If the show fits: Right-wing ranters and lunatic fringe

April 26, 1995|By MIKE LITTWIN

In the wake of Oklahoma City, Bill Clinton has come down strongly against the forces of hate. You might think that would be a non-controversial stance, sort of like coming down strongly against sin.

But of course it isn't.

That's because Clinton says a powerful source of that hate comes from the right-wing voices found up and down your AM radio dial. He put it this way: "They spread hate. They leave the impression that, by their very words, violence is acceptable."

Rush Limbaugh, among others, has taken umbrage.

We should not pick on Rush, even if he is loud, obnoxious, overbearing, self-important, often wrong and also pro-cholesterol. He can be hateful, if you consider three hours of anti-government, anti-liberal, anti-Clinton invective every day hateful. And, if you miss him, there are plenty of others who speak the same loud language.

But Rush doesn't blow up buildings. He doesn't advocate blowing up buildings. He actually condemns blowing up buildings. Rush is definitely in the anti-building-bomber camp.

Still, he has a problem. And so does his pal Newt Gingrich, who, in his way, called Clinton's comments "a grotesquerie."

And so do all the angry white males (Pat Buchanan, Phil Gramm, Bob Dornan, Bob "I'm Trying to Get Madder" Dole, etc.) running for president.

They're all for smaller government, which is fine. It's the rhetoric that's the problem. Like when Newtie, in one of his less calm moments, blamed Democratic policies for Susan Smith's drowning her children. The voices get loud. They get strident.

And then somebody, in a slightly louder voice but from the same end -- if the deep end -- of the political spectrum, is accused of blowing up a building and killing scores of people, including babies.

It isn't Rush's fault. Or Newtie's.

You can't hold them responsible any more than you can hold the anti-war protesters responsible for somebody blowing up the building at the University of Wisconsin in 1970. There's a radical fringe in every movement. You can't silence dissent, or strong opinions, because there happen to be crazy people about. Democracy is supposed to be loud. Inevitably, conversation will get ugly.

What the radio talk shows do -- and the Internet, too, for that matter -- is give an outlet to the unreasoned voices. So, in the 1990s, G. Gordon Liddy, the original nut case, gets his own radio show. And, while he holds his hand over a candle flame, he can advise his listeners to aim at the head of ATF agents, because they're wearing vests to cover their chests.

Sick? Yes. Scary? Yes.

Does it have anything to do with the mainstream conservative, less-government movement? Not really.

Except that the far-right nuts share a lot of the same rhetoric with the modern conservative movement, particularly where it comes to taxes and especially guns. And what any wise politician does is to define the opposition by its most radical elements. This is what happened to the Democrats, who never recovered from what are still seen as the excesses of the '60s. That's why Newtie goes on, all these years later, about counterculture McGoverniks.

The anti-abortion movement has a similar problem. If you think anti-abortion today, you think about some zealot shooting a doctor, not of mothers who want to protect, as they say, the rights of the unborn. With every violent act, the movement becomes increasingly marginalized.

We've always had these nutty people, long before the talk-radio era. Remember General Walker? The Minutemen? Somebody shot Reagan. They even shot at Ford. Who did Gerald Ford ever make mad?

If you look at the pictures of Timothy McVeigh, you see an anger that is palpable. And frightening.

And whether or not McVeigh is guilty, we will now take a hard look at the gun-crazy, para-military groups that talk about defending themselves from the same government that the conservatives are not simply criticizing, but often calling evil.

This is where it gets tough for mainstream conservatives. One of their big issues is opposition to gun control. They want to bring back semi-automatic weapons. This has a lot of normal Americans worried. Some will inevitably ask: Do you want to put these weapons in the hands of the crazies?

If you do, some people might think you're guilty of more than simply uncivil talk-show chatter.

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