John McLaughlin Dies At 89, Leaving A Legacy Of Combative Political Punditry

John McLaughlin was missed by his talk show, The McLaughlin Group, for the first time last Sunday in more than 34 years. But now that he is gone, the world, not only the show, will miss the combative, conservative political pundit that he was, forever. He died at 89 on Tuesday.

Pat Buchanan, one of John McLaughlin’s long-serving panelists, began the show in the absence of the moderator with an opening statement straight from his pen, which is also posted on the show’s official website.

As the panel’s recent absences attest, I am under the weather. The final issue of this episode has my voice, but please forgive me for its weaker than usual quality. Yet my spirit is strong and my dedication to the show remains absolute.

Another longtime panelist on the show, Eleanor Clift, revealed in The Daily Beast that “the cause of death was prostate cancer that was diagnosed some time ago and that had spread.”

“We panelists could see he wasn’t well,” Clift said, “but I attributed it to ‘just’ age. Not that aging is insignificant, but John did not disclose that he was ill, and we didn’t dwell on it.”

Recalling the last show John McLaughlin presided over, which was “taped the Friday after the Republican Convention,” Clift said that while his voice was hard to understand, because of which captions were added to help viewers follow his words, his “will to go on with the show he had created never wavered.”

John McLaughlin [Photo by CT/AP Images]
Dr. John McLaughlin, a Jesuit priest on the White House staff tells reporters, May 8, 1974 in Washington, that suggestions that President Nixon's Watergate tapes disclose a degree of immorality are 'erroneous, unjust and contain elements of hypocrisy.' [Photo by CT/AP Images]

A former Jesuit priest, John turned his back on the “holier-than-thou” world of religion to join the rather complicated, at times even sacrilegious territory of worldly politics, first, by becoming President Richard Nixon’s astute defender and speechwriter amid the heat of the Watergate scandal. This he did after failing to win the support of his Jesuit superiors in his bid to become a senator in early 1970s, which he “lost by a wide margin to the incumbent Democrat, John O. Pastore,” as Elizabeth Jensen of The New York Times noted.

Then in 1982, John McLaughlin switched to the somewhat exciting, challenging and equally complicated, albeit stale, world of journalism with his own twists and turns. His newly founded The McLaughlin Group “upended the soft-spoken and non-confrontational style of shows such as ‘Washington Week in Review’ and ‘Agronsky & Co.’ with a raucous format that largely dispensed with politicians,” said Associated Press TV writer Frazier Moore.

“It instead featured journalists quizzing, talking over and sometimes insulting each other,” Moore said. “In recent years, the show billed itself as ‘The American Original’ — a nod to all the shows that copied its format.”

John McLaughlin [Photo by Associated Press/AP Images]
Rev. John McLaughlin in 1990. [Photo by Associated Press/AP Images]

While McLaughlin’s innovations did not sit well with some politicians and journalists in the 1980s, it did with The New Republic‘s Jacob Weisberg in 1986.

John McLaughlin is a television genius. His show is wonderful entertainment. But with its gimmickry and phony drama, its relentless emphasis on who’s up and who’s down, its pointless predictions and rankings of everything from one to five, ‘The McLaughlin Group’ has contributed materially to the trivialization of Washington journalism. And being on programs like ‘McLaughlin’ has become the measure of success for political journalists.

Weisberg’s appreciation of McLaughlin was seconded on Tuesday by his colleague Jeet Heer in The News Republic, who said that journalism “has always been intertwined with entertainment, but a few enterprising souls have been particularly gifted at turning the news into diversion.”

“Chief among them was McLaughlin,” Heer said. “A former Jesuit priest who defended Richard Nixon during the low point of Watergate, he became famous as the bombastic, mercurial news show host who quickly jumped from one topic to the next as he badgered his colleagues.”

Heer went on to say that “countless movies, including Independence Day and Watchmen, turned to McLaughin when they needed a cameo from a journalist.”

But McLaughlin was not without his critics, who never tired of saying that his “show was more about show business and entertainment, than journalism and politics,” as Moore observed. “They said it celebrated nasty posturing, abhorred complexity and featured a group of mostly aging conservative white men spouting off on topics they knew little about.”

When asked by The New York Times in 1992 whether his style depreciates journalism, as most of his critics argued, John McLaughlin’s answer was unapologetic:

Not one damned bit. Journalists can get very pompous, especially in the formalized days of ‘Meet the Press,’ when they took themselves so damned seriously. This show demythologizes the press, and I think people like that.”

[Photo by Kevin Wolf/AP Images]