A one-lane road winds through the red-rock Wichita Mountains of southwestern Oklahoma, past cattle and buffalo ranches to the city of Hobart, population 4,000. On Main Street, across from the county's history museum and right next to the farm bureau, is a storefront bearing a sign that says, "General Tommy Franks Leadership Institute and Museum."
I enter with some 50 students representing 30 states and the country of Jordan. They are attending Four Star Leadership with General Tommy Franks, a weeklong program that is free to participants, who have been handpicked by their high school advisers for their leadership potential. The students are black, white, Latino, Asian, male, and female; diversity, as they've already learned, is a major theme of the week. We immediately find ourselves facing the gift shop, which sells polo shirts and coffee mugs bearing the institute's insignia, as well as hardback copies of American Soldier, the autobiography of the former head of the U.S. Central Command. Past the gift shop is a room filled with challenge coins and military awards. Inside the main hall, the first thing we see is Franks's combat uniform, complete with boots on the ground.
There are exhibits dedicated to Franks's early years in Oklahoma, and to his teens in Texas. There's a copy of his transcript from the University of Texas (Austin), which reveals him to have been a tremendously mediocre student. He got four F's, including one in PE. These are failures Franks happily acknowledges. He is willing, even eager, to tell the world what a lousy student he was, because it sets up what happened next: He became a leader in spite of it. Hard to argue with that.
The display devoted to Franks's career up until September 11 could be titled the Hall of Swag: gifts he received as an officer in Europe and Asia, starting with the obligatory ceremonial swords and building to a sidecar motorcycle that once belonged to Jordan's King Abdullah II. Nearby, some stock video of the burning twin towers and the Pentagon runs on a loop.
What there isn't, in this small-town museum built by the man who led the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, is anything about either campaign that one wouldn't expect to find in a coloring book on the conflicts. The Iraq War is summarized on a three-paragraph placard, supplemented with objects that are meant to speak for themselves: a pinstripe suit Donald Rumsfeld wore as Defense secretary; a dress Condoleezza Rice donned as secretary of State; the Carhartt jacket President George W. Bush often sported while clearing brush on his Crawford ranch; a video called The Decision, which shows Bush conferring for a final prewar sign-off with his military leaders and advisers, including Franks, Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, and Dick Cheney.
He is willing, even eager, to tell the world what a lousy student he was, because it sets up what happened next: He became a leader in spite of it.
The latest round of turmoil in Iraq has led some of the original cast members from the Global War on Terror to reinsert themselves into the national foreign policy debate. Their theme, with variations, has gone something like this: We did the right thing, and President Obama squandered our efforts. Cheney, with his no-regrets tour of Washington last month, has been the most visible and vocal of the group, but there have also been noteworthy cameos from Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Paul Bremer, and Doug Feith—the man whom Franks, according to Bob Woodward's 2002 book, Bush at War, openly regarded as the "stupidest fucking guy in the world." Franks, however, hasn't come forward to defend The Decision or its aftermath. He's been here in Hobart, far from the fray.
Michael Hayes, who served as Franks's chief of staff at CENTCOM and continues to function as his right-hand man, tells me that he declines multiple interview requests each week on Franks's behalf. He says the retired general sees no value in weighing in from the sidelines (although, during the 2012 presidential campaign, Franks did endorse Mitt Romney and publicly criticize Obama's foreign policy approach). When I contacted Hayes earlier this summer, expressing my interest in writing about the general's life in Oklahoma, Hayes told me I was welcome to visit, but that Franks would not speak with me.
Franks, like Bush, is among the few Iraq War protagonists who seem to have taken to heart a key piece of their critics' advice: Shut up and go home. Later today, in a part of the country where no Code Pink protester is likely to roam, Franks will speak about leadership to an audience that was in kindergarten when the ground invasion began. His legacy-building efforts are focused on the future, not the past. Is the path he's chosen simply easier, or is it actually nobler than the route many of his peers have taken? I want to find out what he thinks about that.
Franks, as much as anybody involved in Bush's Mideast campaigns, departed the national scene with his leadership in question. He was blamed for blowing the chance to kill Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Tora Bora, and later for failing to properly prepare for the postwar reconstruction effort in Iraq. Tom Ricks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent, concluded that Franks was one of the worst American generals ever, the prototype for the military brass's post-9/11 myopia. "In fairness to Tommy—he did exactly what the U.S. Army trained him to do—he deployed planes and tanks and took ground," Ricks once wrote. "He had zero training in anything else."
Following his retirement in 2003, Franks cowrote the bestselling American Soldier—the one book he had in him, according to Hayes—which did little to push back against his critics. (Tora Bora is barely mentioned.) He then moved with his wife to the Oklahoma cattle ranch she inherited from her family. They built a big house. They raise organic livestock. They sell some of the beef to Whole Foods. Unlike a number of other retired military officers, Franks has abstained from the lucrative work of defense contracting, but he's made money in other ways. He has served on the boards of directors for Bank of America (from which he resigned in the wake of the bank bailouts), Chuck E. Cheese, and, most recently, U.S. Rare Earths, a mineral-extraction firm that paid him $1.46 million in stock. He is most involved these days with Musco Lighting, a privately held company based in Iowa that illuminates major sporting venues. Hayes told me that Franks has used his Middle East connections to usher in new business opportunities for the company, such as its lighting work for the Formula 1 racetrack in Abu Dhabi.
And then there's the institute, a labor of love for which Franks is unpaid. It conducts workshops and seminars year-round, and is built on the premise that Franks was, and is, more than a military leader—that what he has to teach on the subject of leadership applies to everyone from corporate CEOs to JV quarterbacks. The Four Star summer program is cosponsored by the National Center for Policy Analysis, a Dallas-based right-wing think tank. Most of the classes and lectures take place at Oklahoma Christian University, outside Oklahoma City. The students get policy briefings from NCPA experts and pep talks from politicians and minor celebrities. Allen West, the former tea-party House member, gave the keynote address this year, following in the footsteps of Karl Rove and King Abdullah. The teens write op-eds and persuasive speeches; they debate. And they visit the museum in Hobart. Friends of the former general offered to build a museum for him in Los Angeles or New York , but Franks declined.
Outside the museum is a large trailer that serves as a mobile classroom, displaying a rotating collection of items Franks acquired in the Mideast. The institute takes it to middle schools throughout the state to teach the virtues of diversity—a topic that also turns out to be the theme of today's lunch. As the students eat barbecue in a nearby assembly hall, a group of local Native Americans, dressed in tribal garb, lead the audience in a Christian prayer and then dance to Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA." Then the students gather for a Q&A session with Franks, who sits onstage in front of a floor-to-ceiling American flag, at ease in blue jeans and short sleeves.
"Do any of you have a good idea why I thought it would be good to have those Indian dancers?" he asks. "It's kind of like, [any] amount of work we do that can show us that everybody is not the same is good for us, right? I mean, we can like Indian dancing or not like it—it doesn't make any difference. The idea behind that is not to impress you; the idea behind that is to build your tolerance."
There are more lessons in store—about Franks's "misspent youth," the American Dream, the ingenuity of Musco lighting. He offers anecdotes. He tells jokes. He teaches mnemonics, such as FEISTY: F (focus) E (energy) I (integrity) S ("solve the problem, don't be the problem") T (take the blame) Y ("Yes, I'll do windows"). He speaks to an audience of young people who will know him as he presents himself today, not as he was in the past, or has been portrayed by others.
"Aside from capturing media attention, aside from attempting to perpetuate the legacy of something, what value does that have? I really am not interested in self-aggrandizement."
After the speech, I approach Franks to introduce myself. He smiles as he shakes my hand and agrees to take a few questions. I ask why he's been avoiding the press. Doesn't he have something to add to the conversation?
"What would that do for my country?" he responds, in a tone at once avuncular and scornful. "You are a bright young man, and you can come up with an answer just as readily as I—and that is, it would serve no purpose," he continues. "Aside from capturing media attention, aside from attempting to perpetuate the legacy of something, what value does that have? I really am not interested in self-aggrandizement."
What, then, does that say of Cheney and the others? I ask. "There are large personalities involved in America, in our government, and Vice President Cheney and a number of other people rightly believe that they had it right. And they rightly believe—well, I won't say rightly—I'll say they also believe that many of the actions that are ongoing right now are not the right actions to take, so they feel an obligation to straighten out the world and to offer alternatives to what is being done right now."
A queue has formed behind me, and Hayes is giving me the wrap-it-up look, so I sneak in a final question (about Edward Snowden, who Franks says he thinks acted more for personal gain than for country), and Franks bids me farewell. Then he turns his attention to the students who have lined up to shake his hand.
This article appears in the August 2, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Staying Out of It.