I hadn’t seen or thought of John McLaughlin for years until he died Tuesday morning. During the 80’s and 90’s he was a fixture of my weekly political TV diet. Someone must have kept watching in the meantime though as his show, The Mclaughlin Group, continued on the air until his death. He never missed a show in 34 years until the most recent one last week.
McLaughlin has a lot to answer for. He popularized the model that now dominates the major 24 hour cable news networks. Put some opinionated and outspoken liberals and conservatives in a bag, shake well, present a controversial news item of the day and let them loose. More than anyone else he is responsible for the transformation of what passes for television news from reporting of events to interpreting and arguing about them.
Originally known as a Jesuit priest who became an apologist for Richard Nixon during Watergate, he morphed into a most unlikely, pinch-faced, harsh-voiced television personality. The show’s format never varied, at least in the first 20 years. McLaughlin would summarize a topical news story then guide his panel of four, typically two liberals and two conservatives, in a discussion of its merits and significance.
McLaughlin was both conservative and overbearing in manner and yet gave ample freedom to the others. After about ten minutes, he would interrupt and announce “You are wrong!” and provide the “correct” answer. Two more issues would be discussed before McLaughlin closed with “Bye, bye.”
The pallid imitators of today’s cable TV news networks never match the secret of the success of The McLaughlin Group – McLaughlin’s selection of panelists. That pool included on, the liberal side, his dependable foil, the excitable Eleanor Clift, usually address by the moderator as “Ella-NORE,” and during the Clinton years for her unwavering defense, “Eleanor Rodham Clift.” The regular liberals also including the bulky, avuncular, street-wise, horse-playing political reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Jack Germond, and the usually reasonable and genial Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune.
A fixture on the conservative side of The McLaughlin Group was the darkly brilliant Pat Buchanan whose prominence on the show enabled him to mount a challenge in the New Hampshire primary to a sitting Republican President George H.W. Bush. Buchanan’s campaign posed enough of a threat to require the President to go to New Hampshire to stump against him.
Another member of McLaughlin’s conservative pool was addressed by him as “Freddy, ‘the beadle’ Barnes.” (“Beadle” was the term for a student in any class taught by a Jesuit appointed by the teacher to keep attendance.) Fred Barnes went on to be a founding editor of The Weekly Standard, largely based on his popularity among conservatives from exposure on the show.
Other panelists included Morton Kondrake, Margaret Carlson, Mona Charen, and others I’m sure I’ve forgotten and still others in the last years whom I never saw.
The show has been described by Clift as “a televised food fight.” It provided information developed under the same theory underlying legal trials in the United States, that a contest between people trying to win an argument should produce the truth. It doesn’t always work in court either, but it was fun.
Bye, bye, John McLaughlin.