WASHINGTON — BOBBY RAY INMAN'S surprise withdrawal of his nomination to be Secretary of Defense promises to leave the Pentagon leaderless on the eve of crucial budget and organizational battles.
It also reinforces the Clinton administration's image as a group that can't quite get its foreign-policy team to work smoothly. Now lame duck Secretary Les Aspin will dangle in office for weeks or even months as the search for his successor begins again.
``It's tough to get good help these days,'' sighed a Senate staff member who was preparing for Mr. Inman's nomination hearings as late as Tuesday morning.
Even if a new nominee is found and confirmed quickly, there would only be time to glance at the proposed 1995 defense budget before it is sent to the printers.
The new nominee would be plunged immediately into the late winter/early spring round of congressional military budget hearings, where the gap between planned forces and estimated resources is sure to be a topic of hot debate. This shortfall is estimated to be at least $13 billion over the next five years.
When announcing his withdrawal, Inman indicated there was no ``daylight'' between him and the president on defense issues. But he did say that ``you cannot ... pay for the prospective force level with the prospective budgeted dollars,'' leading some Republicans to conclude he pulled out because he could not support further defense cuts.
In the press conference announcing his withdrawal, Inman indicated that he was dropping out largely because he did not want to withstand daily attacks on his character. He said beat news reporters had been fair in the coverage of his nomination, while columnists and Senate minority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas were promoting a ``new McCarthyism'' of character assassination.
Many analysts in Washington felt that Inman, in the words of the famous line from the movie ``Casablanca,'' was shocked to discover that gambling was going on in this hotel. As a longtime Washington hand, he should have realized that backbiting came with any high job.
``I'm somewhat surprised ... he didn't understand that going in,'' said Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan in a statement.
What's more, many felt that Inman had in fact not really yet suffered many slings. The culture of Washington may indeed be getting harsh, analysts noted, but one nasty William Safire column on the New York Times Op-Ed Page does not a conspiracy make.