Rush Limbaugh, talk radio hero of the Republican freshman class, warned the newly elected members of Congress last night not to be seduced by the attention of the liberal media.
"You will never, ever be their friends. Some female reporter will come up to one of you and bat her eyes and ask you to go to lunch," Mr. Limbaugh said at a dinner at Camden Yards, the conclusion of a three-day freshmen retreat. "Don't fall for this. This is not the time to get moderate. . . . The people who voted for you are looking for action."
Even worse, Mr. Limbaugh warned, the Washington press corps will quickly turn against them.
"You now are going to be the targets of the biggest media . . . exam there has ever been," he predicted. "Clinton's had his, and it's get-even time, folks. What you've done has upset the apple cart and they haven't figured it out."
The conservative radio show host was honored last night by 73 new Republican representatives who consider him partly responsible for the political upheaval that resulted in the first Republican control of Congress in two generations. They presented him with a plaque and made him an honorary member of the class.
But Mr. Limbaugh protested that he is "just a media guy."
"You were the ones who ran for office, who raised the money, who took the heat," he told the new House members. The establishment media "think that I took a brainless people and converted them to mind-numbed robots and forced them to pull the lever that I wanted them to pull."
The truth, Mr. Limbaugh said, is that "we validate what's in people's hearts and minds already."
Even so, Mr. Limbaugh's lecture on "Washington and the media" seemed to reinforce something this class of GOP newcomers already knows: that talk radio (and television) is one of their best forms of direct access to voters.
"Rush means equal access," said Rep.-elect Jon R. Christenson of Nebraska, who during the campaign pasted one of his bumper stickers on cars that already bore a sticker proclaiming "Rush is Right."
"There's Sam Donaldson, and Peter Jennings, and the liberal media elite on the other side, but we have Rush," he added, referring to the 20 million Americans who tune in to Mr. Limbaugh's program daily.
Making his first major appearance in Baltimore, Mr. Limbaugh spoke along with William Bennett, former education secretary and drug czar, at a dinner capping the retreat sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Though he professed to be overwhelmed by the moment, the talk show maven couldn't resist taking shots at some easy targets, such as Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders, the surgeon general whom President Clinton fired Friday for suggesting that masturbation should be taught in schools.
"She said much worse than, much stupider things than this . . . like the way to combat crime is softer bullets."
Mr. Limbaugh also urged the new Republicans to "leave some liberals alive: one Communist professor, two liberal professors, so people never forget what they are; living fossils."
Although the GOP freshmen could be called foot soldiers in Mr. Limbaugh's version of "Operation Restore Democracy" -- as he dubbed last month's election in a dig at Mr. Clinton's occupation of Haiti -- they don't see him as their leader.
"To this Republican reformation, this conservative renaissance, Rush is like Will Rogers was to the New Deal," said Rep.-elect J. D. Hayworth, a sportscaster from Arizona. "He helps articulate on a daily basis the themes on which many of us were sent to Washington. He prods us, and gives comfort.
"But we don't take our orders from Rush," he added. "We draw our reasons for being here from the people who sent us here."
Mr. Limbaugh, whose program is broadcast on 660 stations nationwide, including AM station WBAL in Baltimore, is the most prominent of a legion of talk show hosts who played an important role in last month's election.
"I found that talk radio was the only way I could get my message out undiluted," said Rep.-elect James B. Longley of Maine, who said he got several chances to speak at length on a program in Portland "without editing and without interruption."
Rep.-elect David M. McIntosh of Indiana said he believes Mr. Limbaugh and talk radio in general contributed to the fact that so many of his classmates are not typical, polished "sound-bite" politicians. Nearly half the class has never before held public office, and many ran in contests considered hopeless by more seasoned politicians.
Most of them won their races over the opposition of their local media establishments. The freshmen gave Mr. Limbaugh a plaque shaped like a dart board last night. It noted that newspaper endorsements favored their opponents by more than 3-to-1 margin.