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Originally published March 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 4, 2008 at 1:43 PM


Guest columnist

Alabamians dust off their tricycles and get ready to head off to work

It would be petty, I suppose, to say "serves 'em right" in response to the news that Boeing lost the big aerial refueling tanker contract...

Newhouse News Service

MOBILE, Ala. — It would be petty, I suppose, to say "serves 'em right" in response to the news that Boeing lost the big aerial refueling tanker contract.

It would be small-minded, too. After all, it's been seven whole years since Boeing tried to manipulate Congress into going along with a no-bid scheme in which the company would lease and then sell the tankers to the Air Force.

So I won't say it.

But I will say this: What goes around comes around.

When you are one of the most arrogant, self-important corporations on the planet, and when you have grown accustomed to wielding unchallenged influence over politicians and the U.S. military, then it can come as a stunning and horrible blow when you don't get your way.

Last week, Boeing did not get its way.

Instead of letting the company build up to $40 billion worth of aerial tankers in Washington state, the Air Force gave the contract to Northrop Grumman-EADS, which will build them in Mobile. The ensuing wailing and gnashing of teeth were of biblical proportions.

Washington state Congressman Norman Dicks called the decision a "disaster" and added, "It's just one of the worst things in my whole life," indicating how badly he needs to get a life.

"We should have an American tanker built by an American company with American workers," snarled Kansas Congressman Todd Tiahrt, implying that the plane will be assembled in Mobile by ... what? Martians?

Tiahrt represents a district where Boeing would have done a good bit of the tanker work, which could explain his pique.

In Texas, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison said the contract was "great news." She was not being gracious, however; she apparently had gotten an erroneous tip a few minutes before the Air Force made its announcement.

"Today's contract win for Boeing represents great news for the state of Texas," Hutchison said in a statement that her office quickly retracted.

Instead, the contract represents great news for the state of Alabama, where folks still remember last year's observation by a Boeing vice president that Mobilians might have trouble assembling airplanes.

"It's like being in the living room on Christmas morning, surrounded by boxes," he said, "and you're trying to put a tricycle together for the first time."

Alabama civic and political leaders urged Boeing to apologize for the remark, but such an apology would have required a certain amount of humility, so none was forthcoming.

Arrogance is contagious, apparently. Just last week, when Washington state Gov. Christine Gregoire was in the District of Columbia for a conference, she dropped by the Pentagon, presumably to remind the top brass of Boeing's superiority.

Afterward, Gregoire told reporters she was "banking on us getting" the contract.

"If we don't win, then I think there'll be a lot of questions asked about why in the world would Boeing, with that workforce, that expertise, that experience, that history — how could they not have gotten this?"

Now it's up to Boeing to protest this unfair, unexpected and unwarranted decision, and for the Air Force to explain again that the Northrop-EADS partnership offered a bigger and better plane.

Then the Pentagon will try to convince Congress to fund the tanker project, while Boeing's lobbyists scramble to somehow divert the money or kill the project altogether.

Meanwhile, down in Alabama, we'll be brushing up on our tricycle-assembly skills and hoping — without being petty or small-minded, mind you — that this time the Air Force does what's right.

Frances Coleman is editorial page editor of The Press-Register of Mobile, Ala. She can be contacted at

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