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The Truth, Mainly - 01/31/1994

Why Bobby Ray's not defense secretary

I tell my wife I really don't think there's much point in writing a column about why Bobby Ray Inman isn't going to be our next Secretary of Defense. The case is transparent, isn't it?

"Why belabor the obvious?" I ask her. "Anybody who thinks about it will see why he withdrew."

"Um," she says, feigning indifference.

Sure, I tell her, I've read the theories. Bobby Ray himself says it's because the press and Sen. Dole were about to gang up on him. Sen. Dole says if Bobby Ray "has fantasies like that," he isn't qualified to be Secretary of Defense anyway. William Safire says Bobby Ray doesn't have the stomach for the tough questions he might be asked at confirmation hearings. Ellen Goodman says Bobby Ray is just too "thin-skinned" for the job, and Donald Kaul says Bobby Ray shouldn't have been considered in the first place because of his CIA background.

"Let me guess," my wife says, stifling a yawn. "You've got a theory that makes the others obsolete. Right?"

"It's not a theory," I say, "so much as it's the accumulated wisdom of decades of keen-eyed observation. Bobby Ray isn't going to be our Secretary of Defense because of the two-first-names syndrome."

"Oh no," she says. "Not the two-first-names syndrome. What's that?"

That's the syndrome, I tell her, that keeps us from taking anyone seriously if they have two first names. Bobby Ray, for instance.

I grew up in southwest Kansas surrounded by people with two first names: names like Forrest Lee, Harold Lee, Billy Gene, Lester Gene, Billy Bob, Billy Ray, Billy Don, Donnie Dean, Ray Dean, Carl Dean, Arthur Dean, Floyd Earl, Roy Max, Joe Allen, Joe Bob. All of them were genial fellows when I knew them—but not one of them has ever been seriously considered for any cabinet-level position, let alone Secretary of Defense.

The way I see it is that Bobby Ray Inman saw what he was up against and took his two names out of consideration. He probably knew from a lifetime of experience that the public would associate him with hominy grits and typecast comic-relief Mississippi sheriffs, with LSU running backs and evangelists like Billy James Hargiss—or with little boys about to enter kindergarten.

But not with Secretaries of Defense.

Secretaries of Defense are supposed to be mildly threatening but solidly one-first-name guys like Dick Cheney, Frank Carlucci, Caspar Weinberger, Harold Brown, Donald Rumsfeld, James Schlesinger, Eliot Richardson (the two-last-names syndrome, on the other hand, makes people take you more seriously than they should), Melvin Laird, Clark Clifford, Robert MacNamara, Charles Wilson, George Marshall, or James Forrestal.

Not a Lester Gene or Joe Bob among them.

The Truth, Mainly


"Oooo, Bobby Ray's talking tough," Bobby Ray must have imagined our country's enemies saying in mock horror. "Oooo, we're scared of Bobby Ray."

Because even our country's enemies think that people with two first names are too indecisive to be convincing Secretaries of Defense—and Bobby Ray was already a little touchy on the decisiveness question. He knew we all remembered that only last month he said he voted for George Bush in '92 and that he'd had to struggle to reach a "comfort level" with Bill Clinton. So he probably figured that Dole and Safire would jump all over his two first names as further evidence that he has trouble making up his mind.

What I mean is that nearly all of us have a first name and a middle name, but by the time we're in our 60s, most of us have decided which name is really us. I myself have the middle name "James," but I don't go around introducing myself as "Leon James." I long ago resolved with steel-trap decisiveness that I was Leon. Sure, maybe I have second thoughts about it at times, but my die's been cast. I've crossed my Rubicon and put all my eggs in the Leon basket.

If I hadn't, I tell my wife, people wouldn't take me seriously.

She snickers. I pretend not to hear.

"Of course," I say, "Bobby Ray probably could have pulled off the Secretary of Defense caper had he played his first-initial-second-name card. You know, R. Ray Inman. That's got a ring to it, doesn't it? F. Scott Fitzgerald and all that? Or L. James Satterfield. How's that sound?"

"A lot like that indecisive little wimp in T.S. Eliot who can't decide whether to eat a peach or not," she says. "J. Alfred Prufrock. Somebody to be taken really seriously."

The she laughs so loud I can't pretend I don't hear.

Anyway, that's why there's not much point in writing a column about Bobby Ray Inman. Is there?


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.


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