Nominee Lauded for His Savvy and Toughness
It was almost like a premonition.
After serving three decades in naval intelligence, as head of the National Security Agency and deputy director of the CIA, Bobby Ray Inman was retiring from government service 10 years ago and moving his family home to Texas.
But his wife, Nancy, a longtime Easterner, seemed a bit reluctant, perhaps almost sure that someday they would return to Washington. “The joke,” one longtime acquaintance said, “was that she drove to Texas with one foot on the brake.”
Inman, whose father ran an East Texas gas station and who went on to become the Navy’s youngest four-star admiral, was back in Washington on Thursday afternoon, standing this time in the Rose Garden--flanked by President Clinton and Defense Secretary Les Aspin, who would turn his job over to Inman if the former officer’s nomination is approved by the Senate.
With his characteristic gap-toothed smile, ramrod-straight posture and carefully chosen comments, there was still the “aw, shucks” look on his face. But there was also a sense of gravity, reflective of a rattled institution that is struggling to transform the U.S. military from a Cold War force into whatever may lie beyond.
“I am an imperfect human being,” he said.
Imperfect, maybe, but well-admired in Washington. He has served in both Democratic and Republican administrations and left here unscathed from the Iran-Contra scandal that tarnished some of his colleagues.
He rose to high ranks in both the Navy and the intelligence community, without the typical advantage of an education at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Rather, sources said, he made it through on hard work, perseverance, an even temper and an ability to juggle his needs with those of others. He frequently awoke at 4 a.m. to get in extra studying time before a 9 a.m. congressional briefing, they said.
Admirers, including several former defense and intelligence chiefs, said Inman has a particular knack for garnering friendships on both sides of the political aisle--an ability that will stand him in good stead when the Senate begins hearings on his nomination in January.
Conservative former Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) has called him “the most articulate man I ever heard on the Hill.” Liberal Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) once said: “He’d never mislead you.”
“He’ll rocket through” the nomination process, one senior defense official predicted.
Those same admirers say Inman’s bipartisan blessings give a certain independence to a man who has served under President Jimmy Carter and President Ronald Reagan and who, on the day of his nomination by Clinton, announced unabashedly that he voted for George Bush in 1992.
It remains unclear how Inman, a Cold War veteran, may adapt to the changing role of the military, where more emphasis is now put on peacekeeping and regional conflicts than on suiting up tens of thousands of soldiers to stare down the Soviets.
Sources said Inman may be less effective than he would like if Clinton continues to focus on domestic affairs rather than foreign policy.
His ultimate success may also depend on how aggressive a secretary he is allowed to become. Some observers say they believe that Aspin raised Clinton’s ire when he began to push publicly for an additional $50 billion to meet his five-year defense budget needs.
“I know Bobby Inman, and I think he will be very aggressive,” said former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. “The $50-billion problem is a real, a very real, problem. Now, with Bobby Inman, they’ve arrived at the moment of truth.”
Born 62 years ago in the hamlet of Rhonesboro, Tex., Inman was a brainy boy with a near-photographic memory who appeared on a local radio quiz show, often bringing home the biggest prizes. He graduated from high school at 15, but he later tutored school athletes to keep from being bullied.
“I’m so clumsy I can’t walk across a room without bumping into the furniture,” he once lamented.
He graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in history, tried law school but dropped out and then became a grammar school teacher. Still searching for his niche, he joined the Navy as a reserve officer in 1951.
He would remain in the Navy for the next 31 years, serving on an aircraft carrier and two destroyers, winning the Distinguished Service Medal and the Legion of Merit, and making his home inside naval intelligence. He rose to the top of that specialty at the age of 43.
Three years later, while remaining a Navy officer, Inman became director of the National Security Agency. Four years after that, he became the No. 2 official at the CIA.
While he has been cast as an administrator who can easily get along with others, he found significant difficulties in working for then-CIA Director William J. Casey.
“I’d worked for people before where our personalities weren’t compatible,” Inman told Joseph E. Persico, the author of “Casey: From the OSS to the CIA.”
“But this was the first time I’d worked for somebody I didn’t think I could trust. I was no longer comfortable that this man was being honest with me.”
At Capitol Hill hearings, Inman often would purposely tug on his socks to alert lawmakers that they were being misled by Casey. “I’m not a poker face,” he told Persico. “I hiss the villains and cheer the heroes, and it shows.
“When I hear things that make me uncomfortable, I tend to squirm. I crane my neck. I pull at my pants--maybe my socks too.”
Inman resigned from the agency in 1982, several years before the Iran-Contra scandal engulfed Casey’s CIA. Starting a new life in Texas with his wife and their two sons (both of whom later joined the Navy), he ventured into the business world but never completely left the national spotlight.
“He is simply one of the smartest people ever to come out of Washington or anywhere, who dazzles just about everybody he meets,” said Fortune magazine in 1986.
“He pulled off a military career practically unmatched in the history of the Navy, without firing a shot,” the article said.
For four years, Inman served as president of the Austin-based Microelectronics Computer & Technology Corp., a government-sponsored effort to coalesce the know-how of private industry to help keep the nation ahead in computer technology.
In 1986, he was named chairman, president and chief executive of Westmark Systems Inc., a fledgling Texas holding company trying to make its name in the defense market.
But he resigned three years later, unable to deal with the pressures of high finance when the business began to sour because of heavy debts.
“Congress will give you a good scrubbing,” he said at the time of his business woes. "(But) the banks will whipsaw you and drive you bankrupt if they get the chance.”
Since then he has served as a private intelligence and defense strategist, working with such groups as the Aspen Institute in Colorado, a think tank that recommends future military policy.
He returned briefly to Capitol Hill in 1991 in defense of an old ally, Robert M. Gates, who was then up for confirmation as director of the CIA.
At a time when the nomination appeared in jeopardy, Inman helped put Gates over the top by using the arches of his own vaulted reputation to support his colleague.
“He is very loyal and will strongly defend people who are not popular,” one longtime friend said. “And in turn, he will win their respect.”
Inman’s efforts were not lost on Gates, who wasted no time on Thursday calling for Inman’s confirmation.
Profile: Bobby Ray Inman
Born: April 4, 1931, in Rhonesboro, Tex.
Education: University of Texas (at age 19); Naval War College
Military: Joined Naval Reserve in 1951; rose to become four-star admiral
No. 2 man in the CIA for former President Ronald Reagan.
Youngest director of the National Security Agency under President Jimmy Carter
Executive posts with Texas electronics and defense firms