Lloyd Austin Confronts the Perils of Being a Private Man in a Public Job

For three years, President Biden has been just fine with the private nature of his media-shy, introverted defense secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III.

But in failing to inform the president that he required surgery for prostate cancer, and that he later had to return to the hospital suffering from severe complications, Mr. Austin, 70, has not only attracted more attention to himself than at any point in his long career. He has also drawn scrutiny and criticism to Mr. Biden’s national security team during a period when it is managing multiple crises around the world.

Asked about Mr. Austin on Friday, Mr. Biden said he retained confidence in him. But the president gave a pointed, one-syllable answer when asked if it was a lapse in judgment for Mr. Austin not to have informed him that he had been out of commission at times in recent weeks. “Yes,” he said.

The entire incident has exposed Mr. Austin as that rarest of creatures in Washington: an intensely private person in a relentlessly public job.

Mr. Austin, the former commander of United States Central Command, brought 40 years of service with him when he took the top Pentagon job in 2021.

He led men and women in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and helped devise and put in place the campaign to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. A graduate of West Point, Mr. Austin did what no other Black man had done before, rising through the military to eventually lead the country’s 1.4 million active-duty troops in a civilian role that puts him second only to the president in the chain of command.

But Mr. Austin also brought with him to the job a reputation for avoiding attention and exposing as little as possible about himself.

At the Pentagon, staffers often share the meme of Homer Simpson backing into a hedge and disappearing from view to characterize their boss’s aversion to any limelight. But that reticence, Mr. Austin’s backers say, reflects decades of cultural challenges for a Black man who has succeeded in the military by learning not to showcase too much of himself.

Mr. Austin has told friends the story about how just after graduating from West Point, he did what many young men coming into their own do when they get their first few paychecks: He bought a flashy new car. Within weeks, he was stopped by the cops in Alabama wanting to know if the car was stolen.

“This whole thing of being a private person — you’re not around him very long before you find that out,” said Representative James E. Clyburn, the South Carolina Democrat who helped Mr. Biden vet Mr. Austin.

But the history of Black men who fought in wars overseas only to come home to discrimination, Mr. Clyburn said, taught many Black military men to believe they could succeed only if they showed less of themselves.

Mr. Austin has spoken of getting a white officer to give his briefings back when he was the commander of the storied 82nd Airborne Division because he figured a white officer was more likely to be listened to.

Now it is Mr. Biden who listens to him. The two men spoke as recently as Thursday, ahead of the strikes carried out by United States and allied forces against the Houthi militia in Yemen, even though Mr. Austin remains hospitalized.

Asked about what role Mr. Austin played in the planning for the strikes, John Kirby, the White House’s national security spokesman, said that his “participation was no different than it would be on any other given day, except that he was briefing the president on options and engaged in the discussions from the hospital. But he was fully engaged, as he would be in any other event.”

For much of the three years he has been defense secretary, Mr. Austin’s low-key nature was obscured by the voluble presence of Gen. Mark A. Milley, who was his sidekick as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until Oct. 1.

“I really wish you wouldn’t write that,” Mr. Austin told one reporter last month in the Pentagon’s E Ring hallway, discussing a story about his role in advising Israel to do more to protect civilians in Gaza.

His beef was not with the thrust of the story. It was with the inference that he had a role in the policy.

It has been more than a year since he appeared in the Pentagon briefing room to talk to reporters, and he usually avoids reporters who travel with him on his plane trips. Ditto for much of his staff; when traveling, he prefers to dine alone in his hotel room when he doesn’t have a scheduled engagement with a foreign counterpart.

He does not like to schmooze or engage in lubricating political relationships. He waited for weeks to get on the phone with Senator Tommy Tuberville, Republican of Alabama, when Mr. Tuberville began threatening to put a hold on military nominations to protest the policy Mr. Austin had put in place to ensure that service members would have continued access to abortions and other reproductive medical care.

Mr. Austin’s relationship with the president, before this latest crisis, was believed to be cordial and affectionate, going back to the days when Mr. Biden’s son, Beau Biden, served under Mr. Austin in Iraq. Beau Biden died of brain cancer in 2015.

After Mr. Biden ignored Mr. Austin’s advice not to pull troops out of Afghanistan in 2021, the defense secretary appeared before Congress in the chaotic aftermath and shielded his boss, saying, carefully, only that he did not “support staying in Afghanistan forever.”

When he was head of Central Command, his most high-profile job in the military, Mr. Austin was known as a smart strategist. In meetings at the Pentagon and at the White House, officials say that Mr. Austin demonstrates a command of military strategy and an understanding of the day-to-day issues of the rank and file.

He has been stung by some previous public controversies. After tangling while still in uniform during a hearing in 2015 with Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, over the Obama administration’s policy in Syria, Mr. Austin made headlines when he acknowledged publicly for the first time that a $500 million Pentagon program to train Syrian fighters against the Islamic State had only produced four or five of them.

He rarely bothers to defend himself to political critics. He left it to General Milley to respond to a Republican congressman criticizing the Defense Department for becoming, in his view, too “woke.”

Mr. Austin’s backers said that with his prostate cancer, he was following a military ethos that has been hammered into him his entire work life: Don’t complain. But in keeping quiet about his illness and hospitalization, Mr. Austin threw a huge chunk of red meat to Republican critics of the Biden administration.

There are calls from Republicans in Congress for Mr. Austin to be impeached, there is an investigation underway by the department’s inspector general, and the evolving story of his failure to keep the White House apprised of how his absence could create a gap in the chain of command has been in permanent rotation in the 24-hour television news cycles.

Representative Chris Deluzio of Pennsylvania became the first Democrat in Congress to call for Mr. Austin’s resignation, saying on social media that he had “lost trust in Secretary Lloyd Austin’s leadership of the Defense Department due to the lack of transparency about his recent medical treatment and its impact on the continuity of the chain of command.”

On top of that is the disappointment expressed by Black health advocates that by hiding his cancer, Mr. Austin reinforced the notion that prostate cancer, which affects African American men at a higher rate, is something of which to be ashamed.

“I wish Lloyd Austin a fast cancer recovery, but he set a bad example for Black men,” read the headline of an opinion essay in the Kansas City Star.

“We have now politicized a deeply personal and private issue in a deeply personal and private man,” Adm. Mike Mullen, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said in an interview. “We should move on.”

In the past few days, the Pentagon has become more forthcoming about what Mr. Austin is doing. “Over the last 72 hours, Secretary Austin has been actively engaged in overseeing and directing” the U.S. strikes in Yemen on Thursday night, a Defense Department official wrote in an email to reporters.

The email included a long list of phone calls the secretary had from the hospital.

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

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