Inman takes a column a little bit too seriously

January 24, 1994|By MIKE ROYKO

Minutes after Bobby Inman backed out as the next secretary fTC of defense because New York Times columnist William Safire was mean to him, I called 10 acquaintances and did a fast poll.

I picked these 10 people because none are in the news business, politics or work for government. They are all reasonably well-educated and informed but are not news junkies. All are Midwesterners.

To each, I put the same question: "Did you read what Bill Safire wrote about Bobby Inman?"

Here are the results of that quickie poll.

Six said they didn't have any idea who Bill Safire was, although one said the name rang a faint bell. "Is he a fashion designer?"

Three said they knew Safire was a newspaper columnist and occasional TV talking head. Two of the three said he was with the New York Times, while one said he occasionally saw him reprinted in the Chicago Tribune. But none of the three had read his column on Inman.

Only one -- she works in an office that subscribes to the New York Times -- said, yes, she remembered reading Safire's column on Inman.

But she couldn't recall what it said.

"I know it was unfavorable," she said, "but I don't remember the specifics. A lot of that Washington stuff is kind of nit-picky, isn't it?"

I don't doubt that if my survey was expanded to 1,000 Chicagoans the results would be the same. Or 10,000 other Midwesterners, Southerners and those in the West.

With professional respect for Safire, who writes two elegant essays a week for the New York Times op-ed page, the overwhelming majority of Americans don't know or don't care what he says.

Even in New York, where people prefer to read about their mayors, murder, maniacs, Mets and Mario the gov, Safire isn't followed as avidly as the tabloids' blood-and-guts columnists. Safire's primary influence is in that malicious, gossipy, back-stabbing, class-conscious, self-important little world that is Washington, D.C.

Get out a map of the U.S. Look along the East Coast. See the little dot? That's it -- the nation's capital -- the home or workplace for hundreds of thousands of bureaucrats, lawyers, politicians and newsies.

It's the only place in America where you sit down in a restaurant or get on an elevator and overhear someone somberly saying: "Have you heard that Bill Pffsniff might be out as third deputy undersecretary of state?" "Yes, he mishandled that position paper on Vosnogovia." "No, I hear he sneezed into the salad of the wife of the second deputy undersecretary." "My Lord, not really?" "Yes." "How sordid."

A pretty city, with fine museums, landmarks and broad boulevards, although you have to step over babbling crackheads to get around.

But it isn't reality. No city dominated by politicians, bureaucrats and newsies can reflect the rest of the country. They don't have dirty fingernails, except those clawing at a rival's back.

So it appears that Bobby Inman overreacted. He's given new meaning to the phrase "thin-skinned." He's a Texan, and I thought Texans were tough. But if he was a Chicago politician, he wouldn't last a week. In Chicago, you can call a politician a low-life crook. But so long as you don't give evidence to a grand jury, the politician will buy lunch.

By now, millions of Americans outside the Washington Beltway are saying: "This Bobby Inman backed out because of some satire." "No, it was his attire." "Who'd he hire?" "I thought he said he was tired." "Whatever."

I read the column that Safire wrote on Dec. 23, a day, incidentally, when all newspaper readership is light because of holiday chores.

It was nasty. There's no question that Safire dislikes Inman.

As he says: "Here is someone I know from personal experience to be manipulative and deceptive, nominated by Bill Clinton to be secretary of defense." There are two ways to take that. One way is to bust out laughing. And the other is to merely giggle.

Safire once served as an assistant to President Richard Nixon. He is still a loyal and doting friend. Who is a greater symbol of manipulation and deception than former President Sneaky? I would think that if Safire thought Inman was supremely manipulative and deceptive, he'd nominate him for president and apply for a job.

For that matter, Safire is with a newspaper that is legendary for its manipulative and deceptive work environment. At the New York Times, to get ahead you need more pull and clout than any Chicago fixer can provide.

Inman probably did the right thing by withdrawing. If he can't take a few shots from Safire, he shouldn't be in charge of the defense of this country.

But Safire doesn't come out smelling like a good after-shave, either. He makes it clear that he doesn't think Inman was sufficiently pro-Israel.

I happen to be pro-Israel, but since when is that a litmus test for public service?

Safire sniped: "Inman's animus later contributed to the excessive sentencing of Jonathan Pollard. . . ."

Pollard was the government intelligence employee who sold secrets to Israel. He is in prison. If I had been the judge, he would not be in prison. I'd have had him shot. But, then, I've always had an extremist attitude toward treason.

If there is any message in the Inman-Safire story, it is this: We shouldn't take it too seriously. Inman isn't as important as he thinks he is, and Safire isn't as important as Inman or Safire believe.

We'll all get up this morning and get on with our lives despite these distractions. Really, what Washington needs is a Major League Baseball team. Take their minds off silliness.

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