LET US put an end to the teaching and preaching of hate and evil and violence," said the president after the killing.
"Let us turn away from the fanatics of the far left and the far right, from the apostles of bitterness and bigotry, from those defiant of law and those who pour venom into the nation's bloodstream."
The president was Lyndon Johnson, five days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The evenhanded message was needed, though some were trying to lay the blame at the door of "right-wing extremists."
President Clinton, in the immediate aftermath of the Oklahoma City massacre, comported himself as a president should: gravely identifying with the nation's fury, but tightly controlled, unwilling to speculate "about motives or atmosphere until the investigation is complete." Mrs. Clinton's subsequent reassurance of children was admirable.
But then he blew it. Unable to restrain himself from treating the tragedy as a political opportunity, he launched into a diatribe against the radio talk-show hosts who have bedeviled him.
"We hear so many loud and angry voices in America today," Mr. Clinton told a college group in Minneapolis, after an obligatory obeisance to free speech, "whose sole goal seems to be to try to keep some people as paranoid as possible and the rest of us all torn up and upset with each other. They spread hate. They leave the impression, by their very words, that violence is acceptable."
The impression Mr. Clinton left, by his very words, was that the Oklahoma bombing had been incited by words "regularly said over the airwaves" by his political critics.
"Those of us who do not agree with the purveyors of hatred and division, with the promoters of paranoia," he urged, ". . . we have our responsibilities, too. . . . When they talk of hatred, we must stand against them. When they talk of violence, we must stand against them."
This was calculated to associate the bombing, and the national revulsion that followed it, with what has been said "over the airwaves." That means talk radio.
It's a bum rap. The terrorist ring that struck in Oklahoma City was no more incited by talk radio than the assassin of Kennedy was the product of a climate of right-wing resentment in Dallas (as was charged at the time). Nor is it the fault of Janet Reno for her blunder in Waco, Texas. Responsibility rests on the criminals themselves, not on chosen motivators or "root causes."
Far be it from me to knock the use of alliteration in political attacks, but the phrase "promoters of paranoia" exhibits a gleeful lust for rhetorical combat with the broadcasters. It fits into the White House strategy of applying the word "extremist" to proponents of policies that differ from Mr. Clinton's.
Evidently this use of the nation's horror after the bombing as a backdrop for retaliation against his radio tormentors worried some of the president's advisers. In Des Moines afterward, he hastily backtracked:
"This is not a matter of partisan politics," he assured all who logically took it to be exactly that.
"It is not a matter of political philosophy." And what about the "airwaves"? Hate speech was wrong "whether it comes from the right or the left, from the media or people speaking on their own."
His aide George Stephanopoulos insists that an accusation against conservative broadcasters "was never in the words; he never said right-wing," and the inference so many of us drew "is defensiveness on the part of the people listening."
That stretches credulity.
The president was not inveighing against Hollywood movie makers who punctuate each chase with spectacular explosions, or who perpetrate theories that the government conspired to kill Kennedy and cover it up. He was plainly aiming suppressing fire at radio talk-show hosts, famously right-wing, until he was told to add "of the right or the left."
Nothing is wrong with denouncing apostles of hatred, and we are well served by calling for a lowering of voices; incitement to violence is not protected free speech.
But in the presence of tragedy, to impute a portion of responsibility to angry airwavers as "promoters of paranoia" -- in this case, a murderous madness -- is a form of extremism that a president should avoid.
William Safire is a New York Times columnist.