WASHINGTON -- Forcing the White House to renew its search for a new defense secretary, retired Adm. Bobby Ray Inman publicly withdrew his nomination yesterday at an extraordinary news conference in which he accused a columnist and Senate Republicans of plotting against him.
In a rambling, often contradictory statement in Austin, Texas, the former deputy CIA director complained of a climate of "modern McCarthyism" and said that he was withdrawing his name because of unrebutted "distortions on my record, my character and my reputation."
Mr. Inman, 62, was tapped by President Clinton last month to replace Defense Secretary Les Aspin, whose one-year tenure at the Pentagon was plagued by one misstep after another.
Mr. Inman's withdrawal means the Pentagon will have a lame duck in charge as the Clinton administration prepares its defense budget and continues to struggle with its relationship with the military.
Mr. Clinton, who received a five-paragraph letter from Mr. Inman explaining his withdrawal last week, accepted his decision yesterday and replied in a letter that "he was saddened that our nation will be denied your service."
Kathleen deLaski, the Pentagon spokeswoman, said Mr. Aspin had agreed to remain "until a new person is confirmed."
White House officials said that the search for a replacement had not started in earnest but that two in-house candidates, R. James Woolsey, the director of central intelligence, and Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Perry, were being considered.
Smiling incongruously even as he revealed great bitterness, Mr. Inman lashed out yesterday at his critics in the press and those who might attack him in the Senate, saying the message from "the Eastern seaboard" was that you have to expect criticism as
"the daily cost of public service."
Singles out Safire
He singled out one newspaper, the New York Times, and its columnist, William Safire, for giving him grief. He also said he had heard -- though he refused to say where -- that Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas was pressuring colleagues to turn up the heat on him during his confirmation hearings.
At one point, Mr. Inman suggested he had information that linked Mr. Dole and Mr. Safire in a conspiracy to defame both Mr. Inman and Mr. Clinton.
"There were reports, which both will probably deny, that there was a trade between Mr. Safire and Senator Dole; that if Senator Dole would turn up the heat on my nomination that Safire would turn up the heat on Whitewater Development," he said.
Mr. Clinton last week named an independent counsel to investigate his investment in an Arkansas land deal while he was governor.
"Whether it's true or not," Mr. Inman said, "I believed it was true on the 6th [of January], and that's the day I said, 'I don't need this . . .' "
Mr. Safire said through an aide that he would respond in his column, but Mr. Dole laughed aloud and said, "He probably is not qualified to be secretary of defense if he has fantasies like that."
Mr. Dole also termed Mr. Inman's stated reasons for withdrawing "a pretty weak excuse," and spoke for many in Washington when speculated that there must be something else.
RTC "There's something strange about that [resignation] letter," said Mr. Dole. "I don't know what it is, but it's not the reason he quit."
No other reason
In a CNN interview after his press conference, Mr. Inman was asked point-blank if there were any other reasons, anything else that might come out. "The answer is no, none," he replied.
Earlier, during his news conference, Mr. Inman volunteered that he had refused to withdraw from the all-male Bohemian Club, something that would have caused embarrassment, but not disqualification, on the Hill.
Mr. Inman clearly hoped to launch a debate on journalistic ethics, but the tenor of his remarks struck even old friends as self-absorbed and paranoid.
"This is a theory that ranks right up there with [Ross] Perot's allegation that [President] Bush was going to disrupt his daughter's wedding," said Arizona Republican Sen. John S. McCain, a former admiral who, until yesterday, was counted as one of Mr. Inman's staunchest admirers.
"I can state with absolute certainty that there was not one Republican member of the Armed Services Committee that was not in support of Admiral Inman's nomination," he said.
Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, another Republican senator who praised the nomination when it was made Dec. 16, said Admiral Inman "raised a lot of questions about himself in that press conference that did not exist one day ago."
Mr. Inman claimed Mr. Lott was approached by Mr. Dole to make the confirmation hearings "more partisan." But Mr. Lott said that since the nomination he hadn't talked to Mr. Dole -- even to say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy New Year" -- and expected to support Admiral Inman.