A Level of Discomfort with Admiral Inman

December 24, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston -- Ireally thought we had closed this Nannygate and frankly, I hate to reopen the discussion just to let one of the boys through. You know how women are these days. We're so sensitive. Call us sweetie and we call it harassment. Treat Zoe Baird and Bob Inman differently and we're going to notice.

Almost a year ago, Ms. Baird became the first mother of a preschool child nominated to the Cabinet. Soon, the airwaves were filled with talk of her illegal nanny and unpaid Social Security.

I was among a small minority of people who regarded her offense as minor, rather like smoking without inhaling. But in the eyes of a citizen jury armed with phones and faxes, it was a Capitol crime. Off with her nomination.

Then came Kimba Wood. If Ms. Baird was convicted of smoking without inhaling, Judge Wood was guilty of getting a contact high. She and her husband broke no laws when they hired a child caregiver from Trinidad whose papers had expired. But the whiff of Nannygate in her hair was lethal.

Well, as they say, all's well that ended with Janet Reno.

In the early months of the Clinton administration other boys as well as girls were blocked by the Nannygate. When saner heads finally prevailed, candidates paid their back Social Security taxes for domestic help and passed on through. Including, by the way, Shirley Chater, the new Social Security chief.

Which brings us to Bobby Ray Inman, an independent kind of cuss, who stepped to the mike last week to let us know that (1) he never wanted the job of defense secretary, (2) he voted for George Bush and (3) he interviewed Bill Clinton before he said yes. As Bobby Ray put it: ''I had to reach a level of comfort that we could work together.''

fTC Now appears that Admiral Inman didn't pay Social Security for his domestic help either. Until he took the job.

The differences between Zoe and A friend of George Bush and a friend of the big guys.

Bobby are more than biological. Last January, the lawyer had some reason for confusion with the Byzantine laws. Eleven months after her help problems put the issue on Page One, the former admiral knew better.

His excuse is that he was waiting for the law to change. At the risk of running one metaphor into the ground, that's like smoking while you're waiting for them to legalize the stuff.

Nevertheless, in defense of a single standard, I am no more willing to disqualify Admiral Inman on this small domestic policy than I was to disqualify Ms. Baird. Little housekeeping problems, I fear, keep us from worrying about the big domestic picture.

When the admiral announced that he would deign to take over at Defense, he asked to be judged on his 10 years in business. This is a bit like Gary Hart asking the press to follow him. Since he last said good riddance to Washington, Admiral Inman helped arrange a leveraged buyout that sent one company into bankruptcy and served as a director at another firm that landed him in the middle of a currency-speculation scandal.

Most notably -- to me -- he earned almost $1 million from Tracor, Inc., in 1989. That was the very year the defense-contracting firm was heading for Chapter 11.

If there is something unseemly about rich people chintzing on Social Security for their help, isn't there something unseemly about taking a bundle off the carcass of a company?

The moral issue of the '90s economy is the growing gap between bosses and employees. In J.P. Morgan's day of capitalists run amok, the mogul insisted that none of his CEOs earn more than 20 times the pay of his workers. Today a long list of CEOs earn 100 times more.

In our upside-down world, many business executives get more money if and when they lay off workers. The stock market and the unemployment rolls go up together. And some executives unashamedly collect bonuses while their companies rack up losses.

This much-praised graduate of the military-industrial complex (thank you Dwight David Eisenhower) says ''I would hope to spend a lot of my time on bringing the best business practices to the Department of Defense.'' Just which business practices are those, sir?

Admiral Inman has a reputation as a straight-talking, principled Pentagon man. But the choices facing us are between cutting social programs or the Pentagon. They're about stretching military dollars and making cuts as painless for the most people as possible. These are questions of values as well as efficiency.

We know that Bob Inman slipped up on his personal housekeeping, but how's he going to keep house at the Pentagon? ''I am an operator,'' he says. A friend of George Bush and a friend of the big guys. Well, as Admiral Inman might put it, I still need to ''reach a level of comfort'' with all that.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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