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But Toughest Tasks Lie Ahead : AIDS Commission's New Chairman Earns High Marks for Leadership

April 17, 1988|SANDRA G. BOODMAN | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — At a news conference in February when James David Watkins, chairman of the President's commission on AIDS, released a report calling for a $20-billion, 10-year effort to combat the disease, a skeptical reporter asked him if he believed Reagan Administration budget-cutters would endorse such massive programs.

"Well," Watkins replied, "it's only seven-tenths of a percent of the defense budget."

His answer, surprising coming from a conservative Reagan appointee, is even more startling considering Watkins' background: He is a retired four-star admiral and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who was chief of naval operations from 1982 until 1986.

Since last October, when he was elevated to the chair of the embattled advisory panel of 13, the 61-year-old Watkins has surprised a lot of people, including himself.

Self-Destruction Averted

He is the first to admit that he was named to a commission in the process of self-destruction.

"I really wasn't sure I could pull it out of the swamp," Watkins said recently.

Many of the nation's most distinguished scientists had blasted the panel for inadequate expertise on AIDS and the controversial views of several members. The day after its first meeting, the panel fired its executive director. Three weeks later, the chairman and vice chairman, both physicians, resigned abruptly. The doctors said that ideological differences on the panel and a lack of White House support made it impossible for them to continue. At the same time, a coalition of public interest groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, was preparing a legal challenge to the makeup of the commission.

When Watkins walked into the commission's plush downtown Washington offices, he found no staff and unopened mail stacked on desks. Watkins knew virtually nothing about AIDS. He had eight months in which to produce a report advising the President on the enormously complicated and controversial questions the disease poses for American society.

Some Criticism Allayed

Watkins has succeeded in mollifying some of the panel's harshest critics. His interim report, released in February and sent to the White House in March, advocates vastly expanded treatment programs for intravenous drug users and increased spending on home health promotion and basic AIDS research.

"He was an unknown and he's been a pleasant surprise," said ACLU attorney William B. Rubenstein, who sued the panel. "I'm optimistic about his instincts being good and I think he's inspired confidence among the other commissioners."

Dr. William B. Walsh, a member who was critical of the former chairman's organizational skills, agreed. "He's a commander and he's magnificently organized," Walsh said, "and he's gotten us to do things without rancor."

Watkins is a tall, silver-haired man with whose slightly patrician bearing befits an admiral. He was born and raised in Southern California. His grandfather was chairman of Southern California Edison Co., where his father was an executive. In 1938, his mother became the first woman to run for the U.S. Senate from California. She lost.

Former Nuclear Engineer

A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a protege of the late Adm. Hyman Rickover, Watkins was trained as a nuclear engineer. He combines a plain-spoken directness with a penchant for bureaucratic phrases. He speaks of what the commission is "tasked to do" by the White House.

His approach, he said, is simple and direct. "I'm a strategy builder," he said. "I love strategies and I believe a strategy is critical."

Central to Watkins' strategy is his reliance on an experienced staff director. His first act was to hire Polly L. Gault, 35, a tough-minded Capitol Hill legislative aide. To bolster the commission's credibility, Watkins made it clear to White House officials that he, not Administration conservatives led by domestic policy adviser Gary L. Bauer, would pick replacements for the departed chairman and vice chairman.

His choice of two outspoken Administration critics surprised many. Watkins named Kristine Gebbie, Oregon public health commissioner and president of the AIDS Task Force of the American Society of State and Territorial Health Officers, and Dr. Benny J. Primm, director of a New York City treatment program for addicts. Primm is the panel's only black member and its only expert on abuse of intravenous drugs.

Periodic Reports Planned

Rather than waiting until June, when the final report is due, Watkins decided that the panel would issue periodic reports on certain topics. The interim report, largely focused on the IV drug problem, coincided with increased national concern and widespread publicity about the issue.

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