PRESIDENT Clinton gets a lot of back talk from talk show hosts when he says there's too much hate talk on the airwaves. They fire back that he's just being political, down on them because they're generally down on him. But in the romance between political conservatives and radio conservatives, some defining moment may have been reached. G. Gordon Liddy was disinvited from presiding over a fundraising dinner of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, billed as a salute to talk radio.
In the post-Oklahoma City climate, Mr. Liddy had attracted a lot of attention for saying that he uses representations of the president and the first lady for target practice, and for counseling just where to shoot an ATF agent who confronts you. Liddy, who believes in no excuses, said he was disappointed at the way the Republicans had caved in. He said, ''I don't believe I am feeding the lunatic fringe.''
I don't know how one defines ''lunatic fringe,'' but back to Watergate days, I've always found Gordon Liddy scary.
He was the one who burned his hand over a candle to show how macho he was, the one who shot out lights at McGovern headquarters, the one whose plan for dealing with opponents was hiring professional killers and abducting potential demonstrators to Mexico. He also had a plan to lure Democrats from their convention to a houseboat loaded with prostitutes with microphones in their pillows, and he once talked of shooting columnist Jack Anderson for publishing classified information.
When some of his Nixon-campaign associates were asked to evaluate Liddy for Gerald and Deborah Strober's recent history of the Nixon presidency, Fred Mallek called him ''a little weird,'' Fred Fielding called him ''a strange person,'' Robert Odle called him ''an odd duck,'' and Jeb Magruder said, ''This guy is Adolph Hitler.''
I can remember my own first encounter with Liddy in January 1973, covering the trial of the Watergate burglars. Chatting with a colleague in the courtroom before the proceedings began, I made a reference to Liddy. From the other side of the bar, he wheeled and snapped, ''Mr. Liddy to you.'' And guess what: Such was the menace in his eyes that I said, ''Yes, Mr. Liddy.''
I never claimed to be a hero. I must admit to having felt a little more secure when Liddy was sentenced to prison for five years, the longest of any of the Watergate defendants. His term was eventually commuted by President Carter. But being considered a little weird and menacing is certainly no disqualification for being a talk show host.
AND Liddy is probably the most successful of them after Rush Limbaugh. He offers a menu of colorful talk, calling Mr. Clinton ''coward in chief,'' telling apocryphal stories about ATF agents doing things like slamming a pregnant woman into a wall. He defends militia groups as ''fine people, hardworking people,'' and he sees no reason to moderate his rhetoric after Oklahoma City.
But if Liddy is not having second thoughts, Republican legislators clearly are. Not because Clinton says, ''We must stand up and speak against reckless speech that can push fragile people over the edge,'' but because with several stations having dropped Liddy, Republicans in Congress are wondering whether inflammatory talk is what they want to be identified with these days.