G. Gordon Liddy says he meant no harm when he said on the air that he used handmade drawings of Bill and Hillary Clinton for target practice.
"I thought it might improve my aim," he said yesterday. "It didn't. . . . Having said that, I accept no responsibility for somebody shooting up the White House."
The former Watergate burglar did nothing to tone down his radio show yesterday, a day after President Clinton assailed "loud and angry voices" for spreading "hate" on the airwaves. The White House denied that Clinton was accusing talk show hosts of anything, but Liddy, just for good measure, wanted to make perfectly clear that he was not guilty.
It is the president who "lies" and is "deliberately misrepresenting facts," Liddy declared. It was he, Liddy, who "warned" last summer about "the increasing animosity toward the federal government" for the "taking away of our Second Amendment rights."
During an on-air news conference at WJFK-FM in Fairfax, the onetime FBI agent stuck to his rhetorical guns, saying talk radio is in no way responsible for the climate that led to last week's bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.
"I don't believe I'm fueling the lunatic fringe," Liddy said.
Others are deeply troubled by Liddy's relentless advocacy of armed self-defense. "This is an extremely dangerous game he's playing," said Jim Naureckas, spokesman for the liberal advocacy group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.
With his severe demeanor, shaved head and boundless enthusiasm for weaponry of all kinds, Liddy has become perhaps the nation's most popular radio talk show host after Rush Limbaugh. That is a status that once seemed inconceivable for the overzealous plotter who ordered the "third-rate burglary" that brought down a president.
Liddy, 64, is a former Nixon White House aide who once oversaw the Treasury Department's firearms policy. As general counsel of President Nixon's 1972 reelection committee, he was convicted of masterminding the Watergate break-in and served five years in prison -- longer than any other conspirator -- until President Carter reduced his sentence. He has acknowledged once plotting to kill columnist Jack Anderson for disclosing classified information, saying he would have considered it "justifiable homicide."
Though Liddy refused to talk to prosecutors during the Watergate era, he now holds forth four hours a day on a program that is heard on 262 stations from Baltimore to San Diego. He has written three books, publishes a monthly newsletter, has appeared in television and movie roles, has a vacation home in Scottsdale, Ariz., and commands as much as $12,000 a speech.
Most of Liddy's callers are devoted loyalists -- one dubbed him "a John Wayne for the '90s" -- but he also hears from fierce detractors. A woman from Memphis this week accused him of "inflammatory" rhetoric, and one fax was from "a fan filled with hate for you."
Liddy's format is unorthodox. He spends the first hour of his show reading from newspaper articles, particularly what he calls "Washington's premier newspaper," the Washington Times. The "G-man" laces his program with deadpan humor -- he announces each break for "crass commercial messages" -- but is deadly serious when it comes to advice about guns, which he freely dispenses, and his loathing of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
ATF is very much in the news because the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building came on the second anniversary of its botched raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Tex., in which more than 70 people were killed. ATF had offices in the Oklahoma City building. Timothy McVeigh, the principal suspect in the bombing, is reported by acquaintances to have been angry about the Waco assault.
Liddy argues that ATF, a Treasury Department agency, has not been held accountable for Waco and that Clinton has not told the truth about the fatal incident. As nine cameras recorded the action yesterday, Liddy told his listeners that ATF has "run amok," is "very dangerous" and "the most hated agency in the United States. . . . They have sort of a terror campaign going on against gun dealers. . . . The BATF thinks guns are bad."
Liddy has drawn criticism for repeatedly saying that if one is confronted by hostile ATF agents, "I advise shooting them in the head." He stressed yesterday that he was only talking about self-defense and that the unprovoked shooting of federal agents is "clearly unacceptable."
"If they smash in unannounced, screaming at you and assault you with lethal force, you have two choices," Liddy said. "You can die under their bullets, or you can shoot back and try to defend your wife and family. If they're wearing flak jackets, don't shoot them there, shoot them in the head."
He then modified his advice, saying most people are not skilled enough to successfully shoot agents in the head. "Shoot twice to the body, center of gravity," he said. "If that does not work, shoot to the groin area."
Liddy repeated his litany of alleged horror stories involving the bureau. In one case, he said, ATF agents raided the home of a pregnant woman and "slammed her against a concrete wall, thus causing her to lose the baby." In another case, he said, agents went to the home of a cancer patient, "trashed his cancer medicine, stole $2,000 and stomped his kitten to death. That kind of thing engenders an awful lot of hatred for that agency."
Asked for documentation, Liddy said he got his information from the alleged victims and had looked into the cases.
ATF spokesmen had no official comment, but a federal law enforcement official called Liddy's charges "way off base. He's a convicted felon, which tells you where he's coming from. It's very irresponsible for Mr. Liddy to encourage people to put our agents in harm's way. We always go in announcing who we are. If we don't need to go in by force, we won't."
The official denied that ATF mistreated the pregnant woman, saying, "None of our agents ever laid a finger on her." In the second case, the official said, "We can categorically deny any stomping of cats."
Naureckas said Liddy "is basically taking an anarchist point of view. G. Gordon Liddy has said it's not his responsibility if people react in an inappropriate way to the things he says. He has to face the reality that if he gives instructions over the air, how to kill federal agents, someone might listen and kill a federal agent."
Liddy, who has referred to Clinton as the "coward in chief," said his target practice occurred last July 4 at a rifle range "with what news people insist on calling assault weapons." He called Clinton "someone who, when it was his turn to fight for his country, dodged the draft, ran away and organized demonstrations against the people who had to go in his stead, some of whom may have died face down in the mud." Liddy also defended militia groups, a couple of which are reported to have possible ties to McVeigh. He said he knows some militia members and that they are "fine people . . . hard-working people, for the most part religious people."
The assembled reporters asked Liddy several times whether he felt any need to soften his rhetoric in the wake of Oklahoma City. He did not seize the opportunity.
"Rhetoric means persuasive speech," Liddy said. "It is perfectly within the job of a talk show host to use persuasive speech." CAPTION: G. Gordon Liddy autographs photos for fans at WJFK-FM in Fairfax: "I don't believe I'm fueling the lunatic fringe."