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.

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