IT STRIKES ME as funny that probably the two most disliked men in America are also two of the most powerful: President W. Jefferson Clinton and House Speaker-to-be N. Leroy Gingrich.

I didn't say most unpopular. Clinton has won that title. Gingrich is just coming out of the gate as a leader of the nation with responsibility for what happens; if he flubs the opportunity, or if Democrats are able to convince folks that he is a radical ogre, then he will become unpopular.Right now he's not nearly as hated as Clinton, who is vilified by all self-described conservatives, those who seem to think we might have won in Vietnam if only he had volunteered for the draft, those who blame him for the decline of western civilization since his birth in 1946, moderate Democrats, who think he's been too liberal, and liberal Democrats, who think he's a raving neoconservative.

Gingrich is not so much hated as feared, partly because we tend to fear the unknown and partly because he is not as unknown as he used to be. Some of his statements make sense; other statements are positively scary. Like his response to Hillary Rodham Clinton's criticism of his "orphanage" ideas. He suggested that she view the 1938 movie "Boys Town." If the speaker of the House looks at today's problems in the context of a 56-year-old Hollywood movie, we'd better all book passage.

I find that I can easily support about 70 percent of the things in the Republicans' famous "Contract With America." But I wish somebody else, and not Nuke Gingrich, was in charge of carrying it out. I've mentioned before that we middle-of-the-roaders have been disenfranchised by the radicalization of American politics. Gingrich is one of those responsible.

When I realized how I felt about the "contract," I also began to suspect that there are people (polls certainly indicate this to be true) who agree with Clinton about, for example, reducing the deficit or creating jobs or reforming welfare or downsizing the federal government - but who desperately want somebody else in charge of doing it.

Anyway, I wish I could think that Gingrich were pushing this "contract' stuff because he really believed in it. But I get the feeling that he could just as easily be advocating eating worms or sacrificing virgins, if that were the route to political power.

Term limits are an example. Gingrich is for term limits as long as he (a nine-term representative) is excluded. On the one hand, I hope this cynical approach dooms the term-limits push. At the same time, I have a lot more respect for people like Paul Jacob of U.S. Term Limits Inc., who actually believes in the idea, than I have for Gingrich.

Welfare reform is another example. Gingrich is a flat-out liar when he says that other people (dratted liberals and the media) raised this whole issue of putting kids in orphanages if the economy doesn't produce enough jobs for young mothers to be self-supporting. It was N. Leroy his own self, and he wasn't talking at that time about kids born with crack addictions or left in trash bins. He was recommending orphanages for kids rather than jobs for their parents.

Stuff like that also indicates a mind coldly focused on power rather than people. It is of a piece with the oft-repeated anecdote about Gingrich's presenting his first wife with divorce papers while she lay in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery.

Such "vision" may explain Newt's embrace of the easy answer of institutionalizing all our people problems - more prisons for these, more orphanages for those, more homeless shelters and charity soup kitchens for the others - rather than solving them. I still think America is better than that.

Months ago, when I bemoaned the chance that a liar like Ollie North would be elected to the Senate, somebody told me that Gingrich, not North, was the most dangerous man in America. Others say Clinton is the great menace.

Now we have 'em both. Something for everyone to dislike - that's the American way.