James D. Watkins, who led Reagan’s commission on AIDS in the 1980s, dies at 85

James A. Parcell/The Washington Post - James D. Watkins hands President Reagan the report of the presidential commission on the AIDS epidemic. Watkins, retired Navy admiral who later served as secretary of the Energy Department and also led a presidential commission on ocean policy, died July 26 at his home in Alexandria. He was 85.

Retired Navy Adm. James D. Watkins, who displayed independence in politically charged waters as energy secretary under President George H.W. Bush and as chairman of an influential commission on the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s, died July 26 at his home in Alexandria. He was 85.

He had congestive heart failure, said his wife, Janet Watkins.

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Adm. Watkins was an imposing figure in his Navy dress blues — a nuclear submarine officer who stood 6-foot-4 and was known as “Radio-Free Watkins” for his blunt outspokenness.

As chief of naval operations from 1982 to 1986, Adm. Watkins served as the Navy’s top-ranking officer and representative on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was considered an architect of the Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative, the proposed missile shield and planned response to a Soviet nuclear attack.

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan named him to lead the President’s Commission on the HIV Epidemic. A Catholic and Republican, Adm. Watkins was an unlikely candidate for the panel. In addition, he said his experience dealing with HIV/AIDS was limited.

“He told the president, ‘I’m a sailor and a submariner, and I know nothing about medicine,’ ” his wife, Janet, said in an interview. “But Reagan told him, ‘You’re exactly who we’re looking for.’ ”

His appointment to lead the 13-member commission — which included few with extensive knowledge of AIDS — led to public rebukes from members of the AIDS community and gay-rights groups.

By many accounts, Adm. Watkins’s stewardship was credited with reinvigorating the panel and issuing strong recommendations to address the unfolding public-health calamity that had long been underplayed by the Reagan White House.

Under Adm. Watkins, the panel advocated the passage of anti-discrimination laws for AIDS patients and the need for laws to protect the rights and privacy of those with AIDS. He was most eloquent in describing the loneliness afflicting those with the disease.

“All you have to do is walk in to the pediatric ward of Harlem Hospital and see those children,” Adm. Watkins once said. “Nobody wants them. They have no place to go. That gets you.”

He added that he was profoundly affected by testimony about a 12-year-old boy infected with HIV and ostracized by classmates. The child was ridiculed, his parents received death threats and the family’s car was pelted with stones.

Anthony S. Fauci, who oversees AIDS research at the National Institutes of Health, said in an interview that Adm. Watkins was an early and crucial advocate for AIDS patients.

“To have a presidential commission chairman with his background to come out so strongly against stigma and discrimination was a very, very important step,” Fauci said.

James David Watkins was born March 7, 1927, in Alhambra, Calif. His father was a vintner and later an executive with Southern California Edison power company. His mother, the former Louise Ward, ran unsuccessfully for a U.S. Senate seat in 1938.

Adm. Watkins graduated in 1949 from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and became a protege of Adm. Hyman Rickover — known as the father of the nuclear navy. Adm. Watkins spent the majority of his career commanding vessels under nuclear power.

He served as commander in chief of the Pacific forces before becoming chief of naval operations.

His military decorations include two awards of the Defense Distinguished Service Medal; three awards of the Navy Distinguished Service Medal; three awards of the Legion of Merit; and the Bronze Star.

In 1989, Bush tapped Adm. Watkins to revamp the Energy Department. As secretary, he aimed to renovate the department’s crumbling facilities responsible for building nuclear weapons. At the time, the department’s weapons plants were paralyzed by radiation leaks and environmental issues involving the disposal of toxic nuclear materials.

Adm. Watkins also formed an intelligence wing to collect data on foreign warhead stockpiles and established a spy-hunting office to safeguard America’s nuclear secrets.

During the early 2000s, Adm. Watkins was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve as chair of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy.

His first wife, Sheila McKinney Watkins, died in 1996 after 45 years of marriage.

Survivors include his wife of 12 years, Janet Tobin Watkins of Alexandria; six children from his first marriage, Catherine Coopersmith of Chevy Chase, Laura Jo Kauffmann of Brooklyn, Charles Watkins of Norfolk, Edward Watkins of Alexandria, Susan Watkins of Rockville and Monsignor James D. Watkins Jr. of Washington; four stepchildren, John McDonough of Arlington County, Siobhan McDonough, Robert McDonough and Sean McDonough, all of Alexandria; a brother; 16 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.