WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- President Clinton said yesterday that he fears a rising tide of intense, anti-government suspicion is corroding America's ability to govern itself. And he looked to talk radio, of all places, for help.
"Part of your birthright as an American is to have a healthy suspicion of the government," Mr. Clinton said. But "we're going through a period now when it is much stronger among certain groups than it has historically been."
Many talk shows feed the "anxiety and lashing out" that infects American discourse, Mr. Clinton said. Instead, he urged hosts and their callers to reject "unacceptable" statements "that are just purely fostering hatred, division and encouraging violence."
In a telephone interview, Mr. Clinton conceded that "people in government authority make mistakes. Every one of us, including the president, can cite an example where he or she believes the government over steps its bounds, from something as innocent as being rude to a citizen in a Social Security line . . . to something as terrible as an unjustified arrest or an unjustified prosecution," he said.
But in the face of government abuses, American citizens should vote for change, call talk shows, file lawsuits, he said. "You do not have the right to break the law," he said. "And you certainly do not have the right to commit violence."
Mr. Clinton rebuked talk show hosts who promote violence and divisiveness, scolding syndicated radio host G. Gordon Liddy by name.
"Some speech is wrong," Mr. Clinton said. "I cannot defend some of the things that Gordon Liddy has said. I cannot defend some of the things some of these more extreme talk-show hosts have said."
Mr. Liddy has been widely condemned for telling callers to aim for the heads of federal agents who invade their homes wearing bulletproof vests. "Head shots, head shots. . . . Kill the sons of bitches," Mr. Liddy said on the air.
Mr. Clinton also condemned "these little shortwave programs that plainly are encouraging violence." Shortwave radio has become a popular medium for programs sponsored by right-wing groups, such as the voice of the militia movement, Mark Koernke, who also is known as Mark from Michigan.
L Mr. Koernke was pulled off the air by his station last week.
Mr. Clinton defended his proposal to expand the FBI's power to monitor potential terrorist groups in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. That plan has civil libertarians on high alert.
Mr. Clinton stopped short, however, of calling for FBI surveillance of right-wing groups such as the Michigan Militia, a statewide group whose brand of anti-government rhetoric may have inspired Timothy McVeigh, the only suspect so far charged in the April 19 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
"The FBI would have to consider that based on the rhetoric and the conduct . . . the facts of each group," Mr. Clinton said. "I think the closer you come to advocating violence, the more . . . our law enforcement officials have to have the ability to at least look into whether they believe an incident is about to occur and whether they can head it off."
Mr. Clinton focused on the deep sense of distrust that seems increasingly to infect ordinary Americans' feelings toward their government.
In an April 27 Time-Yankelovich poll, 52 percent of Americans said the federal government has become so large and powerful that it poses a threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens. In that poll, 4 percent of respondents believe the federal government blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City.
Asked to explain why such startling sentiments seem to be gaining currency, Mr. Clinton blamed the "personal experience" of those who are distrustful, as well as "the anti-government voices" who "are louder and better organized" today than in the past.
"My own view is that suspicion of the government prevents people from making good . . . judgments about whether particular actions are right or wrong and keeps us from seeing what our challenges are," the president said.
"Whether it's my administration or the Congress or a particular bill pending, if you have a generally negative view of what is a very great country . . . it's hard to think about those things with a clear head if you're negative to the point of being paranoid, if you don't believe anything good can ever happen."
Mr. Clinton praised talk radio for "giving our country a sort of a set of town hall meetings that are constant, and giving people the opportunity to call in and express their views and engage in conversation.
"That's a very positive thing," he said. And he suggested that "we ought to use these forums now to try to reopen this conversation to really talk things through.
"My job as president is not to try to silence people with whom I disagree, no matter how bitterly I disagree," he said. "My job is to try to see that the Constitution is protected, that the laws are upheld and that the American people are safe and secure to lead whatever lives they want to lead."