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Countdown. Frank Borman. Morrow, $19.95. What goes up must come down. That's a brief Newtonian synopsis of Countdown, an autobiography of Frank Borman, the man who guided the Apollo 8 mission around the moon, and then, as the CEO of Eastern Airlines, steered the troubled carrier into a crash landing-when a collision course with Eastern's unions forced the sale of the company to the airline raider, Frank Lorenzo.

The up side of the story is the stuff of which American myths are made. The only son of a gas-station operator becomes a pilot so skilled that he is tapped to lead the first spaceship around the moon. But Countdown tells of Borman's fall with much less honesty than his rise, and it contains an unintended moral: outer space may not be the best place to learn how to run a company.

The book is the latest in a series of joint-venture autobiographies. Like most of his kind, Mr. Borman's coauthor, Robert Serling, is paid to make his subject look good. In so doing, he renders the odyssey from gas pump to lunar orbit to Eastern shuttle with folksy similes and the glib PR patter that makes everything sound like a press release. (Mr. Serling, whose brother Rod created TV's "Twilight Zone," had already written the official history of Eastern Airlines, The Captain and the Colonel, which, like Countdown, too often dresses up the truth until it's close to fiction.)

Plenty of the real Borman comes through, however. He's a feisty character who goes after his enemies like Jake LaMotta. Give Borman credit for this: He jabs at just about everybody-from Carl Sagan and Chuck Yeager to Michael Dukakis and the Columbia students who pelted him with marshmallows during a speaking tour. With the exception of his wife Susan, Richard Nixon, and a few others, Colonel Borman fingers enough "nerds," "phonies," and "dumb bastards" to fill a convention hall. On the other hand, judging from his long and loving descriptions of airplanes, from T-33s to A-300s and 757s, Bon-nan never met a machine he didn't like. (Indeed, he liked them so much that he went on a plane-buy ing spree at Eastern that, some say, permanently saddled the company with debt it could not afford.)

The NASA years are chronicled in great detail, and space junkies will find much in those sections to interest them. For myself, I am perversely drawn to the saga of Eastern Airlines. Ridiculed for years by discontented passengers, and still the battleground for one of the most bitter and destructive labor-management wars in recent memory, Eastern somehow managed, in 1984 and 1985, to invent one of America's most far-reaching programs of worker ownership and labormanagement cooperation. As CEO, Borman saw the best and worst of that tortured company. In Countdown, I was looking for clues in Borman's NASA career that would let me better understand Borman the executive.

There's no question that Borman had "the right stuff' for an astronaut. Whether in a T-33 or an Apollo 8 capsule, Borman displays what he calls the "kind of gut instinct that comes from having cheated death a few hundred times."

But "cheating death" was not what the employees of Eastern had in mind. They wanted corporate stability and steady paychecks. When the 1978 deregulation of the U.S. airline industry made that impossible, they soon wondered whether their fighter pilot CEO was recklessly steering them from one financial crisis to the next. The stage was set for a series of conflicts over wage concessions that ultimately cost Borman his company.

Borman's solution was what he called "the most innovative, daring experiment in the history of labor relations: the Variable Earnings Program." In profitable years, employees got more; in unprofitable years, they got less. Since the company rarely showed a profit, employees mostly got less. What Borman called a "radical departure," the employees dubbed the "Veritable Extortion Plan." Both sides retreated to the trenches and Eastern was caught in the crossfire.

A few years later, in 1983, as Eastern teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, labor and management did discover a truly "radical" and "innovative" plan to save the company. Employees traded massive wage cuts and pledges to boost productivity for 25 percent of the company stock, seats on the board of directors, and a say in how the company was to be run, from the shop floor to the executive suite.

I met Borman in 1985, while I was doing a story on this fabled "experiment" in power-sharing. My impression of him then-a short-fused military man who understood personal sacrifice and corporate risk better than the slow work of building a company-is borne out by his book. Try to build a consensus with one of Borman's favorite mottos: "If you don't like what I'm doing, then get the hell out of my way cause it has to be done."

Sharing sacrifice was never a problem for Borman. This was a man who endured the "beast barracks" at West Point, the pain of NASAs human experiments, and the peculiar torture of hurtling through space in a sweltering metal box the size of the front seat of a VW Beetle. When he arrived at Eastern, he cut executive pay scales, abolished executive perks, helped the troops load baggage, and drove to work in a second-hand Chevy.

Sharing sacrifice was one thing, but sharing power was quite another. As a military man, known affectionately as "the colonel," Borman never warmed to the idea of calling his troops together and listening to their suggestions on how to take the next hill.

In an age when the nature of the workplace is being hotly debated, Borman's personal conflict between command and consensus could have made for fascinating reading. Unfortunately Borman refuses to assess honestly the groundbreaking accord or his role in it. Instead, his bitterness toward organized labor-while understandable to some-overwhelms everything else. If we are to believe Countdown, Borman saw the powersharing deal as nothing more than a way to get Eastern's spoiled unions to take wage concessions. "Asking labor to restrain its insatiable appetite," says Borman in one of his-or Serling's-cornball similes, "would have been like asking the sun to rise in the west."

He denies the $100 million in employee cost-savings documented by the company controllers. And when the deal falls apart with the sale to Lorenzo, he leaves no doubt as to where to place the blame for all the company's problems: the unions, in particular the International Association of Machinists (IAM), who were always "raising unshirted hell." Though the Airline Pilots Association comes in for its share of criticism, Bon-nan spares Eastern's pilots-with whom he clearly feels a special bond,

The final boardroom meeting, as slanted and factually suspect as some of it may be, makes for great corporate drama. With Lorenzo ready to buy, and the bankers ready to seize the company's assets, Borman and Eastern's unions stage a final battle. In Countdown the villain is Charlie Bryan, the president of the Eastern IAM. At two in the morning, after the pilots and the flight attendants take wage cuts to escape the union-slayer Lorenzo, Bryan refuses to do the same unless Borman resigns.

In the end, Borman lost command of his airline and the employees lost their stock and theirpower. It was a kind of double suicide for which there is plenty of blame to spread around: the pressures of deregulation, Eastern's weak financial condition, questionable management, the squabbling between Eastern's unions and their refusal-until it was too late-to grant the concessions the company needed to survive. -Alex Gibney
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Author:Gibney, Alex
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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