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Politics, paranoid style

Rep. Robert Dornan's manic fantasy that Bill Clinton once met with the KGB in Moscow is not quite the most preposterous thing ever said in American politics.

That distinction still belongs, 29 years later, to Robert Welch's description of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower as "a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy." It served Ike right, in a way, for having said so little to defend Secretary of State George Marshall against Joseph McCarthy's slanderous attacks.

What the historian Richard Hofstadter called "the paranoid style in American politics" is as old as the republic. In 1798, a Boston clergyman named Jedidiah Morse unleashed a bitter campaign against an innocuous European philosophical movement known as Illuminism. The 1800s gave rise to anti-Masonic and anti-Catholic political parties, with Morse's son Samuel F.

B., inventor of the telegraph, helping to pave the way for the latter. Still later came the Ku Klux Klan, followed by such other violence-prone hate groups as the skinheads and the Aryan Nations. American populism, at first blush a liberal movement, has often spawned theories about international bankers and other imagined conspiracies; today's version, stubbornly persistent among the true believers, is an anti-Semitic fiction targeting the Federal Reserve.

So Clinton went to Moscow. So have thousands of other American students, businesspeople, tourists, artists and scholars.

"My daughter went on a trip to Czechoslovakia right out of high school," says Elsie Deich, a reader in Palm Harbor. "Does that make her a communist?"

As Hofstadter wrote in 1965:

"What distinguishes the paranoid style is not .

.

. the absence of verifiable facts (though it is occasionally true that in his extravagant passion for facts the paranoid occasionally manufactures them) but rather the curious leap in imagination that is always made at some critical point in the recital of events."

But nothing in the long, lurid history that Hofstadter described _ nor anything since _ quite compares to how Dornan's ravings were treated last week by an incumbent president of the United States.

George Bush echoed them.

Bush's suggestion that Clinton should have to further explain what he was doing in Moscow on a student visit more than 20 years ago came in whole cloth out of Dornan's confessed fantasy. Though Bush backpedaled a day later _ after the damage he had done to himself became apparent _ he had succeeded in calling more attention to the paranoid nonsense than Dornan could ever have managed for himself.

Dornan is a kook. Most anyone in Congress _ of either party _ would have to concede that. George Bush is not a kook. So why would he consciously lend the dignity of his country's highest office to someone who is?

Ambition alone does not fully explain it. Perhaps the truth comes to us in the memorable rebuke with which Joseph N. Welch, the Boston lawyer, brought to a halt the ascent of Joseph McCarthy:

"Have you no decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

Speaking of things that never change, another of America's enduring conspiracy theories is the notion that people who advocate such modest gun control measures as the Brady bill have a secret plan to abolish the private ownership of guns.

This comes from the National Rifle Association, which should know better, and is widely believed. The NRA's Neal Knox:

"The purpose of all these restrictions is the ultimate confiscation of all guns in this country. That's the real agenda of the anti-gun lobby, and we all know that."

Pardon, but how do they "know that?" I don't know of a single gun-control advocate, myself included, who would suggest or even contemplate doing away with the private possession of firearms. Hunting, target shooting and self-protection are legitimate uses. If there were any total abolitionists out there, the 200-million or so firearms already in circulation would make their mission a fool's errand. The unfortunate result of the gun lobby's persistent myth is to prevent any political compromise that might help to keep handguns and rapid-fire weapons out of the hands of people with no legitimate need. Waiting periods won't do it all, but they can help. Every state and city that has one has caught people with criminal records trying to buy guns through legal channels. Criminals, as a group, are dumber than the NRA cares to admit.

A government that would want to confiscate all guns would of course be a despotic government and should that happen here the Second Amendment would not be the only endangered part of the Bill of Rights. But we would know we were in trouble long before it got to that point. This is still a democracy. How about a little trust in it?

Martin Dyckman is associate editor of the Times.

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