March 06, 1978 12:00 PM

David came home early, and led me upstairs to our bedroom,” Deborah Owen remembers. “He said, very quietly, ‘The Prime Minister has made me Foreign Secretary.’ My stomach went into knots.” Deborah was not the only person in England with that reaction. Her husband, David Anthony Llewellyn Owen, a doctor turned politician, had just vaulted over his Labour party elders, men with far more experience, to become, at 38, the youngest head of the Foreign Office since Anthony Eden in 1935. Owen, who was Minister of State for European Community Affairs at the time, was more “stunned,” if possible, than anyone else at being picked to replace Anthony Crosland, who had died two days earlier of a stroke. But he was certain he could do the job.

That was a year ago. Since then Owen has propelled himself onto the world’s stage as the most visible, peripatetic British Foreign Secretary in a generation. Last March he accompanied Prime Minister James Callaghan to Washington to chart Anglo-American policy for Africa, and while there he consulted with that other champion of human rights, Jimmy Carter. In late summer Owen and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Andrew Young went to Salisbury, Pretoria and neighboring African capitals, trying to solve the intractable racial problems of southern Africa. Owen has also turned up in Madrid, Belgrade and Moscow.

Clearly, David Owen is a quick learner, a man in a hurry, the most dynamic representative of a new British generation that is liberated from the agonies of losing an empire and believes in practicing realism. By the time he took office, Britain had bottomed out after three decades of adjusting its priorities to its diminished power and sluggish economy. In the past year, though, the pound has rebounded, benefiting from an improved trade balance and North Sea oil, and Owen finds himself with more maneuverability than any Foreign Secretary in years. His optimism is tempered, however. “One wonders if some of these problems will ever be resolved,” he says of the southern African nettle he has grasped. “But we will go on trying.” He believes Britain should retain its nuclear deterrent, even if it has an admittedly marginal influence on world affairs. “I am sufficiently arrogant to believe we have better judgment than the superpowers,” he says. Britain and the Labour party find this kind of talk refreshing.

When not picking apart his politics, London’s mostly pro-Tory newspapers can be positively gushy about Owen. “SO SEXY! THAT’S THE DISHY DOC,” marveled one headline. A trim six-footer with an unruly forelock and a bedside charm, he does possess uncommonly good looks as well as charisma. Yet Owen does have some warts of temperament, and he is disarmingly frank about them. He can be brusque and impatient with people who are ill prepared, and at times his manner is as condescending as the crustiest Tory’s. “I can be wounding,” he muses. “I bite back, which upsets me.” A master of the parry and thrust of parliamentary debate, he thrives on speaking off the cuff, but does not like mouthing a prepared text. “I’m very bad at it,” he admits.

Owen has an asset in his wife, Deborah, 36, who is the daughter of Kyrill Schabert, a wealthy New York publisher (Dr. Zhivago, The Leopard) and co-founder of Pantheon Books. They met 10 years ago at a Manhattan mixer given by the English-Speaking Union for a group of British MPs who were observing the New Hampshire primary. She saw Owen again that summer in London, and he wooed and won her with a transatlantic telephone call soon after. Their own English-speaking union was solemnized in St. James, L.I. the following December.

An American wife is not unprecedented among British cabinet members—Crosland’s widow, Susan, is Baltimore-born—but, after nearly a decade in Britain, Deborah Owen finds that the traditional reserve did not disappear with the Empire. “You will always be on the outside, always be an alien,” she says. Since her marriage Deborah has continued her career as an international literary agent and has retained her U.S. citizenship.

With their sons, Tristan, 7, and Gareth, 5, the Owens present as attractive a portrait of a youthful family in public life as any since the Kennedys. (Asked where he ranks JFK among Presidents, Owen says, “Quite low down.”) There has also been a touch of Camelot poignance since the discovery four years ago that Tristan suffers from lymphoblastic leukemia. “In some ways,” says Owen, “it should be a comfort that a child who had leukemia at 3 is still alive at 7. To all intents and purposes, he is normal. It is a problem we live with as others do.” (Owen’s mother observes: “This is what has aged David, not the job.”) He has donated royalties from his book, In Sickness and in Health—the Politics of Medicine, to the Leukemia Research Fund.

Owen was born into a Welsh family that had settled in the Plymouth suburb of Plympton. His father, John Owen, was a family doctor (he is retired) and his mother, Molly, a dentist. David’s sister Susan, who is 41 and the mother of three, is a part-time social worker. During World War II, while Dr. John Owen was serving as a medical officer in North Africa and Italy, Molly and the children were evacuated to Mon-mouthshire, where David’s grandfather, a blind Anglican vicar, had him reading lessons from the pulpit at the age of 6. Like his granddad, Molly notes, her son has “a strong Puritan streak and is a bit of a scholar.”

The family often discussed health and education issues, and after the war Molly won a seat on the Devon County Council as an Independent. “I was not a rebel,” says Owen of his political orientation. “In America, if you are a doctor or come from a middle-class family, no one automatically assumes you are a Republican. In Britain, the assumption is you vote Tory. But with the Celtic fringe in Scotland and Wales, the middle class tends to be more on the left. ‘No one votes Tory,’ goes a saying in Wales, ‘without a stiff drink before and afterward.’ It goes back to the history of the miners, to the exploitation of the valleys.”

After a boarding school education at Mount House (where he captained the cricket, rugby and soccer teams) and Bradfield, David entered Cambridge University. In 1956, while completing his premedical studies, he was stirred politically for the first time. The cause was the Hungarian uprising. “It was about people, freedom and values,” he says. “Very emotional, really.” When David was 21, his parents helped finance a three-and-a-half-month Land-Rover expedition to Asia. A highlight of the trip, which he recounted for readers of the local Western Morning News, was squatting by a fire with Cambridge chums and Afghan nomads, sipping goat’s milk and smoking a communal water pipe. Owen took his final medical degrees at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London. The conditions in National Health Service hospitals and the squalor he encountered on house calls appalled the young medic, and further canted his tilt to the left.

In 1964, the year Owen was appointed to a top neurological and psychiatric post at St. Thomas’, he stood for Parliament as Labour candidate in Torrington, a traditional Conservative seat in rural North Devon. He lost, but made a good showing, and political fever had him in its grip. “I saw a lot of my friends who were doctors becoming medical vegetables,” he says. “They were leading very hard lives and soon were cut off from the world. You exist in a totally medical environment, and I wanted to do something to take me out and widen me. This seemed a good way.” Two years later, at 27, Owen unseated an incumbent Tory MP in a Plymouth constituency.

He won early notoriety by acknowledging that he coached abortion-seeking patients to tell their doctors that they were desperate and contemplating suicide. A Tory MP accused Owen of directing women “to lie and cheat.” The next year he quit medicine altogether, and on his 30th birthday he entered the government of Harold Wilson as Navy Under Secretary. Shortly thereafter he put an end to the 283-year-old tradition that British seamen receive a tot of rum every day. Grumbles were heard, but only from below decks. Politically, Owen was on his way.

As Foreign Secretary and as representative of a district that is not exactly safe politically, the Rt. Hon. Dr. Owen is a frequent commuter between two worlds. The distance between London and the dockyards of Plymouth (pop. 259,000) is only 216 miles, but the journey is a quantum leap. In the gilded opulence of his Whitehall office, with its Renaissance-style hanging lamp and 21-foot-high ceiling, Owen receives visiting statesmen and presides over Her Majesty’s diplomatic corps, which numbers 5,000. At local party headquarters in Plymouth, he holds his weekend “advice bureau”—or, as some style it, “surgery”—in an 11-by-12-foot room lit by a single fluorescent tube. There Owen listens to the mundane problems of as many as 40 constituents in one sitting. In London, he worries over black majority rule in Africa, Common Market affairs, the Atlantic Alliance, Anglo-American relations. In Plymouth, the agenda includes tax and pension problems, employment in the naval dockyards, evictions, the loss of a driver’s license.

Instead of occupying the Foreign Secretary’s sumptuous official residence in Carlton Gardens, the Owens remain in their modest townhouse in the dockside district of Limehouse. Owen renovated the place, once a dilapidated cafe, in his bachelor days. On weekends the family repairs to a restored rectory in Wiltshire, where Debbie cooks low-calorie meals (the Foreign Secretary is a weight watcher) and the boys perch on red leather dispatch cases from the Foreign Office. To relax, Owen watches Western films on the telly, reads, fishes and sails. But invariably a telephone call from Prime Minister Callaghan or Secretary of State Cyrus Vance interrupts.

David Owen has a scant five years’ experience as a government minister (this is his first cabinet post), but he is candid about his ambition to go higher—specifically, to No. 10 Downing Street as Queen Elizabeth’s Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury. Still four months short of 40, he has time on his side. “There are some who know me well who will say I am one of the least ambitious people,” he says. “Others, if you choose the right ones, will say I am a very political animal, and I won’t dissent from that. Most Welshmen are. Anyone who comes into politics wants to be the one who has the greatest influence. Therefore, one wants to be in No. 10.”

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