The Prince and the Pea

January 21, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston -- Let me see if I have this right. Bill Safire, Tony Lewis and I were part of a cabal who set out to ruin Bobby Ray Inman's daughter's wedding.

No, no, no. That isn't it.

We're part and parcel of the ''New McCarthyism.'' A bunch of columnist hitmen, or hitpersons. Character assassins run amok.

There we go. Now I've got it.

Bobby Ray Inman's withdrawal of his name from nomination as secretary of defense may well go down as one of the stranger hours in recent political history. It was matched only -- like a perfect bookend -- by his appearance in the Rose Garden last month when he told the world that he'd voted for George Bush and had to reach a ''comfort level'' with President Clinton as commander in chief.

This time, the former admiral said his comfort had been destroyed by columnists' attacks, most notably by Bill Safire of the New York Times, but also by the Times' Mr. Lewis and by me -- quite the political trio. If Mr. Inman didn't sound like Dana Carvey doing Ross Perot, maybe he was auditioning for the starring role in The Prince and the Pea.

I mean, are we talking thin-skinned or are we talking weird? And if that seems like an attack, let's go to the videotape.

Mr. Inman said he was fed up with ''rush-to-judgment distortions of my record, my character and my reputation.'' And he called Mr. Safire a plagiarist who made a deal with Bob Dole, and the rest of us mere McCarthyites.

In retrospect, my only regret is that my column was too benign. I gave him a pass through the Nannygate but asked to double-check the business values he'd be bringing to Pentagon.

In truth, Mr. Inman was lovingly stroked by the media and all of official Washington. He was seen as the savior, the greatest thing since sliced cheese. Very few of us disagreed. If three columns can raise the heat to the boiling point on his delicate thermostat, Mr. Inman better stay out of the pantry, let alone the kitchen.

The irony is that I have written and worried about the same issues that the departing nominee talked about. There is a rush to judgment in the media. While there have always been harsh attacks on public officials right back to Jefferson's day, Vincent Foster's last words about Washington can still carry a ring of truth: ''Here ruining people is considered sport.''

Over the past years, we've seen decent people become the hit-and-run victims of the mass-media truck. Their lives have been reduced to one bad moment, a single mistake or misjudgment. They've been stuck with a permanent label: Pothead. Nannygate. Quota Queen.

In an era of E-mail, Fax Attacks and that oxymoron Instant Analysis, it happens too fast to get the license-plate number. Caricature can also be a kind of character assassination. There are a lot of walking wounded.

It is true that sometimes the media are too concerned with personal lives and not enough with the public trust. And it's true that many people who consider public service reconsider what it would mean in terms of public scrutiny. I have taken some of my colleagues to task for this, especially for the level of ''public discourse'' that ends up in a food fight at the TV roundtable.

But Mr. Inman wasn't among those who got the big pie in his face.

In his rambling remarks over the past few days, Mr. Inman was angry at reporters who called to ask if he was gay. He said that he didn't want his membership in the all-male Bohemian club to become a litmus test. But the only place you read those ''attacks'' was in the transcript of his own remarks.

''My problem is with the columnist who is afforded the pages of the newspaper and the syndication and the talk shows to carry on attacks with no one responding, '' he said. Those of us who make our living telling people what we think hear a good deal from those who say what they think of what we think. Unlike Mr. Inman, we stay in the kitchen.

As a columnist you are expected to be opinionated. That doesn't exempt you from being fair. Most of us who are in the business for the long run know that. But fairness is also a matter of, uh, opinion.

So yes, there is a point to be made about hit-and-run journalism. But Bobby Ray Inman wasn't a victim. He was criticized for his record. Concerns were raised about his qualifications for the job of making war and making peace dividends. In the end, he was the one who proved that he wasn't up to the job.

That isn't McCarthyism. It is an opinion.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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