Retired Navy Adm. James D. Watkins, 85, who displayed independence in politically charged waters as energy secretary under President George H.W. Bush and as chairman of an influential commission on the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s, died Thursday at his home in Alexandria, Va.

He had congestive heart failure, said his wife, Janet Watkins.

As chief of naval operations from 1982 to 1986, Adm. Watkins served as the Navy's top-ranking officer and representative on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was considered an architect of the Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative, the proposed missile shield.

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan named him to lead the President's Commission on the HIV Epidemic. A Catholic and Republican, Adm. Watkins was an unlikely candidate for the panel. In addition, he said his experience dealing with HIV/AIDS was limited.

By many accounts, Adm. Watkins' stewardship was credited with reinvigorating the panel and issuing strong recommendations to address the unfolding public-health calamity that had long been underplayed by the Reagan White House.

Adm. Watkins, who was born in Alhambra, Calif., graduated in 1949 from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

He served as commander in chief of the Pacific forces before becoming chief of naval operations.

His decorations include two awards of the Defense Distinguished Service Medal; three awards of the Navy Distinguished Service Medal; three awards of the Legion of Merit, and the Bronze Star.

In 1989, Bush tapped Adm. Watkins to revamp the Energy Department. As secretary, he aimed to renovate the department's crumbling facilities responsible for building nuclear weapons.

During the early 2000s, Adm. Watkins was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve as chair of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy.

- Washington Post