Skip to main content

The day Bernie Whitebear hijacked Lee Iacocca's podium

Of all the wonderful "Bernie stories" that have been told since his death, so far one of the best comes from congressional hopeful Tom Keefe of Spokane, Wash.

Keefe was working in the Seattle mayor's office when Lee Iacocca of Chrysler Corp. came to town to raise money to restore the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. A big, fancy fund-raising dinner had been organized at the Westin Hotel, and different ethnic groups purchased tables. The night of Iacocca's speech, the room was packed with Yugoslavians, Irish, Spanish, Italians, Germans, you name it.

At the start of the dinner, Iacocca shows up with a personal padded podium with an embossed Chrysler label on the front with built-in lights and amplifiers, and a couple of bodyguards in dark suits with bulges under their armpits.

Keefe remembers the podium looked like "the console of a luxury car."

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Iacocca gives this patriotic speech about being the grandson of Italian immigrants and about how we are a nation of immigrants and about the importance of the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of freedom. By the end of his speech half the crowd is in tears.

"Bernie was sitting at the table I was at," says Keefe. "And all the sudden, as Iacocca was finishing up and there's all this applause in the room, Bernie just slowly gets up from his chair and starts walking towards the podium.

"Iacocca's two guys are fidgeting nervously and reaching under their jackets. Lee Iacocca walks off the other side of the stage and Bernie walks right up to his podium and stands up there and these guys look like they were ready to shoot him.

"And he says, 'Mr. Iacocca, my name is Bernie Whitebear. I'm a Native American, and on behalf of all Native Americans for whom this is not a land of immigrants ... I want to welcome you and all the other groups of immigrants that are here tonight."

Then, after agreeing that the Statue of Liberty was a very important symbol of a great nation that should be honored, Whitebear launches into an "impassioned, low-key but very respectful" reminder that there were people who were living in America before any immigrants ever set foot on Ellis Island. "I called it 'The night Bernie Whitebear hijacked Lee Iacocca's podium,'" says Keefe. "My wife said ... for a guy who helped takeover Fort Lawton, taking over Lee Iacocca's podium was probably nothing."