Bowing Out with a Bang

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Many likened him to Ross Perot. Pop-fiction addicts recalled Captain Queeg of The Caine Mutiny. Others believed Admiral Bobby Ray Inman to be an intelligence expert who had lived so long in the hidden world of spies that he now saw plots everywhere. But these were mere nuances to the majority opinion: Inman, explaining why he was withdrawing as nominee to be Secretary of Defense, produced a bizarre TV classic -- an utterly convincing, because utterly unintentional, portrayal of himself as paranoid.

How else could one explain his insistence that he was a target of a "new McCarthyism" by the press? Inman named only three columnist critics, just one of whom had been harsh. Most press reaction to his appointment had in fact been admiring, even excessively so.

And what was one to make of his contention that New York Times columnist William Safire and Senate Republican leader Bob Dole had cooked up a deal: Safire would "turn up the heat" on the Whitewater scandal if Dole would take a "partisan look" at the nominee? Inman says he heard that from two Senators, but hardly anyone in Washington believed there was any conspiracy. "I think he was given bad information," says Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, a close friend. Others speculated that Inman had read implications of hostility into one of Dole's wisecracks. The admiral has never disclosed his party affiliation. Dole quipped that he seemed to be a "Gergen Republican" -- and Inman cited that remark on TV.

There were other explanations for Inman's behavior -- in particular, speculation that he bowed out because he feared disclosure of some damaging secret. But what could it be? Whispers have been going around Washington that Inman is a closet gay. Inman, however, has met them head on. He told the ABC- TV affiliate back home in Austin, Texas, that he is not homosexual, but "I have gay friends. I deliberately ((sought them out)) to try to understand them . . . If that starts rumors, so be it."

Commentators raised three other matters: Inman's failure to pay taxes on wages of a housekeeper; the 1988 bankruptcy of Tracor, a major defense manufacturer, after an investment group headed by Inman bought it out; and a letter to a judge defending the patriotism of James Guerin, a businessman who had been convicted of illegal sales of weapons technology to South Africa.

Safire opines that "Inman was protecting himself" against disclosures about "his defense-related business activities over the last 10 years" and that his fulminations against the press were "a smoke screen." But it is not at all certain that anything remains to be discovered. The basic facts, and Inman's responses, have long been a matter of public record. In an interview with TIME, Inman stressed his extreme reluctance to take the job in the first place -- which helps explain his hypersensitivity to criticism that someone avid for Cabinet rank might shrug off. He says he became so tense and grouchy in intelligence work that it took the first 10 of his 12 years in private life for him to relax. His wife Nancy had begun to make a career for herself as a photographer and dreaded returning to Washington. On Dec. 14, says Inman, he called the White House to refuse the job offer; it took 15 hours of argument by Secretary of State Warren Christopher, an old friend, and two White House aides to change his mind.

Inman then packed the family -- Nancy, two grown sons and a daughter-in-law -- off to Vail, Colorado, for some skiing. Over the kitchen table in their vacation home, the family perused daily copies of the Early Bird, a Pentagon summary of press clippings that was faxed to them. Inman thought he heard a drum roll of growing criticism that might not have stopped confirmation but could have aborted his major project: instituting reforms in procurement that would save enough billions so the Pentagon's budgets could be stretched far enough to cover its weapons-buying plans. On Jan. 8 he wrote a letter of withdrawal, though he delayed the announcement until after President Clinton's European trip.

To most other observers, the criticism amounted to popgun shots drowned out by a 21-gun salute from most of the press and the Washington establishment. During much of his government career -- as head of Naval Intelligence and later of the supersecret National Security Agency, and finally, in 1980-81, as No. 2 at the CIA -- Inman had been a liaison between the intelligence community, the press and Congress. He was highly regarded by journalists -- including Strobe Talbott, then a TIME correspondent, now Clinton's choice to be Deputy Secretary of State -- and on Capitol Hill as a rare source who always returned phone calls and discussed intelligence matters with remarkable candor and accuracy. It was, in fact, the prospect of having a Pentagon chief who would win bipartisan applause in the press and Congress that led Clinton to accept the urgings of Christopher, Talbott, David Gergen and others to select Inman.

Friends say, though, that Inman always had a thin skin. As an intelligence officer he managed to stay in the background, giving information to the press and Congress mostly on a not-for-attribution basis. But as a nominee for the Cabinet, he began reading criticisms of himself by name and went ballistic.

Of the three columnists Inman named as engaging in personal attacks, however, Anthony Lewis of the New York Times and Ellen Goodman of the Boston Globe mainly questioned his judgment, and in not overly harsh language. After Inman's press conference, Goodman quipped that "maybe he was auditioning for the starring role in 'The Prince and the Pea' " -- an allusion to the fairy tale about a princess so sensitive that even a single pea under a pile of mattresses would keep her from sleeping.

Safire, in a column Dec. 23, called Inman "manipulative and deceptive . . . a flop . . . arrogant" and accused him of telling one "transparent lie." There has been bad blood between the two for more than a decade. Inman says it began when, at the CIA, he canceled Israeli access to some U.S. intelligence data. Safire, he says, fruitlessly protested to Inman's boss, William Casey. Safire denies it. He says he aroused Inman's fury by fingering him as the source who told journalists falsely that Israel was trying to provoke the U.S. into an attack on Libya. Inman says he did no such thing.

Safire is probably the most influential columnist in Washington, admired and feared as one of the few whose pieces reflect hard-digging reporting as well as strong personal views. But he denies conducting a vendetta against Inman. "I don't think I've written more than three columns about Inman in the last 10 years," he says. But outside the Beltway, many thought Inman's decision highlighted a growing personal nastiness in press and political discourse that might keep able and sensible people out of public office.

After watching Inman's TV performance, a White House official voiced a common opinion: "Better now than in three months," when Inman might have been confirmed and actually running the Pentagon. Clinton's aides turn aside any suggestions that they and the President misjudged Inman with an and- you're-another argument. Says an aide to the President: "It's pretty hard for the media, after heaping all that praise on him, to say the White House should have known." Nonetheless, the Inman debacle, coming after Zoe Baird, Kimba Wood, Lani Guinier and the present Defense Secretary, Les Aspin, cannot help casting new doubt on Clinton's ability to make selections he does not come to regret.

Inman's self-immolation also leaves a gaping hole in the Cabinet. Already two of the President's prospective top choices have declined to be considered: Sam Nunn, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Warren Rudman, a former Republican Senator from New Hampshire. (Their public refusals were also embarrassing to the White House, which countered by saying neither had been formally offered the job.) Much speculation now centers on William Perry, a Deputy Secretary of Defense who met with Clinton for an hour on Friday and is highly regarded both at the Pentagon and in Congress. Whoever is chosen had better be able to absorb sharp criticism. It would also be a relief if both the future Secretary and the critics would argue about policy and not only about personality.