Short Relief: Goodbye, John McLaughlin

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My earliest recollection of “The McLaughlin Group” is from the 1980s.

I was visiting my old New Jersey Babe Ruth League baseball coach, who had become a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. My old coach and his wife invited Margaret Heckler, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Human Service, and her husband for dinner.

They had “The McLaughlin Group” on TV, and I wasn’t sure which show was more lively: the one on TV or the one in the room.

“The McLaughlin Group” was the original circular screaming squad. Jowly, ruddy-faced, bespectacled John McLaughlin sat in the middle, surrounded by four Washington reporters who spanned the political spectrum. The participants I best remember are The Baltimore Sun’s Jack Germond, Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift, The New Republic’s Morton Kondracke, “the prince of darkness” Robert Novak, and paleoconservative Pat Buchanan.

The format was that McLaughlin would direct his panelists’ attention to one of several issues of the day, by number, as in “Issue 2: Elephant hunt.” He would frame the issue with a brief description (Democrats’ hope of seizing control of the U.S. Senate) and solicit his panelists’ views, often critiquing them in the process. It included segments where he elicited predictions, and invited evaluations on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being “ontological certitude.”

I enjoyed the show for its vigorous, intelligent debate of the issues, leavened with what seemed to me genuine humor and affection among the participants, despite their political differences. McLaughlin seemed to enjoy nothing more than a pompous put-down, one of his favorites being “wrong, Morton!” in which the “on” in “Morton” seemed to go on and on. No one seemed to take offense.

It’s difficult to imagine today’s equivalents getting along as well.

John Joseph McLaughlin was born in Rhode Island, in 1927, to second-generation, Irish Catholic parents. As hard as it may be to understand today, he entered the Jesuit Order and became a priest because it had “a gallantry, an intellectual adventurism, a style, a panache” that appealed to him. He also received a master’s degree in philosophy from Boston College and a Ph.D. from Columbia University.

He also taught at Cheverus High School in Portland in the 1950s.

McLaughlin started out a Democrat and became a Republican. In 1970, he got permission from the Jesuits to run for a U.S. Senate seat in Rhode Island. He lost. The Pope granted his request to be laicized so that he could marry his former campaign manager in 1975. He worked as a writer-editor for William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review and as a speechwriter for Richard Nixon.

In 1982, he started “The McLaughlin Group” on public TV in order to inject some “energy, tempo and bonhomie” into what was a pretty sleepy lineup of political talk shows at the time. McLaughlin was still doing the show when he died last month at the age of 89.

It had lost some of its edge and energy over time, but is a reminder of something good that we have lost.

Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.