`Bitter radio of hate' hits back

OKLAHOMA: American right on the defensive as chief suspect refuses to co-operate with FBI
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"The BATF is a very dangerous group of people. They are totally out of control. I think it is very dangerous to put a childrens' day-care centre in a building which houses the most hated agency in the country."

Such were a few random thoughts for his claimed 8 million audience offered yesterday by the erstwhile Watergate felon, gun freak and syndicated radio talk king, G Gordon Liddy, on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the siting of its offices - along with those of a clutch of other federal agencies - in the Murrah building in Oklahoma City.

A week after the worst terrorist incident inside America's borders, the spotlight of controversy is focused on conservative talk radio and those "purveyors of hatred," whose "reckless speech" and "bitter words" were so roundly castigated on Monday by President Bill Clinton. For the first time in months, the American right is on the defensive; but if Mr Clinton was expecting contrition, there has been scant sign of it from Mr Liddy and his peers.

Yesterday, as every day since the slaughter, Oklahoma City was the only topic on his three-hour show. So great has been the media clamour that Mr Liddy turned a segment of the programme into a press conference in the lobby of the building which houses the studios at station WJFK, in Liddy-parlance "Radio Free DC".

Was he unwittingly stoking up the extremist, lunatic fringe? Absolutely not, he responded, "I have a fine, intelligent, thoughtful audience." Yes, he conceded, he had given instructions on how to kill ATF agents - but only in self-defence, when they attacked without reason, as during their raid on the "Christian fundamentalist" movement at Waco, two years ago.

But, surely, someone else asked, his views on federal agencies and government in general had not made life easier for the innocent victims of Oklahoma City? "But what about the innocent victims of Waco," retorted Mr Liddy. "What we need to do is make sure these things stop. You can tell when I'm serious: We've got to see that federal agencies which run amok are reined in. And you can tell when I'm joking."

Yes, he acknowledged to another questioner, "I did relate on the air that on the Fourth of July, 1994, when I was with my family at a properly constructed shooting range and we ran out of targets, I drew some stick- figures for new targets and called them Bill and Hillary. But I accept no responsibility for somebody shooting up the White House" - a reference to Francisco Duran, who fired 36 rounds at the President's home last year. But, Mr Liddy seemed to imply, the President was asking for it, by "coming for your guns in the name of civil liberties. If it hadn't been for the armed 18th-century citizens' militia, there wouldn't have been any civil liberties here in the first place. And now Clinton wants to take away more of your liberties by giving more powers to the FBI."

But elsewhere than on the radio talkshow circuit, the President has emerged with credit from the crisis. The federal government which he heads and its agencies - especially the FBI and the Federal Emergency Management Agency - have demonstrably performed well.

Mr Clinton's approval ratings are up, and more sober political opponents such as the Senate majority leader, Bob Dole, have applauded his handling of the disaster. Not least he has been centre stage throughout: no small improvement for a man pleading, at a news conference the night before Oklahoma City, that he was still "relevant".

And for all the fire currently directed at them, the shows too may benefit. With the Republicans in control of Congress, and few epithets left to hurl at President and Mrs Clinton, the format had been starting to look stale and over-strident. Now the conservative hosts are back where they love it, at the centre of debate. And if ratings go up, they'll be the last to complain.