The name of Joann DiGennaro, president of the Center for Excellence in Education, was misspelled yesterday in an article about retired Adm. Bobby Ray Inman. (Published 1/20/94)

Reputation, Bobby Ray Inman often says, has meant everything to him. Some friends, though not all, said that is all the explanation they need for Inman's astonishing assertion yesterday that he was withdrawing as the nominee for secretary of defense because of "a handful of vitriolic attacks" by newspaper columnists.

Inman's hour-long meditation on his media reviews, and a lengthy telephone interview later on, left a self-portrait of lifelong insecurity.

Anyone who grows up clumsy and four-eyed in football-mad east Texas, Inman has told his friends, has to look for another way to get by in this world. A "Quiz Kids" radio show prodigy, Inman was 5-feet-4 and 96 pounds when he graduated from Mineola High School at age 15.

"How did I appear not to be a freak, and how did I avoid getting beaten up going to the restroom?" Inman once said in an interview with the Dallas Morning News. "I learned to do two things. One was to find two or three big athletes and help them with their homework. Absolutely intentional. They became my protectors. And the other was to help people who wanted to run for school offices."

That same basic strategy -- using brains and guile to make himself indispensable to powerful sponsors -- continued throughout a spectacular Navy career. Inman's protectors included Navy legends such as Adm. Arleigh Burke and Adm. Hyman Rickover, and he scaled four-star heights never reached before by an intelligence officer.

Inman's public career progressed from praise to lavish praise. He got a Defense Superior Service Medal for "achievements unparalleled in the history of intelligence." The White House biography put out Dec. 16 read like a collection of promotional blurbs: "News accounts have referred to him as 'simply one of the smartest people ever to come out of Washington or anywhere' (Omni, 11-84) and 'a superstar in the intelligence community {and} a tough-minded administrator' (Newsweek, 2-16-81)."

Yet Inman's self-image, he said, was rather different. He is a man, he said, who remembered anything but the praise. Described often as a consummate Washington insider, Inman laughed bitterly at that label in a telephone interview. He called himself "this guy who constantly saw himself as an outsider working to succeed on the inside" -- never quite reaching insider status himself.

Inman said he got generally good reviews, "but not by all, though." And it was the bad reviews that kept him up at night, literally sleepless with insecurity.

"I'd wake up thinking about the stories, the hostile stories, not all the friendly ones," he said.

But can it really be that criticism surprised a man of Inman's experience? Can a man who held four major Senate-confirmed positions be as naive about the capital's folkways as he portrayed himself at his news conference yesterday?

This was the same retired admiral, after all, who teaches a course at the University of Texas, his alma mater, called "How Goverment Really Works." One of his regular lectures, according to teaching assistant Kyle Peterson, is on "government-media-interest group interaction." The course syllabus says he examines "trends in media coverage" and "efforts to manipulate public perception."

Peter Flawn, a former University of Texas president and close Inman friend, pronounced himself "mystified" by yesterday's spectacle. Another friend, Joann DiGenero, said she cannot believe Inman could be as shocked as he sounded by the intensity of Washington's media spotlight.

"Some of the pieces are missing, and we certainly didn't hear them in the press conference," she said.

Asked at yesterday's news conference whether some other skeleton had emerged to drive him from office, Inman said no -- but suggested that reporters had been "out all over the country" searching for one. One journalist, he said, even tried to find out whether he had ever told "a racially oriented joke." {Actually, in preparation of a profile, The Washington Post asked William Cunningham, one of Inman's friends, what made Inman angry. The question cited several common situations, including one in which someone tells a bigoted joke.}

Inman volunteered in an interview that there had been a whispering campaign about his sexual orientation after a 1980 episode in which he refused to revoke the security clearance of a gay man at the National Security Agency.

"When I made the decision, a very pragmatic one, to keep the gay employee on at NSA there were lots of allegations, whispers, suggesting that I must be of comparable persuasion, else I wouldn't have made that decision," Inman said. "Those had come from other agencies as well. All of the law enforcement and security agencies were adverse to the decision."

When President Ronald Reagan nominated Inman for the deputy director's job at the CIA in 1981, Inman said, he volunteered to take a polygraph examination. He said he was asked whether he was homosexual by orientation or behavior, that he denied it and that the FBI polygrapher found his answer was "not deceptive."

Inman's own explanation yesterday was stunningly simple. The last time he was up for confirmation, in February 1981, he had a two-hour hearing and a 98 to 0 Senate vote in his favor for the No. 2 CIA job. This time, he said, there were prospects of opposition that could have become ugly.

"Given this reaction to {the nomination}," he said, referring to unfriendly columns by William Safire and Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, and Ellen Goodman of the Boston Globe, "to have gone on to the job, it would have been a prescription for not doing a good job and being miserable."

Inman's last confirmation was smooth sailing. Sen. Barry M. Goldwater, then chairman of the Senate intelligence committtee, announced that "you have my vote even before I hear your testimony," adding: "I don't know of a man in the business that is more highly regarded than you."

The toughest question Inman got in those hearings came from Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), tongue firmly in cheek: "I'm going to put it to the nominee straight. Can you spell the name of the prime minister of Sri Lanka?"

Once a quiz kid, always a quiz kid.

"Mr. P-R-E-M-A-D-A-S-A is the prime minister," Inman answered, correctly. For extra credit he added, also correctly: "Mr. J-A-Y-A-W-R-D-E-N-E is the president."

Inman said another thing then that stands out in light of yesterday's developments.

"I have over the years practiced a general theory of conservation of enemies," he said.

When Inman stood in the Rose Garden last month and announced his return to government, his wife, Nancy, did not make the traditional trip to accompany him at the president's side. She stayed behind the walled perimeter of their Austin home. Her neighbors called out congratulations when she appeared for a moment at the gate, and they were taken aback by the reply.

"Condolences, you mean," said Nancy Inman, according to Nila Williams, who lives across the street on Riva Ridge Road. Inman's wife looked, Williams said, as though she meant it. She told the Austin establishment that she would not be spending too much time in Washington.

Inman said in the interview yesterday that his family's opposition (he has two adult sons in Austin) grew when they saw how he reacted to criticism -- that he wrote a letter to help an arms dealer win a lighter sentence for fraud, that he did not pay Social Security tax for a housemaid, that his stewardship of Tracor Inc. was a failure.

His sense of humor, Inman said, "disappeared." He grew "short of temper." He did not sleep.

"I should have been able perhaps to rise above and see all the glowing words and not focus on the ones that I thought were unfair or distorted," Inman said. "But I couldn't."