AT&T CEO Lauds Dallas’s Resilience

Last night’s World Affairs Council-Dallas/Fort Worth dinner at the Hyatt Regency DFW was like a CEOs’ homecoming fete, with everyone from Rex Tillerson (Exxon Mobil) and mega-Realtor Ebby Halliday to Comerica’s Ralph Babb showing up to see AT&T’s Randall Stephenson accept the WAC’s 28th H. Neil Mallon Award. Former CEO-turned-Senate-candidate Tom Leppert also turned up and drew a shout-out from Stephenson, whose company relocated to Dallas from San Antonio in 2008: “Tom was the first guy who started recruiting me. He came to see me even before I was CEO. … I said, ‘Tom, can we just wait!?’ “

In his remarks accepting the Mallon award, Stephenson lauded Dallas as the country’s No. 1 spot for engineers and software engineers, with flourishing energy, software, and computer-chip sectors.

After visiting the angst-ridden Northeast as he recently did, the AT&T chairman and CEO went on, “you land here and you kind of exhale. We understand we have serious issues–we’re not Pollyanna-ish–but there’s a sense of relief [in Dallas] that we can overcome” the problems.

Dallas was “built on commerce, with kind of a rugged demeanor,” Stephenson said, “though we’ve had our share of setbacks [including the oil bust]. My dad used to say, ‘What’s the difference between a Texas oilman and a pigeon? A pigeon can still put a deposit down on a Mercedes.’ “

In an interview before his talk, Stephenson said he agreed with a letter sent to President Obama this week by about 100 GOP House members that criticized the administration for suing to block the proposed AT&T/T-Mobile merger.

Stalling the merger in a tough economy is wrong, Stephenson said, since AT&T has pledged to repatriate 5,000 overseas call-center jobs, to create up to 96,000 new U.S. jobs, and to spend at least $8 billion more on new infrastructure if the deal goes through.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman delivered the evening’s keynote address, unabashedly flogging his new book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World it Invented and How We Can Come Back, co-written with Michael Mandelbaum.

Friedman said he’s a “frustrated optimist” about the United States, which has “a sense of resignation” to its fate while “the whole global curve is rising” around us.

Americans need to start thinking more creatively and resourcefully, like artisans and immigrants, he said, while rededicating themselves to the country’s traditional formula for success.

Reviving the formula, Friedman said, would mean dramatic reforms–led perhaps by a third party in the Ross Perot Sr. mold–in areas including education, infrastructure, immigration policy, capital formation and government-funded research.

Outside a little later, in the valet line, you could hear more than one guest complaining about Friedman’s keynote. After listening to Stephenson’s optimism, they said, the Times-man’s talk was a real “downer.”