Mary Foerster’s lavish second home overlooks beautiful Lake Washington near Everett. Pleasure craft bob in the crystal-clear water; sea birds wing overhead. On the street, a small army of valets parks just half a dozen cars. Inside, the caterer has set up a tidy little bar next to a table heaped with grilled salmon, fried chicken and corn bread. It sure is good to be Boeing’s vice president for communications.
We bloggers are here with some Boeing big-wigs to talk tankers. Boeing is competing with Northrop Grumman and its European partners to build 180 air refueling tankers costing around $40 billion to begin replacing the Air Force’s 1960s-era KC-135s. Six years Boeing almost scored a non-competitive $20-billion lease deal for tankers, but an ethics scandal derailed the plan. It turned out that a key Air Force procurement official, Darleen Druyun, had been offered a job in exchange for setting up an unnecessarily expensive lease. At the barbecue, it rapidly becomes clear that part of Boeing’s $2-mllion-annually tanker media campaign (accounting for five percent of Boeing’s entire ad budget) is to distance itself from Druyun.
Mary sits on the grass, accepts a glass of wine from a waitress, and says that Boeing is a different company now. Boeing execs can’t just hire anybody straight from the Pentagon; instead there’s a rigorous vetting process to weed out candidates with any conflicts of interest. It’s meant to be a reassuring line, and it’s one that more than one Boeing official repeats this idyllic evening on Lake Washington.
But then things take an unsettling turn. Foerster describes an encounter with Druyun in the ladies’ room. Druyun, she says, wouldn’t say good morning even if you greeted her first. A reporter chimes in, saying that Druyun had a reputation for being cold – a “dragon lady,” the reporter says. The implication seems to be that a reserved personality means a corrupt person. By that line of reasoning, are nice people always ethical?
Foerster says that total transparency is the core tenet of her media operations. But it’s clear that appeals to emotions are just as important.
Now it’s Monday morning. We’re all at the Boeing airliner factory in Everett. In this cavernous building – the largest in the world, by acreage, according to the company – we tour the 767 assembly line where tankers would be built then join a couple hundred Boeing employees at a rally celebrating the KC-767. With a partially built 767 freighter as a backdrop, Boeing execs, senators and congressmen speechify at the podium. They all echo program manager Bev Wyse, who says that winning this competition isn’t really about Boeing’s bottom line or even – gasp – jobs. It’s about building a vital airplane for our brave men and women fighting overseas. The Pentagon’s favorite invented word, “warfighter,” gets tossed around quite a bit. And each time it is, the crowd cheers and waves tiny American flags that are being handed out near the entrance.
Next, Democratic Representative Norm Dicks, who in 2001 had a major hand in promoting the scandal-ridden tanker lease, takes the stage and declares the KC-767 a truly American aircraft and says that’s a reason to buy it. We can’t trust Europeans to help build tankers, he says, because they might just decide to cut off the supply if America launches some war they don’t agree with. “You never know what those Europeans are going to do.”
Never mind that Boeing fought hard to win the Joint Strike Fighter contest but lost to Lockheed Martin. The Pentagon had mandated that that be an international airplane, with major components coming from many of the future operators including the U.K., Italy and the Netherlands. Nobody was making “buy American” arguments with the JSF – and nobody was mongering the fear that European companies might boycott the Pentagon. Truth is, our European diplomatic alliances are rock solid, and our commercial alliances are even stronger.
If we really need tankers, and if Boeing’s KC-767 is the better airplane, then the firm deserves to win – because, as Boeing points out, this is all about delivering the best plane possible to the operators. But if Northrop Grumman’s plane is better, then it should win even if it is half European.
Shame on Boeing and its supporters for appealing to some Americans’ jingoism – and for continuing to heap personal scorn on Darleen Druyun in hopes of somehow making the current generation of Boeing execs look saintly by comparison. Emotions shouldn’t decide this contest.
Below, for the sake of equal time, a Youtube video featuring Northrop Grumman’s tanker announcement:
[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/AYRH1DlpNXg" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]
Junketeering part one
(Spelling of Druyun’s name corrected)