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Adm. Inman Asks Clinton To Withdraw Nomination

By Ann Devroy
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON

Retired Adm. Bobby Ray Inman said Tuesday he had asked President Clinton to withdraw his nomination to be secretary of defense and cast himself as a victim of "modern McCarthyism" practiced by newspaper columnists and Republican political opponents.

Inman, a 62-year-old Texas businessman who has held top national security posts in Democratic and Republican administrations, explained his withdrawal in an extraordinary news conference in his home town of Austin, Tex. He attacked the ethics of New York Times columnist William Safire and said Safire had recruited Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole, R-Kan., to launch a partisan effort against him.

"I sense elements in the media and the political leadership of the country who would rather disparage or destroy reputations than work to effectively govern the country," Inman wrote in a letter to Clinton dated almost two weeks ago.

But a formal process to name a new nominee was launched only on Monday, and the tone of Inman's surprise news conference stunned man at the White House and senior levels of government. Vice President Gore informed Defense Secretary Les Aspin of Inman's decision Monday night, officials said, and obtained a commitment from him to remain on the job until a successor can be named.

The Inman decision deals another blow to the Clinton administration's efforts to shore up its national security team and raises the question of whether the White House, eager to replace Aspin, did not probe Inman's state of mind sufficiently when he was being pushed to take the post in mid-December. One senior official said Inman "did express a lot of reluctance to leave Texas and reenter the fray" but added, "I don't think we can be blamed that he is so thin-skinned."

Inman, in his letter released by the White House and in a long, bitter news conference, laid out a sequence of media events that he said led to his conclusion he did not want to return to public life. "I looked at the prospect of being one where it was constantly negative every day and decided that's not how I want to spend the next years of my life," he said.

Inman used the news conference and a string of media interviews afterward to lay out his charges. He described a critical editorial page cartoon in The Washington Post a few days after his Dec. 16 nomination, a New York Times story critical of his operation of Tracor Inc., a defense contractor, what he saw as a defensive White House leak of his failure to pay Social Security taxes on a household worker and, finally, a "vitriolic attack" by Safire.

At the same time, however, Inman was getting widespread favorable coverage of his years in government and of his potential as defense secretary. One White House official said of the coverage in the two weeks after his nomination, "With the exception of Janet Reno, no nominee has been so well received in the media."

And the Republicans Inman cited Tuesday as poised to attack him in December were mostly favorable in comments about him then. Dole, for example, called him "a very good person for the job" and other Republicans were generally favorable.

But Inman did not see it that way. "I should have been able perhaps to rise above and see all the glowing words and not focus on the ones that I thought were unfair or distorted," he said, "but I couldn't."

Inman said he was told by Republican sources that Dole and Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., planned to "turn up the heat" on his nomination by questioning Inman's failure to pay the Social Security taxes or his operation of Tracor.

Dole, in a news conference in South Carolina, flatly denied he was planning a partisan attack on Inman. "I have no idea what's gotten into Bobby Inman," he said. "Admiral Inman's letter doesn't make any sense to me." He said barring something unforeseen, the nomination was in no trouble and that his main area of concern was a difference over policy -- whether defense was being cut too deeply.

Lott had a similar reaction. "I am floored by the bizarre press conference," he said, repeating a word used by numerous administration aides and congressional figures of the hour-long Inman performance, broadcast live on Cable News Network. Said one White House aide: "Most of us were glued to the tube, our mouths open in shock."

In his most specific personal attack, Inman said Safire, a conservative columnist who served as a speechwriter for Richard M. Nixon, has had a long vendetta against him. He said that vendetta began when Inman, in 1981, took actions that limited Israel's access to certain U.S. intelligence data.

He cited a Safire column as a turning point in his decision. That column accused Inman of being a media manipulator, a tax "cheat," a "flop" as a businessman and of being anti-Israel.

Inman suggested that while he believed he would be confirmed, the scrutiny of the media and the Senate in the confirmation process, and what he sees as contstant attacks on public officials by columnists in particular, made service unattractive to him.

Senior White House officials said Tuesday they knew of no reason other than the ones Inman enunciated in his news conference for the resignation, and said quitting was Inman's decision. Two administration sources said the FBI background check on Inman provided nothing that would disqualify him for the post.