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'Showtime' for Texas general

Tommy Franks is leading U.S. forces into war

WASHINGTON — Rarely do so many people who have been chewed out by one man have such nice things to say about him. Or such eagerness to excuse his salty language.

And rarely is a military commander so comfortable in his skin that he can embrace the nickname "Pooh" and declare, "I think it's kind of cute."

Gen. Tommy Franks, the Texan who is leading American troops into war with Iraq, is 6 feet 3 inches of hard-charging brass and soft drawl.

He's a "down-to-earth, no-nonsense guy," says President Bush. A believer in the military's "blue-collar workers," in his own words.

Yet those descriptions leave out much about Tommy Franks.

He is a diplomat who has vacationed at the seaside palace of Jordan's royal family. He's a student of history who quotes the teachings of ancient military strategist Sun Tzu. He's a college dropout who joined the Army at 20 because he knew he needed to grow up.

"Anybody who mistakes that slow, Texas drawl for anything other than the sharpest of minds is making an incredibly bad mistake," says retired Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, who worked under Franks until June.

Right now, some of the world's biggest problems are at Franks' feet.

As leader of the military's Central Command, Franks worked with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to draw up war plans for Iraq, while trying to keep order in postwar Afghanistan and coordinating U.S. military operations in 23 other nations stretching from the Horn of Africa into Central Asia.

Even Franks' 5-year-old granddaughter, who dubbed him "Pooh," pesters him about why he hasn't found Osama bin Laden.

Franks, 57, says he is living the American dream to be in this spot at this time.

If so, it is a dream sequence on fast-forward, requiring what Franks has called a need for "rapid thoughtfulness."

Just months after Franks took charge of Central Command in July 2000, suicide bombers blew a hole in the USS Cole as it refueled in Yemen, killing 17 American sailors. It was Franks who had approved Yemen as the refueling site, a decision questioned by some in Congress because of anti-American sentiment in that country.

The Cole attack gave a sample of the worldwide terror threat that came home to America on Sept. 11, 2001. On Sept. 12, Franks got the order from Rumsfeld to draw up military options for the president. Less than a month later, on Oct. 7, the airstrikes in Afghanistan began.

The deepening creases on Franks' face trace the strains of his job.

David Foster, a childhood pal and second cousin to the boy known as Tommy Ray, says the wear and tear were visible when Franks visited his hometown of Midland in the fall.

"You could see the stiffness in him from everything he was going through," says Foster, who went dove hunting and went out for Mexican food with Franks. "He was stiff-military, didn't move much."

Retired Army Gen. Crosbie Saint, who has known Franks for two decades and been something of a mentor, says Franks still calls from time to time to talk through problems.

"He's like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs."

A driven leader

Franks drives himself hard. On a typical day, he throttles his pickup truck to CentCom headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., before dawn. He's already read the overnight intelligence reports while exercising on his treadmill. He meets senior staff by 7 a.m., and the first phone call of the day often is to Rumsfeld. Then come video conferences with senior generals across Franks' 25-country area of responsibility, more refining of the Iraq war plans, briefings, phone calls and e-mail late into the night.

Sometimes he'll manage a quick trip home for lunch with his wife of 33 years, Cathy, his "anchor."

That relationship was examined in a new light when a Pentagon investigation explored allegations that he had let her sit in on classified briefings and did not properly compensate the government for her travel.

The investigation found she was present during discussion of classified information she was not entitled to hear but cleared him on the other matters. Rumsfeld will decide whether to take action.

In the buildup against Iraq, Franks divided his time between Florida and the Persian Gulf, with frequent trips to Washington for consultations with Bush and Rumsfeld, by all accounts a demanding boss who wades deep into the details of war-making.

Franks, in an interview with the Associated Press, said his back-and-forth with Rumsfeld "serves us pretty well."

But his tenure has not been without its critics, particularly early in the Afghan war, when questions were raised about whether he was innovative enough for a 21st century enemy like the al-Qaida terrorist network. Some questioned why al-Qaida fighters were able to slip away into Pakistan. Some even wondered if Franks would keep his job.

"Not overwhelmingly impressive" is still the assessment of retired Gen. Merrill McPeak, the top Air Force general during the Gulf War. "He sometimes seems to want to come across as one of these aw-shucks, sneaky-smart kind of guys. It's impossible to judge whether he's really sneaky-smart, or sneaky-average."

But the sniping at Franks largely subsided as the Taliban were routed from Afghanistan. Bush and Rumsfeld made clear their support for the general.

Overseas, too, Franks has the confidence of heads of state, some of whom count him as a friend. King Abdullah II of Jordan gave Franks a Harley-Davidson after discovering their shared interest in motorcycles; Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf calls him often; Egypt's Hosni Mubarak received Franks on short notice in Cairo when bad weather forced the general to change his route home from his regional command post in Qatar in January.

Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a ground commander in the Gulf War, says Franks "has been in charge of people, machinery and money since he was barely out of high school. . . . The bottom line is he knows what he's doing. I can't imagine he's losing much sleep at night."

Even so, Franks, a striking figure in his desert "cammies," black beret and sunglasses, has been reluctant to invite public attention. "Tommy Franks is no Norman Schwarzkopf," he volunteers, referring to the media-savvy Gulf War commander.

Deceptively creative

Those who have served with Franks over the years say critics who cast him as too conventional haven't watched him closely enough.

"He was always looking for a better way to solve a problem or make the war-fighting work better," says Saint. "The criticism of him not being creative or being old-school could be more a reflection of his haircut and Texas drawl than of his thought process."

Retired Lt. Gen. Randall Rigby, who has known Franks since they were neighbors in Germany in the 1980s, says that even when they were having a beer on the back porch, the discussion "would always come back to our profession" and how the military could do its job better.

Talk to his old military comrades, and most can recall being chewed out.

"Down and dirty" is how Rigby remembers it.

Even Saint, who was several links up the chain of the command, remembers Franks being willing to argue his side of any disagreement. "He'd lay it on you."

A late bloomer

Like the president, Tommy Ray Franks grew up in Midland, attending the same high school as first lady Laura Bush, who was a year behind him. Franks' principal at Robert E. Lee High School, Leslie Hinds, remembers him as utterly ordinary, one of those people who don't "start blossoming" until adulthood.

Tommy Ray loved fast cars, Elvis and hunting, says Foster, who looked up to his nine-years-older cousin.

After two years of what Franks describes as "abysmal" grades at the University of Texas at Austin, he joined the Army and was soon an artillery lieutenant bound for Vietnam, where his injuries earned him three Purple Hearts.

Even halfway around the world, Franks always was tethered to his family. Foster recalls the family opening presents at precisely 8 a.m. on Christmas so Franks would know just what was happening back home.

After Vietnam, Franks intended to leave the military but stayed on when he was selected for the Army's "Bootstrap" degree completion program for promising officers. He attended the University of Texas at Arlington — this time, a model student.

On the march to four stars, the military has taken Franks from one world hot spot to another — the DMZ in Korea, a changing Europe, the Iraqi desert during Desert Storm. His commendations have included four Legion of Merit medals, three Bronze Stars with "V" for valor, an Air Medal with "V" and an Army Commendation Medal with "V."

Military comrades speak of a straight-shooting leader attuned to his soldiers and willing to share credit, of a cigar-smoking country music fan with self-effacing humor, a love of practical jokes and a colorful vocabulary.

"He's very profane, but he's profane in a humorous sort of way," says retired Army Maj. Gen. Leo Baxter, who has known Franks since the 1970s.

"A little bit like Harry Truman," says former deputy defense secretary Rudy deLeon.

Franks the prankster has been known to dump water or prop a piece of fruit on the head of anyone who dares fall asleep during the 15-hour flight from Tampa to Qatar. On one recent flight, he plopped himself down in the lap of a snoozing senior aide, startling the latest victim of his horseplay.

It is a tension reliever from a high-pressure job that allows Franks little time for golf, antiques and doting on his two grandchildren from his only child, daughter Jacqy.

Franks does still manage to follow the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers closely. When the Bucs made it to the Super Bowl in January, the general had the game beamed to his Pakistan hotel at 4 a.m.

Bucs team captain John Lynch, a friend, says the first e-mail he received after the team's Super Bowl victory was the general's congratulatory message from Pakistan.

"He's been in our locker room a lot in the last couple of years," says Lynch. "The guys get fired up when he comes in."

Franks brings the same enthusiasm to his own work.

Stepping off his plane on arrival in Qatar recently, the general shouted into the night air to no one in particular, "Showtime!"