to “Engine” Charlie, who was a great American who helped us win three global conflicts and was a key figure in establishing global industrial dominance by the U.S.

Maybe Rick Wagoner really knows how angry Americans are at Detroit and he just doesn’t know how to deal gracefully and artfully with both Congress and the American people. Maybe he’s completely clueless. Or maybe he’s so committed to his vision that he’s the Rod Marinelli of corporate America, not willing to quit in the face of strong evidence of failure.

In any case, he doesn’t seem to have anywhere near Charlie Wilson’s capacity for gauging how both politicians and the public would perceive his words. GM was the biggest company in the world in 1953 and under “Engine” Charlie they sold a lot of cars. Despite how people view his words today, senators knew how his words would be perceived by the American people and they confirmed him by a vote of 77 to 6.

Perhaps as they revisit Washington, Wagoner and the other Detroit CEOs should take a page from Charlie Wilson’s book and not be afraid to use the hearings to challenge the demagogues, make a forceful defense of the domestic automakers, and appeal directly to the American people. A case can be made that a healthy domestic auto industry is in the nation’s best interest. Wilson was able to make that case. The question remains if the current Detroit CEOs are up to that task.