John McLaughlin: A Remembrance

John McLaughlin, the former Jesuit priest, Nixon speechwriter and curmudgeonly host of The McLaughlin Group, passed away yesterday. He was 89.

Like a lot of people, I’d been watching The McLaughlin Group, on and off, for decades. I was also privileged to be a guest panelist on the show about a dozen times in recent years, and liked John immensely. So I was especially saddened by the news of his death and I thought it appropriate to offer a few reflections.

The tagline of The McLaughlin Group was “an American original,” and that phrase aptly describes both the show and the man. On air and in person, McLaughlin was a cantankerous pontificator, but one blessed with winning Irish wit and charm. He was a PR man and National Review columnist when he launched the program in 1982. Up until then, weekly public affairs TV shows featured either interviews with major policymakers or journalists dispassionately discussing the issues of the day. The McLaughlin Group was utterly different. It featured journalists with open ideological biases arguing with—and often shouting over—each other. There is so much of that on cable today that it is seems normal but in the early 1980s it was new, shocking, and border-line scandalous. The term “shoutfest” was originally coined to describe it.

The show had been on for only a couple of years when I first arrived in Washington, and among the young liberals I knew it was widely loathed, though universally watched. The lineup of regular panelists–Pat Buchanan, Robert Novak, Jack Germond, plus Mort Kondracke or Eleanor Clift—was supposedly balanced. But in fact it pitting three hard right ideologues (including McLaughlin himself) against two center-left journalists, so the left side of the panel always seemed defensive and outmatched—which is exactly how it felt to be on the left in Washington during the Reagan years. Roger Ailes, the Fox News president recently ousted on charges of sexual harassment, is widely credited as a genius for creating the “fair and balanced” cable network, but it was McLaughlin who first figured out the winning formula.

Indeed, the show was a huge hit nationwide. And it remained surprisingly popular, even as the program–and its host and panelists—aged and 24/7 cable networks proliferated. Part of the reason, I think, was that for all the pontificating and argumentative antics, the show was substantive. A typical episode was broken up into three segments, each preceded by an informative taped intro featuring video clips of the week’s news and McLaughlin’s portentous narration. McLaughlin knew his stuff, especially on matters of politics, foreign affairs, and the Washington power structure, and he made sure his guests knew theirs. His loyal, hard-working producers—including the capable and ever-patient Alice Dunscomb—would send panelists the topics to be discussed 24 hours before the Friday taping, so they could prepare. But then, ever worried about getting overtaken by the news, McLaughlin would add or delete topics and questions at the last minute. So you had to be at least a little prepared for anything.

The show also benefitted, I think, from the fact that over the years, as the GOP moved further and further to the right, McLaughlin, like most established Washington conservatives I know, found himself out of step with his party. Along with his beloved sidekick Pat Buchanan, he opposed the invasion of Iraq and despised the neocons. He and Buchanan kept up the bluster, but in the time I spent hanging out with them at the WUSA studios on Wisconsin Avenue—and it was quite a bit of time, since each show would take several hours to produce—I got the sense that the Obama years felt to them a little like the Reagan years did to me.

In his repartee, both on and off the air, you got a sense that John actually enjoyed it when you had strong, informed, persuasive responses to his provocations. His scowl would loosen and his eye would twinkle—like he was proud of you.

A man of my parent’s generation, and twice divorced, McLaughlin didn’t bother hiding his taste for the opposite sex. Once, talking about the scandal of General David Petraeus sharing classified documents with his mistress and biographer Paula Broadwell, John asked me “Have you seen her shoulders?” Um, I’m not sure I have, I said. “They’re fantastic. I’m a shoulder man. You?” Um, well (I said, trying to decide how to respond) there’re no parts of women I’m not into. He liked that answer.

Each time I was on, John seemed frailer. Towards the end, he had to hold on to someone’s arm as he stepped up the 8 inches to get onto the set. I never asked what was wrong, and even Eleanor Clift, in her loving tribute to John in the Daily Beast, says she didn’t know until yesterday, when the show announced that he’d died of prostate cancer.

The last time I talked to him, it was by phone. He called with a question.

“Paul, it’s John. What do you know about this kid Josh Green. He worked for you, right?”

Yeah, I said, Josh is a great journalist, a real star at The Atlantic, now doing fabulous stuff at Bloomberg/BusinessWeek.

“Would he be good on TV? I’m thinking of asking him to be on the show this week.”

He’s great on TV, I said—smart, knowledgeable, very much at ease. He’s on Bloomberg and MSNBC a lot. A natural talent.

“So you think he’d be good?”

Absolutely.

“Because I have an opening and I might ask him on.”

You won’t be disappointed.

“OK, thanks.”

Pause.

“If he can’t make it, are you available?”

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.