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Our Turn to Say ‘BYE-BYE’: John McLaughlin’s Legacy Remembered

American television personality and political opinion-maker John McLaughlin passed away suddenly last Tuesday; of prostate cancer, at his home near Washington, DC., aged eighty-nine.

The Rhode Island native was best known to the general public for the weekly, half-hour, public affairs program which he created, produced and has hosted since January 1982; and which carried his surname: The McLaughlin Group. Ordained a Roman Catholic priest (Jesuit) in 1959, he earned a master’s degree in English literature and Ph.D. in philosophy, taught high school and ran for a U.S. Senate seat (he lost) before settling into a position as speechwriter for president Richard Nixon. Parting ways with his priestly calling shortly after the Watergate fiasco, from 1984-2013 the colorful commentator additionally fronted interview program John McLaughlin’s One on One; and in the 1990’s helmed broadcasts on CNBC and, very briefly, MSNBC. He even made appearances in a handful of feature films, and his sometimes droll/sometimes bombastic, authentically one-of-a-kind personae garnered him a well-known Saturday Night Live/McLaughlin Group parody (Dana Carvey hilariously rendering McLaughlin’s shenanigans: “ISSUE ONE!”).

Indeed, the quirky showman challenged stereotypes: a twice married and twice divorced erstwhile Catholic cleric who couldn’t always be relied upon to tote the company line. Although John McLaughlin was originally a Democrat, eventually forsaking his anti-Vietnam War roots to join the GOP, I’m not sure that old saw about “convert’s zeal” ever fully applied to him. He long struck me as less doctrinaire conservative and more Republican; a party-man rather than a flame-breathing ideologue; less Barry Goldwater than Trent Lott or Orrin Hatch “mainstream” type. Come to that, in the run up to the 2004 presidential election, he pulled away from GOP incumbent Bush 43 altogether, announcing his support for then-Democratic Senator John Kerry. It was appropriate, I suppose, that each screening of his eponymous series McLaughlin was physically situated in the center of his guests, literally sitting in the middle of them as they sparred with each other and, just as often, with him.

He appeared to relish indulging an iconoclastic streak: in his regular “best of”/”worst of” segments (“Biggest Winner of …”, “Best Politician”, “Most Boring”, “Most Underrated”, etc.) he predictably nominated out-of-left-field selections, frequently playing against staid, conservative type.

I remember one McLaughlin Group segment in which, following an especially unexpected remark from its eccentric, putatively Republican moderator, guest Patrick J. Buchanan narrowed his eyes at him and with a mystified, mildly bemused smile gibed, “What DO you believe, John?”

For those paying attention, the multi-faceted McLaughlin’s stint in the Nixon administration should have provided a presentiment to the state of his convictions. Although the uninformed routinely demonize old “Tricky Dick” as the quintessential arch-right-winger, fact is he was no such thing. Okay, George McGovern he was not — but, truth be told, constitutional firebrands didn’t hold the thirty-seventh president in terribly high regard, tending to classify him as what today would be tagged a “big-government” Republican. (I distinctly recall my dad snapping aggravatedly at the TV when Nixon announced he’d sign the meddlesome 1974 legislation that curbed the national highway speed limit to fifty-five mph; something along the lines of, “Well, buddy, you don’t have to drive every day for your job!”.) Point is: that John McLaughlin didn’t always track with William F. Buckley shouldn’t come as a total surprise.

It was my sister-in-law — still in high school at the time — who initially mentioned to me this feisty political-debate show she’d started watching on Sunday afternoons on the local PBS affiliate; called The McLaughlin Group. I tuned in, discovering: the aforementioned, no-nonsense, paleo-con Buchanan; the Baltimore Sun‘s curmudgeonly Jack Germond; middle-of-the-road analyst Mort Kondrocke; acerbic newsman Robert “Prince of Darkness” Novak (now deceased); and, of course, the program’s unforgettable namesake, National Review’s Washington editor John McLaughlin.

In the years to come, he introduced me to conservative/center-right figures like Fred Barnes, Michael Barone, Tom Rogan and the late Tony Blakely. The first time I ever encountered the lovely — and ferocious — Michelle Malkin was via one of her, alas too limited, visits to McLaughlin’s set. And, yes, the show also featured its share of hair-on-fire Lefties: Eleanor Clift, Michael Kinsley, Al Hunt, Mark Shields; many more. Before taking the reins as George W. Bush’s Press Secretary, Tony Snow (also now departed) did a turn with the group – as did, conversely, Jay Carney before assuming the same duties for GWB’s successor Barack Obama.

If I’m recalling accurately, it was from McLaughlin I first picked up his oft-repeated and erudite-sounding phrases: “metaphysical” or “ontological certitude”. (His philosophy doctorate kicking in?) To this day, I’m guessing my two eldest, now-adult sons would recognize the reference if I mimicked McLaughlin’s tongue-in-cheek baritone intoning his trademark, weekly sign-off: “Byye-Byyye!”

Yep, for years John McLaughlin and his rotating stable of talking-heads were a weekend fixture of my appointment TV viewing. That was the era, mind you, before Fox News; much of it pre-dating even CNN’s Crossfire. If I wanted a regular fix of small-screen news/commentary which offered at least some airing of conservative perspectives? McLaughlin was among my comparatively few options.

Finally, John McLaughlin was another representative of a generation which could be faulted for working too obsessively versus too sparingly. Last week, for the first time in over three-and-one-half decades and for reasons undisclosed, he was absent from his broadcast berth. No typo: the first time. What?!? No past vacation breaks? No previous sick leaves? No “mental health days”, “personal time”?

His parsimonious explanation for this rare no-show: “I am under the weather”.

Less than forty-eight hours later, he was gone.

It reminds me of another television icon’s passing: 60 Minutes veteran Morley Safer worked almost literally until the day he died last spring. Even recently deceased rocker David Bowie was creatively exerting himself nearly to his final breath.

Workaholism? Not recommended. Life definitely ought to consist of more than laboring for a paycheck. But if one must choose, it’s arguable, on purely pragmatic grounds, that excessive sweat is preferable to pervasive sloth in this Pokémon GO-X-Box-welfare payment-food-stamp-besotted age.

Whatever his motivation, John McLaughlin’s career devotion became a blessing to many: his self-titled program showcased rhetorical jousting, trading of barbs, inevitable laughter. It was informative, occasionally inspiring, always entertaining; played a signal role in my life.

Thank you, John McLaughlin. Bye-bye …

photo credit: KNOCK TURNAL via photopin (license); ThreeErin

Share if you agree John McLaughlin left quite a legacy to TV’s talk/commentary world.

Steve Pauwels

Steve Pauwels is pastor of Church of the King, Londonderry, NH and host of Striker Radio with Steve Pauwels on the Red State Talk Radio Network. He's also husband to the lovely Maureen and proud father of three fine sons: Mike, Sam and Jake.

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