The Army's Loss Is Politics' Gain as Pete Dawkins, Football Star and War Hero, Moves On

updated 08/15/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/15/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

On May 15 the most famous young officer in the U.S. Army met with its senior general, then Chief of Staff Edward C. Meyer. The officer had shocking news for Meyer—he had decided to retire from the service. On July 29, in a ceremony at Fort Myer, Va., Brig. Gen. Peter M. Dawkins, Heisman Trophy winner, Rhodes scholar, Vietnam War hero, 24 years an officer and a strong bet to be Army Chief of Staff, became a civilian. Within the tight little world of the U.S. Army, the news was nothing short of seismic. For American politics in the last 15 years of this century, the consequences may well be as great.

Six decades ago, describing another young Midwesterner, a character in The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that, as a football hero, he had become "a national figure in a way, one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at 21 that everything afterwards savors of anticlimax." The description fits Pete Dawkins—if you ignore the "limited" and forget the part about the anticlimax.

It is easier to remember Dawkins' stunning undergraduate achievements than to recapture the innocence and promise of those years. The late 1950s was a time when the surviving military leaders of World War II were still routinely called "great." At their head was Dwight D. Eisenhower, then in his second term in the White House. Nobel laureate George C. Marshall, magisterial and aloof, was in retirement in North Carolina. And Douglas MacArthur, the Army's most controversial and eloquent hero, had yet to make his famous farewell address at West Point. It was a time when the country still had heroes, and many of them were soldiers. It was a time when many of the best and brightest young men could still go to West Point without half the neighborhood wondering what the hell had gotten into them. It was a time, in the curt phrase one hears from military men in 1983, "before Vietnam."

Pete Dawkins was the golden boy of that generation, the best-known college student in this country since Frank Merriwell. Above Dawkins' picture in the 1959 West Point yearbook appeared this simple testimonial: "We stood in awe of this man." His list of achievements at the Academy was unprecedented. Dawkins was Cadet First Captain, commander of the 2,496-man Brigade, president of his class, wearer of coveted academic stars (for excellence in a singularly nasty curriculum bristling with required subjects like differential equations, fluid mechanics and thermodynamics), captain of a Brave Old Army football team that was ranked third in the nation, All-America at halfback, winner of the Heisman.

But the thing was, he never seemed to be shaking the tree. The fruit just landed at his feet. He worked hard, but not for fame. His mother remembers his boyhood in Highland Park, Mich. mainly for "his determination and self-discipline," qualities perhaps stimulated by polio contracted—and conquered—when Pete was 11. But what remains in the memory of his classmates was an easy selflessness and a habitual kindliness that—to quote an Englishman's judgment of General Marshall—"seemed to put ambition out of countenance." Col. Peter Stromberg, a classmate and now a professor of English at West Point, recalls Cadet Dawkins vividly, from the perspective of a fellow 1955 squad member in the notorious Beast Barracks, where new plebes spent two months in frenzied summertime indoctrination. "Pete made everyone feel he was a friend," says Stromberg. "He had an amazing ability to size people up and inspire them."

Dawkins' four years at West Point were impossibly full. "He really never had much time to study," Stromberg recalls, "but he could absorb things rapidly. We'd be walking to class in Yearling English, and sometimes he hadn't even read the assignment. I'd tell him a little about it, and he'd participate in discussions as though he'd absorbed everything. He was the prototypically predestined man."

When Dawkins was a cow (the equivalent of a junior), a friend who was to have been a blind date for Judith Wright suddenly got engaged. Pete took his place. Judi, a sophomore at the University of Maryland, "fell madly in love with him." By Easter 1960, when Dawkins was finishing his first year at Oxford's Brasenose College, they were engaged. A year later they were married. The marriage—one is obliged to report—remains an idyll. There are now two children: Sean, 19, a student at Radford University in Virginia, and daughter Noël, 15, a sophomore at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va. and a Senate summer page. Judi, who is 44 but could pass for 32, is a realtor with Samuel P. Pardoe, Inc. in Georgetown, selling everything from condos to $1.2 million villas.

At Oxford, Dawkins did not fade from view. His academic achievements in the demanding P.P.E. curriculum (politics, philosophy and economics) remained a private matter. But his rugby feats, notably a surprising American-style pass in a victory against Cambridge (something like beating Notre Dame in football), were dutifully recorded in the U.S. press. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED later ran a picture of Peter with his hands around the throat of a distinguished rugby player. "Instead of resenting the lapse," the magazine wrote, "British fans seemed to welcome it as a sign that the young American was...human after all."

Not everyone was amused. Rep. H.R. Gross (R.-lowa), criticizing a bill to allow military men to accept nongovernment scholarships to study abroad, singled out Lieutenant Dawkins as an officer who was taking no military courses at Oxford. Gross felt that subsidizing an Army officer who was spending his time "playing cricket" was not a responsible use of the taxpayers' money. But by then Pete had already begun the last of his three years at Oxford.

Over the next two decades, until he became, in 1981, the youngest of the Army's 400 generals (he was 43), Dawkins served successively in command, advisory and staff jobs. His assignments kept his visibility high. More important, they were of such variety and consequence that they absorbed him utterly: from command of a paratroop company in the fabled 82nd Airborne Division to assignment (as a White House Fellow) as Military Assistant to Deputy Secretary of Defense William P. Clements Jr. There was a battalion command in Korea in 1972, a year at the Army War College, a short stint at Princeton in 1979 to complete a doctorate in political science, and command duties at Fort Ord, Calif. and in the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky.

In 1981 he was assigned to the office of the Army's Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans, the very heart of our strategy-making technocracy. Working for one of its brilliant officers, Maj. Gen. John Seigle, now a senior executive with United Technologies, Dawkins—serene, confident, inclined to bemusement—established himself as a gifted bureaucrat with an enormous capacity for hard work.

Though his life was an unrelenting succession of 90-hour weeks in a brutally unforgiving atmosphere of pressure, competing ambitions and demanding superiors, General Dawkins seemed almost immune to such things. "He had that very rare combination of recognized abilities in the Army and continuing appeal outside it—qualities that made the Army proud of him and jealous of him at the same time," says Seigle. Another general put it almost poetically: "Pete was like the face on the bowsprit of a sail ship, out front, slicing through the waves."

But then something—literally—snapped, in an instant so trivial, and so unusual for an athlete and a fitness buff, that Dawkins ignored it. He hurt his back playing mixed doubles.

Within a week he was in terrible pain. General Seigle found him conducting a meeting lying on the floor on his back. An operation for removal of a disc followed last summer, and for the first time in his professional life, Dawkins had time to think. He concluded he should leave the Army. "He realized that he simply had the opportunity to make a much bigger contribution outside the service," a colleague explains.

The decision was made with the reluctance of a duty-bound officer who, his wife says, "loved every day of his life in the Army." But once his mind was made up, he held firm. During his two decades of service, Dawkins had remained in contact with the worlds of commerce, academia and politics. Apparently those worlds liked what they saw, because they all wanted a piece of the all-American boy.

A private university courted him for its presidency. He was offered a job as CEO of a national service organization. Major league baseball wondered if he might be interested in succeeding Bowie Kuhn as commissioner. (Upon hearing this, Pete Rozelle told Dawkins, "Don't get any ideas about being NFL commissioner, because I'm not ready to retire yet.") Perhaps the most alluring of all offers came last June, when members of Michigan's Republican Congressional delegation asked him point-blank to return to his native state to seek the nomination to run in 1984 against incumbent Democratic Sen. Carl Levin. Dawkins turned them down.

Why? Well, it would be easy to impute a lack of canniness and the absence of an aptitude for cold calculation to a man as idealistic, affable and "open" as Dawkins. It would be easy, but it would be wrong. Dawkins appears to be a classic case of the man of action who is also an implacably objective and patient observer; a man who knows the deficiencies of his own experience and is aware of his limitations, such as they are. A more plausible explanation for Dawkins' coyness is provided by a Washington friend. Though Dawkins will have an Army pension of $32,400 a year, "he knows that he has to make some money first, so what he'd like to do is be CEO of a large corporation for four or five years, and then make his move into politics," explains the friend.

At 45, Dawkins remains a most formidable presence: 6'2", 205 pounds, slim-waisted, relaxed, loose-jointed. He would be recognized anywhere in the world as an American. In a conversation at his Alexandria house, bone-weary from his last days on the job, Dawkins discussed his uncertain plans. He chose his words with a craftsman's deliberateness and precision, effortlessly and without pretension.

"You have a moral responsibility to select a kind of life that will permit direct engagement with the issues you think most important to your society," he said. "I've come to understand there are challenges that are very compelling to me, involving the resolution to some of the great problems of our times—those of education, for example, of a penal system that desperately needs an overhaul, of the qualities of American justice, of nuclear war. The threat conditions the times we live in. Nuclear war is neither inevitable nor unthinkable. Every age has its challenges, and ours is to resolve the terrible specter of that conflict. There is no simple solution. But I am an incurable optimist about our prospects for success."

Dawkins' heroes, whom he quotes like a fountain, are Lincoln, Jefferson and Churchill. He wonders whether the current values and preoccupations of American society would permit the emergence and recognition of political leaders of such stature. Scrupulously nonpartisan in his military career, he believes he will be a Republican in his citizen's life. He may find this anchorage somewhat rocky. "I am a fiscal conservative, but progressive on social issues and an internationalist," he says, offering a political self-description likely to cause current Republican ideologues to wince. His best friend in Washington is Republican Sen. William S. Cohen of Maine, a moderate of decisively independent stamp.

Had Dawkins stayed with the colors, in store lay a promotion within a year, eventual command of a division, possibly the superintendency of West Point, and perhaps—in four or five years—four stars and appointment as Army Chief of Staff. This is what he left behind forever on the hot, muggy day last month at Fort Myer. After an 11-cannon-blast salute, Dawkins reviewed the ceremonial troops of the 3rd Infantry (the Old Guard, they are called) for the last time, while a military band played Screaming Eagles and American Soldier.

Following the review, Dawkins was presented with the Distinguished Service Medal, as a citation from Secretary of the Army John O. Marsh Jr. was read over the public address system. Dawkins' final remarks were brief and self-confident. He spoke mainly of the future, of the "new learning and opportunities that lie ahead."

He also quoted Buckminster Fuller, who, he said, "personified in so many ways the American dream: 'Every time man makes a new experiment, he always learns more.' Today I begin a new experiment."

Afterward, at a short news conference, someone said that Dawkins was shaking hands "like a candidate." But Dawkins insisted he had "no plans for political office," a denial that did not seem to impress the gentlemen from the fourth estate in the slightest.

Ah, well. It is a new game. But Dawkins looks like a player. There is a recurrent pattern in Presidential politics, one in which decades of ideological skirmishing leave voters with a yearning for strong pragmatic leaders who are not ideological. Pete Dawkins' genius is for leadership and experimentation, not ideology. "Prototypically predestined," he will probably succeed in business and politics as richly as he has in the Army. For there are people who can dominate in any profession by sheer force of character, intellect and integrity. If you add to those things optimism, a sunny temperament, patience and avid curiosity, you have a most formidable set of assets to bring to American politics. A glittering record in another profession doesn't hurt—especially one that provides opportunities for heroism and visibility like the Army. As one observer of the political wars put it, "Pete Dawkins has got everything John Glenn doesn't have, especially a twinkle."

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