John McLaughlin, a former Jesuit priest, speechwriter for President Richard Nixon and conservative provocateur whose pugnacious style as a host of a political chat show helped usher in the era of impolite punditry, died Aug. 16 at his home in Washington. He was 89.
The cause was complications from prostate cancer, said journalist Eleanor Clift, one of his on-air sparring partners. McLaughlin missed the most recent installment of his syndicated public affairs program, “The McLaughlin Group.”
For more than three decades, McLaughlin sat in judgment of national political trends on “The McLaughlin Group” and goaded journalists and pundits into moving beyond fact into the argumentative terrain of ideological talking points and rhetorical hyperbole. He corralled guests into critiquing political decisions and probabilities on a sliding scale of 1 to 10 – with 10 representing “metaphysical certitude.”
At times, “The McLaughlin Group” felt more like a cross-talk show than a talk show, with the host interrupting his guests’ trains of thought or bellowing “Wronnng!” to express disapproval of their statements.
His approach forever changed audience expectations of public affairs programming. McLaughlin’s impact can be glimpsed most any night on cable news channels, for better or worse. And though no one ever mistook McLaughlin for a digital visionary, his show’s staccato approach to wringing opinions from guests previewed the Internet’s addiction to fast and unprocessed news bites.
“Look at ‘The McLaughlin Group’ now, and it looks positively quaint,” said Syracuse University television historian Robert Thompson. “The kind of thing McLaughlin was doing is being done in so many places.”
Although “The McLaughlin Group” dominated his later life, McLaughlin had a three-act career that started in the priesthood. He worked his way into politics, running unsuccessfully for a U.S. Senate seat in 1970 and later landing a job in the Nixon White House. As a speechwriter for the president and one of his fiercest defenders through the Watergate scandal, McLaughlin attracted media attention upon which he capitalized to get into television.
When “The McLaughlin Group” launched in 1982 on WRC (Channel 4) in Washington, District of Columbia, political chat shows were unrecognizable by modern standards. “Washington Week in Review,” produced by the public television outlet WETA, was a cerebral and quiet product. “Agronsky and Company,” on WUSA (Channel 9), occasionally veered into shouting and political showmanship, but not with a great degree of reliability.
McLaughlin saw an opening in the market for TV blather. “Energy, tempo and bonhomie,” he said, were a few of the vital ingredients he sought to infuse in the program, along with “first-rate reporting and straight opinion.”
The program’s format, like its inspiration, remained steady over the show’s run, with McLaughlin sitting alone in the middle of the set and liberal and conservative commentators tethered in his orbit.
Those guests regularly fielded not so much questions from McLaughlin as demands. In a September 1998 show during the debate over President Bill Clinton’s pending impeachment inquiry resulting from an affair with a White House intern, the host posed this typical “McLaughlin Group” formulation to his interlocutors:
“On a survival probability scale of zero to 10 – zero, Clinton leaves office, he’s out, almost overnight; 10, Clinton stays, he finishes his term till January 2001 – rate the survival probability level of Bill Clinton as president.”
The gimmickry worked. McLaughlin’s best-known guests – then-Newsweek writer Clift, the late Baltimore Sun columnist Jack Germond, conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan and Washington-based journalist and editor Morton Kondracke – thrived in this corral. They often shouted over each other to present their opinions.
“Next to McLaughlin, all the rest of the shows are ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,’ ” Clift once said.
While McLaughlin was seated at the center of his show’s set, his politics favored the right. He once described himself as a “crypto-Republican” and gave the show something that TV Guide critic John Weisman in 1985 deemed noteworthy: ” ‘The McLaughlin Group’ is the only political show seen nationwide that favors the political right.”
On the strength of its host’s bouncing jowls and nonstop barking, the show roared in its early years and into the ’90s: In 1992, for instance, it was broadcast on 297 PBS stations, not to mention three NBC stations, for a total viewership of 3.5 million. It was the highest-rated public affairs show in the country’s top 10 markets, according to an account from the New York Times.
McLaughlin cherished his celebrity. He told a Times interviewer in 1992: “Walking down 57th Street in New York, a car goes by and an 18-year-old kid opens the window and shouts, ‘Wronnng!’ “
From that cultural perch, “The McLaughlin Group” lost relevance in more recent years, in part because of the emergence of the Fox News Channel – which launched in 1996 – and because of the host’s advancing age.
As an octogenarian, McLaughlin wasn’t quite the on-air force that his younger incarnation had proved to be. The show’s later episodes got attention on the Internet primarily when one of its guests made an offensive or rude remark.
In July 2012, for instance, Buchanan fetched a shot of publicity for “The McLaughlin Group” when he expressed hope that the United States wouldn’t see its first female president until 2040 or 2050.
Seeing a chance to provoke, McLaughlin argued that Hillary Clinton, then serving as secretary of state in President Barack Obama’s administration, “owed it to her gender” to run for the office in the 2016 election.
McLaughlin’s bombastic style was memorably parodied by comedian Dana Carvey on “Saturday Night Live.” And some of McLaughlin’s colleagues contended that the tyrannical fellow who viewers saw on “The McLaughlin Group” was really no act.
A female office manager who worked for the host filed a sexual harassment suit against him that was settled out of court in 1989. Kara Swisher, a McLaughlin staffer who later rose to prominence at the Wall Street Journal, was once ordered by McLaughlin to make toast. After she balked at the command, he told her, “If I ask you to make toast and you don’t do it, I can fire you.”
A critical look at the “The McLaughlin Group” by Eric Alterman in 1990 decried its “abhorrence of complexity, its reductiveness, its celebration of nastiness and macho posturing.” Alterman wrote that it’s hard to determine “when John McLaughlin is serious and when he is making fun of himself being serious.”
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John Joseph McLaughlin was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on March 29, 1927. He described his parents, of Irish descent, as “rootedly Democratic.” His father was a furniture salesman.
The young McLaughlin attended LaSalle Academy, a Christian Brothers school in Providence. It was in these formative years that he built his reverence for the Jesuit religious order, telling the New York Times that it had “a gallantry, an intellectual adventurism, a style, a panache.”
He began his training for the priesthood at Weston College in Massachusetts. He later received a bachelor’s degree from Boston College, where he also earned master’s degrees in philosophy and education.
In the 1950s, McLaughlin was posted to teaching slots at high schools in Massachusetts and Connecticut. He then secured a transfer to New York City and, while pursuing a doctorate in communications at Columbia University, he began working for America, the Manhattan-based Jesuit publication, where he became assistant editor.
McLaughlin added another platform to his brand, hitting the lecture circuit on topics that often circled back to sex and marriage.
In 1968, he met his future wife, Ann Lauenstein Dore, when he was delivering a speech at Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York. She was the school’s director of alumni relations.
Over the years, McLaughlin feuded with the top editor of America, the Rev. Donald Campion, and left the journal in 1970.
It was unclear exactly what prompted the separation, but Campion issued a lukewarm assessment of his colleague, noting that he was fond of “baroque” words: “You don’t know quite what they mean, but they sort of stun you.”
The break with the journal helped clear the way for McLaughlin’s brief but high-profile career in American politics.
He broke with his family heritage by registering as a Republican in advance of his candidacy in the 1970 U.S. Senate race in Rhode Island. McLaughlin took aim at incumbent John Pastore (D) by running as a “peace” candidate during the Vietnam War.
Pastore, said McLaughlin, stuck to “pro-Pentagon” policies that were prolonging the war and costing taxpayers their hard-eaned cash. Vietnam, charged the challenger, was “an incredibly bloated expenditure.”
For his part, Pastore said at the time that “McLaughlin’s driving me batty. How can I debate with a man my religion teaches me to call Father?”
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Pastore held his office with 67.5 percent of the vote. McLaughlin parlayed his loss at the polls into a professional win – an appointment as a junior speechwriter in the Nixon White House, which was already familiar with McLaughlin’s written work.
An essay McLaughlin had written for America in December 1969 titled “Public Regulation and the News Media” sympathized with the well-known views of Vice President Spiro Agnew on the alleged biases of the mainstream media. In his piece, McLaughlin railed against the leanings of the country’s “broadcasting hierarchy.” Buchanan, then a White House speechwriter, approved.
McLaughlin became special assistant to the president. He toured Southeast Asia and reported back unremittingly positive news of combat operations. He said American bombing runs were “scrupulously and assiduously” pinpointed in their precision, resulting in minimal civilian casualties and ecological damage.
In 1972, operatives of Nixon’s reelection campaign orchestrated the break-in and bugging of the Democratic Party’s national headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington.
During the scandal’s fallout, McLaughlin remained one of the president’s most vocal defenders. Soon before Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, the aide reportedly told a gathering of Republicans that the president would be regarded by historians as “the greatest moral leader of the last third of this century.”
McLaughlin served in the White House for two months under President Gerald Ford before leaving to start a public affairs and media relations consulting firm with Dore, whom he married in August 1975 after successfully petitioning Pope Paul VI for laicization, relieving him of any priestly obligations.
Dore had been campaign manager for McLaughlin’s Senate run, communications director for the Committee to Reelect the President and a government relations executive with Union Carbide. She was secretary of labor toward the end of President Ronald Reagan’s administration.
Their marriage ended in divorce in 1992. His second marriage, to Cristina Vidal, also ended in divorce. He had no immediate survivors.
In 1980, McLaughlin worked his way into radio on WRC-AM but was fired a year into the gig, “reportedly for talking too much and taking too few calls,” according to a published account.
Then he rounded up funding from a Nixon administration veteran and launched “The McLaughlin Group.” Though the “group” and the show’s format helped to propel it into pop-culture history, the “McLaughlin” component was indispensable.
” ‘The McLaughlin Group’ presented something that wasn’t just about public affairs and civic information,” said Thompson, the Syracuse University scholar. “It was show biz and the show biz came from McLaughlin himself.”