WASHINGTON -- Perhaps the most baffling aspect of the surprise withdrawal of Bobby Ray Inman as President Clinton's nominee to run the Pentagon was the apparent willingness of this veteran of official Washington to believe that a conspiracy existed between the Republican leader of the Senate and a newspaper columnist to do him in.
The allegation, denied by both of the supposed conspirators, Sen. Bob Dole and William Safire of the New York Times, was so ludicrous that a strong Republican supporter of Inman, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, likened it to Ross Perot's contention in 1992 that agents of President George Bush were plotting to spoil his daughter's wedding with smears against her.
Contrary to Inman's intimation that his confirmation was in jeopardy, McCain said he knew of no Republican member of the Armed Services Committee that was to have passed on the nomination who had any intention of opposing him.
Other senators of both parties indicated that Inman's confirmation by the full Senate had clear sailing ahead.
Inman later said he accepted Dole's assurance that there had been no conspiracy against him involving Safire. That left Inman with what seemed to be the major factor in his withdrawal -- that he really hadn't wanted the job and never should have accepted it.
In withdrawing, however, Inman chose to single out as the villain in the piece what he called a "modern McCarthyism" on the part of opinion-writers in the press -- not just Safire but also Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, Washington Post cartoonist Herblock and others.
The implication was that the opinion-writers recklessly and intentionally set out to ruin the reputations of their foes.
In almost the same breath, Inman retaliated for Safire's dubbing him a "cheat" for failing "to pay taxes for household help" by calling Safire "a man who has hidden his own plagiarism by an out-of-court settlement with sealed documents." Inman offered no evidence.
And when Safire later provided an explanation of the suit and said he had never been accused of plagiarism, Inman lamely said that because Safire's story "may well be accurate, I therefore would apologize."
The whole business is only the latest example of a public figure seeking to exploit a long-held public belief -- that the press and television exceed the bounds of legitimate reporting and analysis to the point they become combatants striving endlessly to destroy men and women in public life. Perot has continued to argue this since 1992.
Even President Clinton, in a recent interview in Rolling Stone, lashed out, saying he had "fought more damn battles here for more things than any president has in 20 years . . . and not gotten one damn bit of credit from the knee-jerk liberal press." He has tried to reduce the investigation into his involvement in the Whitewater real-estate deal to nothing more than the news media trying to make something out of nothing.
While it is indisputable that a certain "gotcha" mentality has seized many reporters and opinion-writers ever since Watergate, the lament of the press as destroyer of public reputations has become a convenient shield against any legitimate press
scrutiny of public figures.
In Inman's case, the fact is he received markedly favorable treatment from most of the news media, as he has acknowledged. With his confirmation apparently greased, he had no reason to anticipate that once he took over at the Pentagon he would be subjected, as he alleged, to personal abuse "on a daily basis as a cost of trying to produce change."
Safire, who clearly is not an Inman admirer, might have been expected to give him a few more hits along the way, but no more than most public officials routinely experience and slough off.
Heaven help the country if columnists, even one for the august New York Times, get the notion that they are so important that they can bring down a Cabinet member by calling him a few unpleasant names.