Commentary

It may shock certain members of Congress and other self-anointed “experts” on the U.S. car industry, but General Motors CEO Richard Wagoner is one of the best auto executives around.

What’s shocking is how he has been singled out as an example of what’s wrong with Detroit, a person who is incompetent and unworthy of his job.

Unlike some U.S. senators with 5-minute attention spans who rashly have concluded that Wagoner must go, I’ve gotten to know him pretty well over the years.

It’s not: “I know Rick Wagoner, Rick Wagoner is a friend of mine.” But I’ve watched his progress and interviewed him numerous times with fellow Ward’s editors. He is just about everything his critics say he isn’t, and vice versa.

Some detractors say Wagoner has moved too slowly in restructuring GM. Yet I recall that he, upon becoming CEO in 2000, repeatedly said the auto maker needed to act with greater urgency.

The company has done that to a large extent, including cutting $9 billion in operating costs in just a few years.

Under Wagoner, GM has made huge strides in vehicle quality. Its plants have been cited for major productivity improvements. It has repaired dealer relations that were damaged before Wagoner took the helm. And GM has become a leader in key global markets, such as China, Latin America and Russia.

He has instilled a spirit of teamwork within GM. His managerial style is like the coach of a team, rather than the imperious leader of a global business.

Wagoner had the self-confidence to bring in auto guru Bob Lutz as vice chairman, despite the possibility that the charismatic Lutz could overshadow him. It has turned out to be a great move, with Lutz overseeing the development of award-winning vehicles such as the Chevrolet Malibu sedan and Silverado pickup truck.

Wagoner has a global perspective, in part, because of management jobs he’s held outside the U.S. during his 31-year GM career. I came across him speaking fluent Portuguese to a Brazilian auto journalist at the 2005 Detroit auto show.

During interviews with Ward’s, Wagoner comes across as articulate and thoughtful, whether he is talking about present circumstances or future goals.

Yet, he has been rapped for what he said during a painful appearance before a Congressional committee hearing on auto bridge-loan legislation.

Here’s what I wish he had said to the dopes who claim Detroit doesn’t sell any cars anymore:

“You know what? We are the No.1 seller of vehicles on the face of this planet. We sold nearly 10 million vehicles worldwide last year.”

Listening to some people tell it, you’d think GM trailed Subaru.

Wagoner came up the GM ranks from the financial side. So it was weird to see members of Congress treat him and his Chrysler and Ford counterparts like class dunces who failed a math test.

Wagoner has a sense of decency that I wish more Congress members and Wall Street types had.

Last year, when Ward’s interviewed Wagoner at his office, I chatted beforehand with Tom Pyden, a GM communications director. He told me how Wagoner recently had given a speech at his son’s college.

“He talked about leadership and responsibility and ethics in the business world,” said Pyden. “It was pure Rick.”

In “Alice in Wonderland,” everything seems opposite. Night becomes day. The moon becomes the sun. The victim becomes the criminal.

In real life, we’re seeing attempts to transmogrify an able auto executive into someone who should be fired for incompetency. Odder still, the people trying to do this are the ones who seem truly incompetent.

When John F. Kennedy was a rookie U.S. senator, a veteran of that body told him, “First you’re going to wonder how you got here. Then you’re going to wonder how everyone else got here.”

That was true back then. It sure is true today, as evidenced by the ignorance, self-absorption and provincialism some members of Congress displayed at a critical time for the U.S. auto industry and the financial health of the nation. How the heck did these people get elected to high office?

It brings to mind a Mark Twain quote: “Either they are smart and putting us on, or they really are imbeciles.”

A much more recent quote comes from Craig Cather, head of CSM Worldwide, an automotive forecasting firm: “We have very competent people running this very complicated industry.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com