In Memoriam: John McLaughlin

Sunday, August 21, 2016
One of the many iterations of the McLaughlin Group cast, as depicted in this Al Hirschfeld lithograph. Occupying the center is John McLaughlin with (clockwise) Eleanor Clift, Morton Kondracke, Fred Barnes, Jack Germond, and Clarence Page in his periphery (image courtesy of Margo Feiden Galleries Ltd., New York).

I wasn't completely surprised when I heard about the passing of political commentator John McLaughlin back on August 16th. News of his failing health, to include him missing the episode that was taped just four days prior--his first absence in the 34-year run of The McLaughlin Group television show, had come through my many social media feeds and helped softened the blow of hearing that he had succumbed to prostate cancer at the age of 89. I have not been a loyal viewer of late but a recent "peek-in" showed him looking rather gaunt and purposely placed in his host chair to perhaps provide as much comfort to him as possible. His voice sounded weaker but his mind--via the topics he personally chose--appeared to remain faithful to him right up to the very end. This recent imagery, however, does not do justice to the grandiose giant who changed how American political discourse was presented to the masses via the medium of television.

Recording a 1992 episode of The McLaughlin Group are (from left to right) Eleanor Clift, Morton Kondracke, John McLaughlin, Clarence Page, and Fred Barnes. (photo by Stephen Crowley and courtesy of The New York Times)

Conformity and contradictions were a constant through the host's long life. John Joseph McLaughlin was born in Providence, Rhode Island in March 1927 and raised in a devoutly Catholic and Democratic home. This upbringing, to include parochial preparatory education, swayed him towards joining the priesthood after graduating high school and he was ordained a priest in 1947. Earning advanced degrees in both English and philosophy from Boston College (and later a Doctor in Philosophy from Columbia University), McLaughlin began teaching high school in Fairfield, Connecticut where he supposedly honed his erudite manner that was on display throughout his television career. When in New York, he became involved in Jesuit public relations as a lecturer about sexuality issues--a topic not normally associated with a celibate servant of God.

Then-Jesuit priest Reverand John McLaughlin pictured during his campaign for one of Rhode Island's US Senate seats in 1970. (UPI Telephoto courtesy of The Washington Post)

In the late 1960s, his dabbling into politics--supposedly another "taboo" subject to those in the priesthood--drove him towards an unsuccessful US Senate primary run as an anti-war Republican. That campaign would have two major impacts upon his personal and professional future. For that failed bid, he hired Ann Dore to be his campaign manager and she would eventually become his first wife after he renounced his vows in 1975. McLaughlin's run also attracted the attention and eventual friendship of a fellow Jesuit, Pat Buchanan, who was an advisor for the Nixon White House at the time. McLaughlin was hired by Buchanan to work as a fellow speechwriter and administration advocate and he was one of the last to defend the soon-to-resign president as late as 1974.

President Richard Nixon shakes John McLaughlin's hand during this photo taken May 3, 1974. (photo courtesy of the National Archives)

After working for a short period of time in the Ford administration, McLaughlin and Dore started a political consultancy which led to his initial attempt as a talk show host on a local Washington, DC radio station in 1980 which lasted less than a year. With the Reagan administration taking the nation's helm in 1981, he was hired by the National Review to serve as their editor in the nation's capital until stepping down in 1989. The following year, funded by wealthy Nixon backers, he started Oliver Productions (named after his pet Basset Hound during his Nixon years) which now gave him the mechanism and medium to introduce the programming that just had its final airing this week. McLaughlin would serve as the "brainy blowhard" host and he would invite guests that would represent what he believed to be disparate segments of the American political spectrum. Buchanan became a "regular" early on and he was joined by the likes of conservative commentators Morton Kondracke, Fred Barnes, and Robert Novak (Jack Germond, then a syndicated columnist with The Baltimore Sun, and a few others represented the token liberal perspective). The show's raucous format (President Reagan once said it was "the most tasteful programming alternative to professional wrestling") was a significant change from the measured and civilized televised exchanges seen on Sunday morning political shows like Meet the Press and Face the Nation and The McLaughlin Group aired as an alternative to them across the country via syndication through many Public Broadcasting Service outlets.

A screen capture of the July 20, 1985 edition of The McLaughlin Group. From left to right are Bob Novak, Morton Kondracke, John McLaughlin, Jack Germond, and Fred Barnes. (image courtesy of YouTube)

With over 300 outlets for his original show by 1984, McLaughlin began to capitalize on this success and branch out to take on more political programming. That same year, he rolled out McLaughlin: One on One, an interview show, that aired weekly on PBS up until ending in 2013. He ventured over to cable television where he hosted an eponymously titled nightly talk show on CNBC from 1989 through 1994 and a short-run McLaughlin Special Report on MSNBC in early 1999. Being so widely known led to a number of cameo appearances--usually as himself--on television shows (Alf, Murphy Brown, and hosting the 200th episode of Cheers) and motion pictures (Dave, Independence Day, Bulworth, and War, Inc.). Perhaps the greatest pop culture homage paid to McLaughlin came via comedian Dana Carvey's nearly perfect over-the-top impression of the commentator on several episodes of Saturday Night Live in the 1990s.

This cold opening to a March 1992 edition of Saturday Night Live shows Dana Carvey's over-the-top impresswion of the conservative television host. (video courtesy of YouTube)

While attaining professional acclaim, McLaughlin did struggle in his personal life. A $4 million sexual harassment lawsuit was brought against him in 1988 by a former assistant. While it was settled out of court, it and other similar alleged incidents of this type created a strain in his marriage to Dore (who served as Reagan's last labor secretary) that led to dissolution in 1992. Issues between the host and contributor Novak led to the latter leaving the show that same year to start a similar one on CNN. In 1997, at the age of 70, McLaughlin married 36-year old Christina Clara Vidal, a vice president for operations in his production company, after meeting in a New York City bookstore seven years earlier. That marriage also ended in divorce in 2010 after 13 years. According to long-time contributor Eleanor Clift, McLaughlin had been diagnosed with prostate cancer "some time ago and that had spread" in recent months. The final show he participated in had recorded voiceovers for a segment about Pope Francis with the assistance of his companion, Maritza, at his home. His speech was so slurred that captions were provided so viewers could understand his words. His longtime friend Buchanan hosted in his absence. He died early in the morning of August 16 and Maritza sent Clift an email saying that "he went to join his beloved Oliver in heaven." I forgot to set up my DVR this morning but, luckily, will be able to record an encore showing of the final episode of the program that aired this weekend.

John McLaughlin , right at podium, for an October 1985 reception honoring his television show. Long-time friend Pat Buchanan (left) and President Ronald Reagan (center) look on.(photo by Karl Schumaker and courtesy of Getty Images)

I believe the first time I ever watched The McLaughlin Group was during my first tour in Japan in the mid-1980s. With the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service being the only English television available to the military population, I was included in that captive audience with that show getting interspersed with other American news, sports, and entertainment programming. After I got married and returned stateside, my viewing decreased because my wife was not enamored with the "tenor" of those weekly discussions and would normally leave the room to escape the "constant yelling". When CNN lost its monopoly over cable news in the mid-1990s, I migrated over to those new outlets and eventually settled upon MSNBC right around the period of the 2004 presidential election cycle.

John McLaughlin gives what turned out to be his final "bye bye" closing at the end of the July 29 edition of The McLaughlin Group program. (screen capture courtesy of YouTube)

As a regular viewer of their offerings, I noticed (and still do notice) some of the components of McLaughlin's "experiment" embedded into the formats. One of the most obvious is what some in the business refer to as "debate dungeons"--off-set guests, sometimes in different cities or countries, who go to small local videoconferencing rooms to participate in mutual onscreen discussions. During McLaughlin's funeral service, a friend of John mentioned in his eulogy that a distancing arrangement was imposed to increase the distance between the contributors in order to make them feel comfortable enough to be able to "differ from one another--sometimes politely, sometimes shouting" which made for good television.

Show regular Tom Rogan posted this photo of The McLaughlin Group's on- and off-camera team for the episode that John missed the taping. He died four days later of prostate cancer. (photo courtesy of Tom Rogan)

A personal lesson that I can take away from John McLaughlin's life related to the purpose of this blog is that he didn't start his media career in earnest until he was in his mid-50s--the same stage of life I'm at currently. One of the avenues I've thought about pursuing is op/ed and I would like to model myself after the opinion scions of yesteryear--Joseph Alsop (of recent The Columnist fame), William F. Buckley, Gore Vidal, Edward R. Murrow and Eric Sevareid come to mind (George Will would be a modern-day contemporary from that group). Sometimes derided as "eggheads" or "intellectuals" by their less-educated critics, these men possessed an educational pedigree that helped them transcend single issues or "groupthink". Familiar with disciplines that incorporate reason, reflection, and perspective into providing logic-based solutions for complex problems, these opiners usually won their debates simply by just showing up. Unfortunately, our modern-day educational systems generally do not provide those classical tools to the wider student population that could be combined with their own areas of expertise to lift up the overall discourse and increase buy-in to solutions that do not fit comfortably on a bumper sticker.

Political commentator (and long-time friend) Pat Buchanan delivers remarks at John McLaughlin's funeral mass at Washington, DC's Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on August 20. (screen capture courtesy of YouTube) 

One drawback to those aforementioned individuals was that they often came across to their audiences (and opponents) as acting aloof or like condescending "bullies" because they believed in, as McLaughlin so often alluded to, the "metaphysical certitude" of their own conclusions. In my years of online activities on local and national message boards, I've had similar experiences with individuals who could not (or often chose not) to permit themselves to view things outside of their chosen paradigms or ideological "bubbles". I could flood their inboxes with citation after citation from reliable and totally credible sources and they would either try to "attack the messenger" (i.e. every story included in The New York Times must always have a liberal bias even if it is citing a wire service as its source) or simply ignore them. I've lost countless layers of skin from my fingers responding to ignorance or obtuseness regarding issues or subjects that do not require a lot of intellectual capacity to fully comprehend so I can totally empathize with their frustrations and responses outside more scholarly confines. Perhaps that's what John McLaughlin suffered from during those 34 years of hosting his program...but I can imagine hearing him yelling "WRONG!" from beyond the grave just to be disagreeable.

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