Inman draws praise for brains, integrity

December 17, 1993|By Richard H. P. Sia and Carl M. Cannon | Richard H. P. Sia and Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- In choosing retired Adm. Bobby Ray Inman as his secretary of defense, President Clinton is getting a straight-shooting military man with a reputation for integrity so fierce that he has not been afraid to tip off congressmen when he thought his boss was lying.

Mr. Clinton introduced Mr. Inman as the replacement for the outgoing Pentagon chief, Les Aspin, yesterday in a brief and businesslike Rose Garden ceremony that White House aides hope will mark a new beginning for the administation's troubled defense and foreign policy.

"I did not seek the job -- in all honesty, I did not want the job," said Mr. Inman, who volunteered that he voted for George Bush in 1992. "Ultimately, you would ask, then, why am I here?" he continued. He then answered his own question: "Duty and country."

Mr. Inman, with his background in espionage, private enterprise and micro-electronics, appears to be ideally suited to lead the fight to convince Congress and the military to embrace his vision of a leaner, technologically advanced military force.

But the one-time naval intelligence analyst, who dazzled his superiors with a talent for quick interpretation and decision-making, faces the toughest assignment of his career: reconciling the nation's security needs amid forecasts of a $50 billion to $100 billion shortfall in defense budgets over the next five years.

With senior military officers growing restive, concerned about lacking the resources to carry out Mr. Clinton's national security strategy, Mr. Inman inherits an escalating crisis in Korea, ethnic conflict in Bosnia and the former Soviet republics, doubt over the future of NATO and the challenge of managing social change in the military.

But if anyone can do it, key members of Congress and the military establishment said last night, Mr. Inman is the one.

They hailed the selection of the brainy East Texas gas station attendant's son who graduated from college at age 19 and rose through the ranks of the U.S. Navy from ensign to one of the youngest four-star admirals in American history.

'Excellent choice'

"An excellent choice, very popular on Capitol Hill," said Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, the Indiana Democrat who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

"An absolutely superb choice," added Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, a senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Sen. Sam Nunn, chairman of the committee, forecast smooth sailing for the nominee in his confirmation hearings Jan. 25. The Georgia Democrat also touted Mr. Inman's background in business, adding that the Pentagon could benefit from a dose of "solid good business practices."

In his own remarks at the White House, Mr. Inman stressed the same point: "In these last 10 years I've learned a lot about how business works, and I would hope to spend a lot of my time on bringing best business practices to the Department of Defense. My sense . . . is that the public is less concerned about what we're doing overseas or our commitments than whether we are getting a dollar value for a dollar spent in defense."

Senate Republican leader Bob Dole, while lauding Mr. Inman's selection, cautioned that the new secretary will be faced with the same budgetary squeeze that demoralized Mr. Aspin.

"How's he going to do all these things when the president doubled the budget cuts in defense?" Mr. Dole asked. "So, it may not be so much the man, it may be the mission" that's troubling the Pentagon, he said.

But it was the nature of the man that friends and admirers seized on.

Friends and colleagues have always marveled at his ability to recall details of hundreds of intelligence reports as well as the names and faces of people he barely knows -- even years later.

Straight shooter

On Capitol Hill, he is remembered from his days in the Reagan administration as the ultimate straight-shooting military man. While deputy chief of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mr. Inman often would be summoned to testify at the same time as CIA Director William J. Casey, famous for his vague and sometimes misleading testimony.

Mr. Inman would become so agitated during these sessions that members of the congressional oversight committees could almost tell when Mr. Casey was fibbing -- because Mr. Inman would start fidgeting, often tugging on his socks.

Once Sen. Barry Goldwater teased him, saying: "You're an admiral. Can't you afford socks that don't fall down?"

He was born in Rhonesboro, Texas, April 4, 1931, the son of Herman and Mertie Inman.

He once recalled being "a little squirt" in high school, who even then got by on his wits -- he tutored members of the football team. He graduated from Mineola High School at age 15 and majored in history at the University of Texas at Austin, earning a degree four years later.

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