WASHINGTON -- In the early days of the Reagan administration, when few Carter appointees were held in high esteem, there was one exception: Bobby Ray Inman.
Republicans were competing with each other to hire Mr. Inman, who under President Carter had been head of the top-secret National Security Agency. Sen. Barry Goldwater was pushing him for director of Central Intelligence; Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger asked him to be his assistant secretary for intelligence.
In the end, Mr. Inman reluctantly became deputy director of the CIA after President Reagan gave him what he described later as "the smoothest job of arm twisting I've ever encountered." A year later, he resigned, hinting subtly at unhappiness with CIA Director William Casey's gung-ho covert crusades in Nicaragua and elsewhere.
Throughout his career, it seems, Mr. Inman has been singled out and sought after. Leaders of both parties yesterday hastened to praise him; admirers on all sides of the political spectrum came together momentarily to stress his image of personal independence, skills and intelligence.
In a fairly typical encomium, Mr. Goldwater said Mr. Inman would make an "outstanding, perfect secretary of defense."
In choosing Mr. Inman, the White House consciously seems to have looked for a candidate who was strong exactly in those areas where Les Aspin was weak.
Mr. Aspin was criticized widely for his free-form, rambling communications style. His standing dropped sharply after a long-winded, disjointed briefing to members of Congress on Somalia.
Mr. Inman, on the other hand, is described as a superb communicator -- an excellent congressional briefer and an attentive official who never fails to return a senator's phone call.
Mr. Aspin was faulted as a poor manager. Mr. Inman has a reputation as a hands-on administrator, and has spent the last decade in the private sector.
And while Mr. Aspin was never able to establish a close relationship with the uniformed military, Mr. Inman, who would be only the second military man to head the Defense Department (Gen. George Marshall was the first, in 1950 and 1951), is the archetypal insider. He was a career officer who spent many years in the Pentagon hierarchy and has spent his retirement in the defense industry.
In the private sector, Mr. Inman has been associated with such companies as Science Applications International Corp., one of the Pentagon's top contractors.
The one real cloud over Mr. Inman's nomination may turn out to be his relationship with International Signal and Control, the company whose founder, James Guerin, was convicted in 1992 for a $1 billion fraud and for illegally transferring military technology to Iraq and South Africa.
Mr. Inman first worked with Guerin on a covert intelligence project in the mid 1970s, according to a former ISC employee. Later, after leaving government service, Mr. Inman was one of ISC's three proxy directors.
"Inman was intimately involved with ISC during the entire period they were shipping arms to South Africa," said Thomas L. Flannery, an investigative reporter for the Lancaster (Pa.) Intelligencer Journal, who broke the Guerin story.
A former Guerin associate currently facing indictment in connection with the case said, however, that Mr. Inman may not have known about ISC's illegal operations.
"He would not have known about it from the company," he said. "He would only have known it if it came back through the government. He maintained close relations with the intelligence community." But the source added that he "could not assert" that Mr. Inman had ever been tipped off about the illegal side of ISC's work.
In April 1992, Mr. Inman wrote to the judge in charge of Guerin's case. He cited Guerin's work in "classified U.S. government activities" and praised his patriotism, though stopped short of asking for clemency. Guerin is serving a 15-year sentence for fraud and illegally selling arms to South Africa and Iraq.
Observers and political figures yesterday predicted this episode would not prove problematic enough to prevent Mr. Inman's widely expected confirmation by the Senate in January.