WHY did Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, sailing toward easy Senate confirmation as secretary of defense, suddenly flinch and withdraw his name?
We do not yet know, but I suspect it was not for the reason given in the therapy session that was his departing news conference.
Is one good pop by a columnist, along with anticipated light flak about nanny-tax problems, enough to drive a smooth Washington operator out of a cabinet post? (If he had been confirmed, and North Korea said "Boo!" would the Pentagon have sued for terms?) Thanks, but no pundit is that powerful.
One possibility: He did not want to address questions being drawn up by the staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee about defense-related business dealings exploiting his spook service.
Another: He was rattled by the probing by more than one of us into his longtime "source" on the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee, helping to manipulate unsuspecting senators during Admiral Inman's last six intelligence years.
Conducting the public self-destruction of his reputation, the embittered admiral invoked the example of Vincent Foster -- another country boy, in Admiral Inman's self-pitying construct, driven to self-destruction not by a guilty conscience but by the mean-spirited denizens of the Washington press corps.
He cited "reports" -- known only to himself -- of scandalous collusion: in the supposed conspiracy, Sen. Bob Dole would zap Admiral Inman if I would pursue Whitewater.
If Admiral Inman really believed the cockamamie notion that I needed some political incentive beyond my normal journalistic lust to follow up last July's columns about Vince Foster, that would indeed be evidence of paranoia.
But I think the admiral is not crazy; that was the old disinformation specialist in full manipulative mode, screening his final evasion with a newsy concoction.
That need for a smokescreen is also his reason for tossing the smear of plagiarism at his main tormentor. Calling a writer a plagiarist is like calling a spook a mole; the charge, once made, lingers. In this case, however, I can prove a negative.
Deep in Admiral Inman's dossier about me is reference to a lawsuit 35 years ago, when I was a press agent. One magazine writer charged another with using some of his material about a client; the firm I worked for was the conduit between the disputants. To suggest that I was ever accused of plagiarism is a lie; at no time in a long career has anyone said I used anyone else's prose under my byline.
Thus on the offensive during his day in the spotlight, Admiral Inman almost succeeded in directing attention away from his true reasons for quitting. Then he ran into some hard questioning by Ted Koppel on ABC's "Nightline" and his cover proceeded to crumble before the nation's eyes.
Asked about the source of what he called "reports" of a sinister conspiracy to do him in, he was unable to answer coherently; it was plain that the plot existed only in his mind.
When Mr. Koppel pointed out the hypocrisy of complaining about "McCarthyism" while dredging up a 1950s lawsuit and twisting it falsely into a damaging charge, Admiral Inman caved in completely. Retreating in the face of the facts, he retracted his smear and apologized.
I accept the apology, admiral. My friend and former target, Bert Lance, called Wednesday with his own conspiracy theory: that you and I cooked up this contretemps to drum up lucrative lecture dates.
Because you are no longer a danger to the nation as the prospective secretary of defense, I can turn over the pursuit of the reasons for your withdrawal to your personal demons. Even your severest critic hopes you will get help.
The Pentagon has dodged a bullet; Bill Clinton is fortunate that his worst nominee came apart in public before he could damage more than the president's judgment about people. The next nominee should be an exemplar of stability, a civilian experienced in national security, and above all a person of character.
Perhaps I am mistaken about Admiral Inman's realistic fears of exposure. Perhaps all it took was a single, factual blast to tip him over into failing the president who honored him. If so, the defense establishment was spared the agony of being led by a deeply conflicted man with no grasp of our system of checks and balances.
Let us remember Bobby Ray Inman for his intermittent good works and his truly spoken political epitaph: ". . . the country is better off with me in the private sector."
William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.