There's a silver lining in Inman's withdrawal



WASHINGTON -- In the short term, the surprise decision of Bobby Ray Inman to withdraw as President Clinton's nominee to secretary of defense blindsides Clinton in the one area where he most needs an experienced hand well regarded in Congress and in the military.

But in the long run, if Inman's convoluted explanation for his action is any indication of how he would have conducted himself under the public glare of that high-profile job, he has probably done the president a big favor.

Inman's pullout leaves Clinton with egg on his face, particularly in light of the retired admiral's arrogant observation at the time of the nomination that he was taking the job only after having reached "a level of comfort" with Clinton's "role as the commander in chief while I was secretary of defense."

That remark revealed a degree of self-interest remarkable in such an appointment, at least in the impression it left that Inman was looking out for himself -- and serving public notice that he intended to remain independent -- in agreeing to accept what is generally regarded as the No. 2 post in the Cabinet, after secretary of state.

That same self-interest permeated the news conference, which bordered on a real-life version of Captain Queeg's climactic self-defense in Herman Wouk's best-seller, "The Caine Mutiny."

In place of an imagined conspiracy over the theft of strawberries from the Caine's food locker, one of Queeg's stronger fantasies, Inman conjured up a plot between New York Times columnist Bill Safire and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole whereby "if Senator Dole would turn up the heat on my nomination that Safire would turn up the heat" on the Whitewater real-estate deal currently tormenting the Clintons.

Dole quickly denied it and added that Inman probably wasn't qualified to be secretary of defense if he believed such a %J "fantasy." Inman said he was told of the "trade" by reliable Republican sources, none of whom he identified.

Inman went on to make a broader attack on syndicated columnists, complaining of a "modern McCarthyism" tarnishing public servants, and capping the charge by saying Safire had been sued for plagiarism and had settled out of court with all records involved sealed. So much for modern McCarthyism.

Inman was no doubt being candid in saying in effect that he was accepting Harry Truman's old admonition that "if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." In his rambling remarks he revealed himself to be extraordinarily thin-skinned for someone who has been in the public arena for three decades.

While in a sense he made Clinton look foolish with his withdrawal, Inman probably did much more damage to his own reputation, especially in broadening his justification for quitting to include his view that "wrenching changes" were needed at the Pentagon that would be harder to bring about as a result of criticism of him from the news media and Congress.

If he felt that way, why did he accept the job in the first place? And having accepted it, why didn't he stay aboard and fight for what he believed was needed? He insisted that there was "no daylight" between himself and Clinton on defense policy.

The president is now in for more difficult days in coming up with a new nominee. There will be more stories about his problems with Cabinet appointments, and about the need for finding someone else who can shore up his obviously shaky relations with the military. (Inman said with a straight face that he had recommended somebody!)

But more importantly, Clinton has been relieved of having a secretary of defense who confessed at the start that he had initial misgivings about the job and about the man in the White House under whom he would be serving, and who then acknowledged that he didn't have the stomach to take the public scrutiny that goes with the job.

Clinton will no doubt think twice before he makes another appointment of someone who starts out by stating his reservations, no matter how certain confirmation appears.

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