When I lived in the US, I enjoyed watching The McLaughlin Group on PBS.

(Photo credit: The McLaughlin Group on Facebook)

It was a political programme unlike any other: rapid-fire conversation concluding with weekly predictions in soundbites. I watched during the 1980s, when the line up was host Dr John McLaughlin with panellists Morton Kondracke of The New Republic, Jack Germond of The Baltimore Sun and Bob Novak. The show always closed with McLaughlin’s trademark ‘Bye bye’.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it was still on the air and that McLaughlin never missed an episode until last weekend, when he was too ill to broadcast. He was 89 years old and, sadly, died on Tuesday, August 16, 2016 of prostate cancer.

Can you imagine hosting a television show, especially one on politics, when you’re 89 years old? I can’t. Americans were blessed to have had John McLaughlin on their television screens for over three decades.

Host versus panellists

I recall episodes of The McLaughlin Group which indicated backstage tension. My mother and I used to discuss the show during our weekend phone calls. She told me I was reading too much into personalities.

However, The New York Times reveals that not all the panellists were happy campers. Bob Novak left the show in 1988 and later hosted his own programme on CNN. During a PBS interview in 2007, the truth came out. Novak said:

He may not be pure evil, but he’s close to it.

Jack Germond, who was rather quiet on occasion although he always added much to the conversation:

called the show “really bad TV,” and said he had stayed on only because he needed the money to pay his daughter’s medical school tuition.

Whatever they say, millions of us loved the show, in large part for McLaughlin’s style of hosting:

Regardless of the panelists’ political persuasions, Mr. McLaughlin, whose own politics leaned decidedly right, would often fire off questions and cut them off, shouting “Wronnnng!”

Then there were the question and answer predictions at the end of each episode. A NYT reader recalls:

he made my favorite prediction on the last 1999 show: “The question of the 21st century will be science vs. religion and the answer is science! Bye-bye!”

Interesting facts

John Joseph McLaughlin was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on March 29, 1927. He was the son of Eva P. (née Turcotte) and Augustus H. McLaughlin, who was a regional salesman for a furniture company.

McLaughlin attended LaSalle Academy in Providence and went to Weston College, a Jesuit seminary in Massachusetts. He was ordained as a Jesuit priest in 1947.

His further education did not stop there, and the young priest went on to earn masters degrees in philosophy and English literature from Boston College before obtaining a doctorate from Columbia University.

McLaughlin taught at the Jesuit-run Fairfield Preparatory School in Connecticut and later moved to New York to edit the Jesuit magazine America. Then came the 1960s and the Vietnam War.

By the end of the decade, a handful of Jesuit priests raised their heads above the parapet and became involved in politics. Daniel Berrigan was one well known antiwar activist. Robert Drinan was another; he was a US congressman for Massachusetts between 1971 and 1981.

The same year that Drinan first ran for election — 1970 — saw John McLaughlin, SJ, throw his hat into the ring. He ran for US Senate in Rhode Island as the Republican candidate against the long-serving politician, the much-loved Democrat John Pastore. Not surprisingly, he was trounced.

Whereas Robert Drinan’s superiors approved of his run for Congress, McLaughlin’s sharply disapproved of his. It would not be the first time the feisty priest ran into trouble with his superiors, including the Bishop of Rhode Island.

McLaughlin resigned his editorship of America and went to Washington, DC, to become a speechwriter for then-president Richard Nixon. A mutual friend, Republican adviser and pundit Pat Buchanan, introduced the two. McLaughlin became known as ‘Nixon’s priest’.

McLaughlin was fiercely loyal to the then-president. The NYT tells us:

At one news conference, he dismissed Nixon’s use of profanity as “emotional drainage.” Less than two weeks before the president resigned, Father McLaughlin warned in a speech at the National Press Club that the nation would face a “parade of horrors” should Nixon be impeached. (On July 31, 1973, Father Drinan became the first congressman to call for impeachment in a House resolution.)

Whereas Drinan lived in plain quarters with other Jesuits in Georgetown, McLaughlin had his residence at the upmarket Watergate complex.

When Nixon resigned in 1974, Nixon’s successor Gerald Ford abolished McLaughlin’s post. His superiors ordered him to leave Washington DC for Boston for a period of ‘reflection’. He refused and left the Jesuits. In order to leave the order, he had to petition Pope Paul VI for permission, which was granted in 1975.

Shortly after leaving the Jesuits, McLaughlin married his 1970 campaign manager Ann Dore, who later served as secretary of labor under Ronald Reagan. The couple set up their own media relations and public affairs consulting firm. They divorced in 1992.

Five years later, McLaughlin married Cristina Vidal, who was the vice president of operations for his production company, Oliver Productions, named after his treasured basset hound from the Nixon era. The couple divorced in 2010.

Media career

McLaughlin was a man who always had something to say. Fortunately, Washington DC’s WRC radio recognised this and gave him a weekend talk programme to host in the early 1980s.

From there, McLaughlin worked at National Review when William F Buckley Jr was at the helm. McLaughlin was the magazine’s Washington editor and a regular columnist from 1981 to 1989.

His friends from the early 1970s helped him set up a television production company in the 1980s (pre-Oliver) through which he was able to sell a new kind of political talk show to WRC-TV. The NYT explains what a departure this was:

At the time, TV round tables of journalists like “Agronsky & Company” and “Washington Week in Review” dissected the week’s developments in a sober, nonpartisan style. Mr. McLaughlin envisioned a more animated, argumentative format including a panel reflecting conservative, moderate and liberal views, with him as moderator.

I can tell you that Agronsky & Company and Washington Week in Review were incredibly boring. With The McLaughlin Group, it was as if someone had thrown open a window in a stuffy room. Agree or disagree, it engaged the viewer — and continues to do so.

You can see episodes from 1998 to the present on McLaughlin’s personal website. The episodes also have a link to YouTube. I would recommend watching them rather than selecting the MP3 option, if you can. N.B.: McLaughlin did not appear in the August 12, 2016 show.

His other television shows were John McLaughlin’s One on One, broadcast on PBS and NBC between 1984 and 2013, and a daily interview show which ran on CNBC between 1989 and 1994.

However, The McLaughlin Group was his most popular. In 1992, the NYT asked the ex-Jesuit if his programme ‘depreciated’ journalism. McLaughlin strongly disagreed and replied:

Journalists can get very pompous, especially in the formalized days of Meet the Press, when they took themselves so damned seriously. This show demythologizes the press, and I think people like that.

They do. One NYT reader had this to say:

The Irish have a way with words and the gift of the gab. John McLaughlin was very intelligent and highly educated. I think this is the reason his show was so successful and ran for so many years. I do not think there is an equal in quality programming today.

Nor will we see his like again.

May John McLaughlin rest in peace. He did a great service to the United States, engaging millions of Americans in politics via television for over 30 years.

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