Reagan HIV/AIDS Commission Member Penny Pullen Reflects on Chairman James Watkns

When State Rep. Penny Pullen was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to be on his HIV/AIDS Commission, I was privileged to be asked to assist her. With the death of the Commission’s chairman, James Watkins, I asked if she would share some thoughts about him. They are below:

Former State Rep. Penny Pullen

Within a month of the appointment and commissioning of President Reagan’s Commission on the HIV/AIDS Epidemic in July, 1987, the panel was in turmoil.Oddly, it was not because of the diversity of the members; indeed, the members — from various ranks of life and socio-political orientations — reached a key agreement which enabled the commission to go forward in its work: The chairman has got to go.

It was the chairman who was generating turmoil, and his shortcomings were soon recognized by a White House receiving mutiny reports from the rest of the panel members.

The title page of the report of the AIDS/HIV Commission appointed by President Ronald Reagan.

But the Commission was to report in less than a year; who could quickly quell the internal controversies and get the panel down to its critical work separating fact from fiction and reaching consensus on policy approaches to stem the tide of an epidemic which was killing large numbers of Americans and frightening millions?

The White House tapped Admiral James Watkins to right the ship, and under his firm but respectful leadership, the Commission got underway in staffing and scheduling hearings all over the country to explore public health strategies, blood supply risks, social implications, research approaches and prospects, legal concerns and more.

To Admiral Watkins and businessman Rich DeVos, the Commission member who did most to pull his new colleagues into a mutually respecting working group, should go the credit for this should-have-been contentious Commission to issue a comprehensive report — on time — to guide US policy on this developing crisis.

I cannot comment on Admiral Watkins’s Navy career or family life or other marks of distinction, but as one of 13 Americans who were tapped to serve President Reagan and America at that critical phase of the HIV epidemic, I can salute his patient, perceptive, consensus-building leadership. However he developed the skill, Admiral Watkins could herd cats, and the country — even the world — are the better for his leadership. RIP.


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