Inman's Exit

ADM. Bobby Ray Inman's performance in stepping down as defense secretary-designate for the Clinton administration was highly unusual in light of his reputed understanding of Washington and inside-the-Beltway abilities. Admiral Inman cited what he saw as unethical press attacks and a hostile climate for public service as reasons for leaving. He did not want his reputation besmirched daily.

Yet the manner of Inman's departure, the blow this delivers to a White House that has had problems confirming Cabinet officials, and Inman's personal attack on newspaper columnists and the Senate minority leader have not helped that reputation. Certainly an insider should know better than to go public with unsubstantiated allegations that involve hard-to-prove conspiracy theories, as Inman did.

``I have a feeling I led him [President Clinton] on,'' Inman said Tuesday, and finally added he may not have wanted the defense post. Given Inman's unusual performance, and if these later statements are accurate, it may be better for the country and all concerned that Inman stepped down. In a sense, the process of vetting candidates worked - though now the White House must redouble its efforts to find a replacement.

Inman's broad charge of a ``new McCarthyism'' in the press and in Washington also deserves examination. The admiral knows quite well that politics in Washington means the gloves come off. Unlike the unfortunate Vincent Foster, Inman knows how power, perception, and the culture of news leaks work. The New York Times reported Wednesday that its reporters had gone to Inman, when he was a CIA official, to confirm leaked stories dealing with national security. Indeed, press coverage of Inman in the days and weeks after he was nominated as secretary of defense was almost entirely adulatory - a point he acknowledged.

We do not believe the press should apologize for its freedom to publish hard-hitting opinion columns, if they are fair. This is part of the fourth estate's job, part of its role as a public servant in a democracy. The media are always easy scapegoats. The climate in Washington may be tougher than a decade ago. Yet Inman's assault Tuesday against newspaper opinion pages, based on unsubstantiated charges, only adds to the hostile climate.

To his credit, Inman later said the McCarthy charges were too extreme.

Now it is time to find a defense secretary willing to make tough cuts.

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