Admiral sunk in Washington war of words

WHEN Bobby Ray Inman went before the television cameras last Tuesday to explain why he was withdrawing as President Clinton's nominee for Secretary of Defense, acerbic New York Times columnist William Safire declared himself 'stunned'. So were many people here. But Safire had special cause.

Opinion writers rarely complain when their words appear to alter the course of public affairs. This, though, was more than most could expect. Mr Inman was quitting, he said, because of a 'new McCarthyism' in American journalism and, in particular, because of alleged persecution by Mr Safire.

True, Safire had been unkind to Inman. In a harsh column last month, he wrote that the man Mr Clinton had chosen to replace Les Aspin was a 'naf' as a judge of character, a 'flop' as a businessman, a 'cheat' as a taxpayer as well as being 'manipulative and deceptive'. He once asked Inman over the phone how a grown man could call himself 'Bobby'. (Inman hung up.)

But with his outburst Inman, a four-star admiral with 30 years experience of the turbulence of Washington public life, seemed to be redefining 'thin-skinned'. What is more, Safire apart, the media had generally been astonishingly nice about him.

Taking on Safire may have been rash. Inman accused him, on live television, of plagiarism, of lobbying the CIA on behalf of Israel and of pressuring a Republican senator to block his confirmation. But few journalists here enjoy more respect than Safire, a 1978 Pulitzer Prize winner and author of many books. A self-described 'libertarian conservative', he joined the Times in 1973, after fleeing a speech-writing job in Nixon's White House.

'He is probably the most interesting . . . fascinating person who writes in that format,' said Marvin Kalb, a media analyst at Harvard University. 'He is like a bulldog, with a very old- fashioned reportorial instinct. He is aware of his power - and he has enormous power.'

But Safire rejects Inman's contention that he and other Washington pundits hold too much sway. 'Inman was attributing power to me that I don't have,' he told me yesterday. 'The press is not too powerful. Any time you try to get information out of government you find out how impotent you are.'

Safire thinks he now has an explanation for the outburst. Inman, he is convinced, has secrets related to his years in private business that he would rather not share with the Senate and the world. 'Bobby Ray Inman knocked himself out with his guilty conscience,' he suggested.

Inman was, for instance, a member of an outside board of International Signal and Control, a Pennsylvania company that was found to have invented orders to boost its stock price and illegally transferred technology to Iraq and South Africa. (The company was purchased by the British defence firm Ferranti and largely contributed to its demise.)

Safire has no plans to hound him further. 'He is no longer a danger to the Republic,' he said. 'When I'm in Austin next, I'll call him and invite him to lunch.'

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