When President Clinton berated the unspecified purveyors of “angry words” that supposedly encourage violence such as the Oklahoma City bombing, one of the first names to pop to mind was that of radio talk-show host G. Gordon Liddy.

And not without reason. Liddy, whose syndicated program originates from WJFK-FM (106.7) in Fairfax, Va., spends an inordinate amount of time ranting about the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), which he labels a “rogue agency” bent on seizing every gun in America. For well over a year, in fact, Liddy has been teaching his listeners how to defend themselves if armed ATF agents storm their homes in an illegal search for weapons. Liddy’s advice: Shoot for the head or groin, since the federales wear body armor.

Such remarks support Liddy’s mucho macho image as a man of action and intrigue. It’s an image he constantly reinforces with references to his military duty, FBI experience, intelligence background, and mastery of weapons and self-defense.

Liddy claims to have no earthly idea how he obtained this outsize reputation.

“I have told the truth about my various careers,” he says. “As you say, it’s all there in my [autobiography]. Why people have certain impressions of me is something you will have to take up with them.”

Well, maybe one day we’ll do that. In the meantime, let’s hazard a guess. Could it be that his listeners—including the endless parade of awestruck callers—don’t know the truth about Liddy’s checkered career? Could it be that Liddy’s post-Watergate makeover has totally obscured his previous mediocrity and outright failure?

Take his military service, which Liddy uses to bond with veterans and bash those who did not serve, including President Clinton. Yes, Liddy did indeed serve in the U.S. Army from 1952-54—as an anti-aircraft artillery officer commanding a battery in the war-torn Coney Island section of Brooklyn.

In fairness, Liddy claims that he desperately wanted to see combat in Korea, but was held back by an emergency appendectomy that prevented him from winning combat certification. In his autobiography, Will, Liddy bitterly complains that his final chance to kill a few godless Asian communists was thwarted by an unknown informant who supposedly ratted when—against doctors’ orders and without authorization—he trussed up his incision, dragged himself to the obstacle course, lied to the training sergeant, and attempted to complete the combat fitness test.

After leaving the Army and earning a law degree, Liddy joined the FBI as a special agent. He spent five unremarkable years with the agency. After serving as a field agent in the Indianapolis, Gary, Ind., and Denver field offices, he was assigned to various public-relations and administrative posts at FBI headquarters. He quit the bureau for private law practice because he needed to make more money.

By his own account Liddy was involved in several illegal acts during his stint with the bureau, including (harbinger of things to come!) breaking into empty homes in search of clues, and pulling his gun on an unruly drunk who thought Liddy was gay.

Gee, no wonder Gordo’s paranoid about abuse of power by federal law enforcement agencies. He helped pioneer such behavior.

Liddy continued his assault on civil liberties as a Nixon operative charged with dreaming up schemes to damage the Democrats and other perceived enemies of the president. Among his never-consummated proposals were a plot to drop LSD in Daniel Ellsberg’s soup before the Nixon “enemy” gave a major luncheon speech; a plan to disrupt the 1972 Democratic National Convention by disabling the Miami convention center’s air conditioners; and a scenario to lure prominent Dems into compromising situations with prostitutes.

Of course, when it came time to actually execute a big-time operation—bugging the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate—secret agent Gordo screwed the pooch. His hired cronies couldn’t pull off a simple break-in, a crime successfully committed by District street punks hundreds of times a year. As a result of his failure, Liddy went to prison, and the president he served with psycho-pit-bull loyalty was forced to resign in disgrace.

Since his release from prison in 1977, Liddy has made a very nice living by trading on his reputation for personal strength and self-discipline—the ol’ hand-over-the-candle-flame shtick. In his book, speeches, Miami Vice guest roles, and radio show, he is the baddest of the badasses, a master of mayhem and self-defense who knows 100 ways to kill with an emory board.

Yet in his best-known real-life run-in with an attacker, Liddy wound up in the hospital. The confrontation took place at Liddy’s isolated Fort Washington home on Christmas Eve 1987. According to news reports, Liddy discovered a young couple sitting in a pickup truck on his property. Armed with a billy club, he approached the vehicle and told the male driver to scram. Words were exchanged and the driver attempted to back over Liddy. When that failed, the driver whipped the truck into a U-turn and came roaring toward Gordo. Liddy stood his ground and was knocked 15 to 20 feet in the air. He suffered a broken arm and rib, a ruptured kidney, and a torn knee ligament.

Although he was not able to provide the police with either a tag number or description of his assailants, Liddy later began intimating in interviews that Mafia friends from his prison days had identified the couple and would take care of them.

Yeah, right.

So there you have it. Pull back the curtain on the great and powerful G. Gordon Liddy, and you find Gordon, a short, bald old man who took a modest reality and parlayed it into a larger-than-life image that made him wealthy, famous, and sadly enough, somewhat influential. Indeed, in one of the ironies of our style-over-substance, media-saturated age, the poseur Liddy is every bit as wealthy, famous, and influential as another conservative talk host who has actually experienced the things that Liddy simply yammers about, including combat and running a major international intelligence operation. A host by the name of Oliver North.