WASHINGTON — Even detractors will tell you he doesn't seem like a political brawler - let alone one who'd try to paint the president as a liar.
He's unfailingly polite. He moves more in the world of tailored suits than camouflage. And after all, the Clark Kent-looking lobbyist with pudgy cheeks nearly went to work for liberal House Speaker "Tip" O'Neill once upon a time.
Nevertheless, National Rifle Association Vice President Wayne LaPierre is at the forefront of a risky maneuver questioned even by some Republicans.
As the feud between the White House and the NRA erupted into full-blown rhetorical warfare - complete with television ads - Mr. LaPierre escalated the war of words further Wednesday, laying responsibility for the shooting death of a former coach of Northwestern University at the president's door.
He claims the president has failed to enforce existing gun laws, preferring to play politics with the issue.
"I've come to believe that he needs a certain level of violence in this country," LaPierre said in his first salvo last weekend. "He's willing to accept a certain level of killing to further his political agenda...."
Perhaps more than any other lobbyist in history, LaPierre is challenging the president politically - and personally - on gun control.
The strategy reflects his deep personal interpretation of the Second Amendment to the Constitution and a willingness to step over a line of protocol observed even by a president's harshest critics.
But taking on a sitting president and his bully pulpit is not the same thing as winning at it.
"It plays right into the administration's hands," says Robert Spitzer, author of "The Politics of Gun Control" and a professor of political science at the State University of New York in Cortland.
"Even if they [the administration] don't get gun legislation out of Congress, they've made the NRA the poster child of everything that's wrong with the gun debate," Mr. Spitzer says.
Some close to LaPierre say the strategy is an extension of his deeply held belief that in the United States, freedom to bear arms as a basic right has been under assault since the beginning of the Clinton White House.
The current campaign, they say, is a commensurate response to the White House's full-court-press effort to pass a new round of firearm restrictions, disingenuously using tragedy to push that legislative agenda. They point to the recent shooting in Michigan, in which a first-grade boy took a .32-caliber handgun to school, killing a classmate.
"He was very literal in saying if Congress had passed his gun law bill that young girl wouldn't have died, no ifs, ands, or buts about it," declares gun author John Lott, a senior research scholar at Yale University Law School. In that case "you had a six-year-old boy living in a crack house with drug addicts, and all the relatives had warrants out for their arrests," Mr. Lott says. "Would trigger locks have made a difference?"
There is no evidence of fallout from within the ranks of the roughly 3.2-million-member NRA of the stiff language used against Mr. Clinton. Indeed, quite the opposite. Since becoming vice president in 1991, LaPierre has been nimble in surviving NRA infighting between ideologically disparate factions.
As a student at Franciscan Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., his even manner might have earned him votes as least likely to head a controversial lobbying campaign.
He first went to work at the NRA in 1978, lobbying statehouses in 15 capitals in the Northeast, motivated by constitutional principle, according to colleagues at the time, not by rural family tradition.
"He doesn't come from a background of interactive shooting involvement," says Richard Gardiner, former counsel at the NRA. "To him it's a constitutional right."
Even archrivals from the antigun camp say his private manner belies his fierce public tactics. "Our encounters off camera ... are always civil," says Naomi Paiss, communications director for Handgun Control Inc. in Washington.
But on camera, LaPierre shows no sign of backing down from the hot rhetoric as the White House continues perhaps its single biggest legislative drive to restrict firearms purchases and use since the Brady Bill in 1993.
The current effort includes a proposal mandating trigger locks on all new handguns, criminal background checks on buyers at gun shows, and an import ban on high-capacity magazines.
The current imbroglio is not the first time LaPierre has tangled with a president. A 1995 fund-raising letter depicting Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms agents as "jack-booted government thugs," incensed former President George Bush so much he returned his lifetime membership to the organization.
Historically, rhetoric spices up Washington debate. But seldom does it blossom into the degree of personal anger witnessed in this week's exchanges.
It risks offending mainstream gun owners and political moderates who offer their allegiance to the NRA. "It's not very often that you'll hear me say anything supportive of this president," says a former Bush official about the NRA campaign. "But that was outrageous."
Certainly there have been other times when a president has tangled with a private citizen on policy matters, perhaps most recently "with [President John] Kennedy's fight with [US Steel Corp. Chairman] Roger Blough," in 1962 says Stephen Wayne, a presidential expert at Georgetown University. Press reports cite "the cold anger" with which Mr. Kennedy denounced as unpatriotic steel-price increases during the Vietnam conflict.
"Needless to say, today the White House is reacting both to the policy and the personal criticism," Mr. Wayne says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society