Sound-biters hound Clinton: Radio and TV talk-show hosts have become the new opinion formers in the US. David Usborne listens in

Liddy on Bill Clinton: 'It would be one thing if President Clinton had run as a socialist and a liberal, which is what he is, and then people had elected him - well, you know, that's fair. But what he did was lie, lie, lie, saying he was a Democrat and a centrist.'

Limbaugh on Clinton: 'The Clinton presidency is a crisis so large that even I underestimated it. It is nothing less than an onslaught of socialism.'

Liddy on Hillary Clinton's health care plan: 'Socialism has not worked anywhere in the world and it's not going to work here. They have buffaloed and deceived the American people into going along with it. They want to socialise the whole American economy, and they are starting by socialising 14 per cent of it.'

Liddy on gun control: 'The vast Chinese populus have always been unarmed and they are still unarmed, and that's why they are stuck with communism today in my opinion.'

G GORDON LIDDY, the man who masterminded the Watergate break-in 21 years ago, glances at his computer screen for the identity of his final caller. 'Joe from California. How can I help you, sir?'

'I can't persuade my semi- liberal, Democrat wife to keep a loaded gun in the house,' his caller replies.

Mr Liddy has already done guns, but with three minutes until the end of his daily four- hour stint, he does not mind starting again. The gun-control lobby is one of his favourite targets, second only to those 'socialists' in the White House, 'the President and her husband'. His advice: buy the gun, hide it from the kids and maybe train them to use it when they reach 13.

With that, Mr Liddy signs off from another edition of Radio Free DC, an all-talk call-in show he has been broadcasting from a studio of WJFK Radio in suburban Washington since early 1992. In April, the programme went national and is now sent by satellite to 153 stations nationwide.

Erstwhile lawyer, FBI agent and federal convict, Mr Liddy is a hit. More than that, he is at the head of an airwaves revolution that is challenging the way politics is being conducted in America. Step aside columnists and television pundits, and make way for the new opinion- formers: talk-show hosts.

It began with last year's presidential race. Texas billionaire Ross Perot launched his campaign on the set of CNN's prime-time call-in show, Larry King Live. Bill Clinton became a virtual 'on air' junkie, debating with television studio audiences around the country, playing the saxophone on late-night Arsenio Hall and taking the microphone in local radio call-in shows. Only George Bush seemed uncertain in the new habitat.

One year on, the relationship between President Clinton and the talk-show industry is just as intense. Turning again to television to sell his reforms, he lingered two hours on an ABC TV phone-in special to answer questions the night after presenting his health care plan to Congress. And last night, Hillary Rodham Clinton was making her pitch for the plan on Larry King. The strategy may be paying off: polls show strong support for health care reform.

More impressive is the sudden recovery in the President's own fortunes. A USA Today/ CNN poll last week gave him an approval rating of 56 per cent, compared to 37 per cent in June and 60 per cent at his inauguration last year.

Radio, however, is doing Mr Clinton fewer favours. Mr Liddy's tirade against the administration and what he considers its subversive socialist agenda is typical of the fare offered daily up and down America's AM and FM frequencies.

'Nobody in the history of talk radio has been more criticised and more bashed than Bill Clinton,' says Michael Harrison, who has his own show on WNNZ in Springfield, Massachusetts, and publishes a trade magazine, called Talkers, for talk-show hosts.

Foremost among the President's tormentors is New York-based Rush Limbaugh. Such is his success that he is almost a one-man party of opposition. His radio show is carried by 628 stations across the country, with a combined audience of 20 million. He has a half-hour, late-night television show and his first book, The Way Things Ought to Be, is the fastest-selling hardback in history. Fans happily call themselves 'Dittoheads' - everything he says, they say - and congregate in 'rush rooms' set aside by restaurants and bars around the country for mass Limbaugh listen-ins. Some harbour the notion that he will succeed Mr Clinton as President in 1996.

In one of several downtown Washington rush rooms on Friday, Anne - she was shy about giving her full name - pronounced herself proud to be a Dittohead. She never goes anywhere without the Limbaugh book. 'He tells you the way it is,' she says earnestly. 'People have to listen to him because the Clintons have to go. He's God as far as I'm concerned.' As for Mr Clinton, she says: 'I don't want to tell you what I think he is. When I look at the news and they refer to him, it just makes me gag.'

In our interview, Mr Limbaugh plays out a semi-humourous skit, 'The Clinton Hustle', describing how the First Couple are charming the mainstream media and the public into buying their health care presentation. He begins: 'This, my friends, is how it's done. The Clinton hustle: how we end up accepting socialism. First off, ladies and gentlemen, we have the establishment of the crisis, days of advertising on TV, absurd figures, numbers that are made up to exaggerate the crisis and to incite fear. Then the emotional anecdotes: government by sob story, the whining of America.'

As well as Mr Clinton, Mr Limbaugh glories in debunking radical feminists - 'feminazis' he calls them - and 'environmental wackos'.

Mr Limbaugh, Mr Liddy and others are successful in part because they ignore the constraints of political correctness that so weigh down the rest of the American media. Among the most blasphemous is New York 'shock-jock' Don Imus, who twice had Mr Clinton in his studio during the presidential election campaign. Now he refers to him as that 'pant-load in the White House' or plain 'fatso'.

But the programmes also offer refuge to all those Americans who are not Democrats and did not vote for Mr Clinton (57 per cent of them). 'There are so many citizens around the country who are conservatives,' explains Mr Liddy, winding down after his show. 'They are angry and at their wits' end because they do not find their voice in any of the major media organs, so that when they come across a programme such as mine, they say Hallelujah.'

Mr Liddy concedes that he is partly 'preaching to the choir'. But he also believes that he does influence debate and can convert listeners to the anti-Clinton cause. 'We have people saying that we used to be liberals, that we've been listening to the show and we're no longer a liberal,' he says.

A recent Times-Mirror survey showed that 42 per cent of American adults listen to talk radio sometimes, with 17 per cent tuning in regularly. And there have been several instances of talk radio being seen as the prime mover in galvanising public opinion on an issue, notably in forcing President Clinton to abandon his nomination of Zoe Baird as Attorney-General in the embarrassing 'Nannygate' affair.

Formal acknowledgement of the format's power came two weeks ago when talk-show hosts from around the country were invited, for the first time, to the White House for a presidential briefing on health care. Such invitations are normally reserved for the network anchors and heavy-weight columnists. Nearly 200 turned up, although not Mr Limbaugh or Mr Liddy. By all accounts, it was a rowdy affair.

'They were all yelling and screaming at each other,' White House counsellor, David Gergen, reported later. Donna Shalala, the Health Secretary, had to scream for quiet. Afterwards, about 60 of the hosts broadcast their regular shows from desks on the White House lawn, interspersing their chat with interviews with Clinton staff members.

Mr Harrison, who did accept the invitation, is not certain whether many minds were changed. 'I don't think Mr Clinton won everybody over, but because we had four to five hours of concentrated thought about the issue, he did bring to the talk-show hosts a higher level of awareness of what he is doing,' he concluded. None the less, in Washington terms at least, it meant that the talk- jockeys of popular American radio had arrived.

(Photograph omitted)

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