The Slatest

John McLaughlin, “Mr. T of TV Journalism,” Dead at 89

TV host John McLaughlin attends “Seconding the First,” a celebration of the first amendment, at Spirit on Aug. 31, 2004, in New York City.

Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images

John McLaughlin, host of the touchstone public affairs program The McLaughlin Group, died at the age of 89 on Tuesday.

McLaughlin was the show’s host each week without substitution from Jan. 1, 1982, until last week when he was replaced in the hosting chair for the first time in 34 years, seven months, and one week.

“I am under the weather,” McLaughlin said in a note at the start of this past episode. He told audiences that his voice was “weaker than usual,” but that “my spirit is strong and my dedication to the show remains absolute!”

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McLaughlin passed away from complications from prostate cancer, longtime panelist Eleanor Clift told the Washington Post. Apparently, the news of his illness had been a secret even to some of his fellow panelists. “He’d been fighting cancer for quite a while and we really didn’t know that until I’d say the last month,” said the Chicago Tribune’s Clarence Page, a longtime regular on the program. “So [his illness] came as a shock and a sad surprise. I’m told that he passed away with a smile on his face with his last expression and I would think that was his final gift to us.”

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Clift told me that she had only learned of his illness “in the last few weeks.”

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Week after week, McLaughlin would go around to his four panelists getting responses to a series of issues of the day before declaring the correct position on the topic, invariably his own. In announcing his death, the show’s Facebook page cited one of his signature catchphrases and declared that “he has said bye bye for the last time, to rejoin his beloved dog, Oliver, in heaven.”

The Oliver in question was McLaughlin’s late basset hound, a recording of whose voice was played at the end of every show. McLaughlin’s production company was called Oliver Productions Inc.

When asked to recall a personal anecdote that exemplified McLaughlin’s life, Page described a recent episode in which a staffer on the show brought her pet poodle to the set and “John went crazy.”

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“We all thought that it was so typically John,” he said. “He always melted in the presence of dogs. We don’t know how he felt about other animals.”

As the Post’s Erik Wemple noted, McLaughlin’s style pioneered the fast-paced and sound bite driven culture of modern news programs:

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His approach forever changed audience expectations of public affairs programming. Mr. McLaughlin’s impact can be glimpsed most any night on cable news channels, for better or worse. And though no one ever mistook Mr. 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.

In a 1985 tribute to McLaughlin, President Ronald Reagan described the show like this: “In America’s diet of political commentary, its intellectual nutritional values fall somewhere between potato chips and Twinkies.”

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Reagan also quipped that McLaughlin was the “Mr. T of TV journalism” and took the Sunday morning discussion format and turned it into the “political version of Animal House.” In recent years, the show’s topics seemed to take on greater heft in the face of a political culture obsessed with Donald Trump. Issues on his final episode included “hacking the election,” “wealth, women, and men,” “Baltic deployments,” and “utopian dreams and trash cans.”

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In 1987, McLaughlin explained his journalistic approach to the New York Times:

I do put my questions in terms of the sharpest polarities of the issue. But I don’t want a preponderance of opinion over factual data. I would put the scoop data, the inside stuff that is produced on our show, up against any other talk show. I think my guys and gals are very well informed—they vacuum the environment.

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In a 1992 interview with the Times, McLaughlin elaborated on his view that his show deflated the pomposity of political journalism by making things more lively:

“Does this depreciate journalism?” he asks. “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.”

….

“Anyone who magnifies the power of a television talk show is very unrealistic,” Mr. McLaughlin says. “Neither we or Koppel or ‘Meet the Press’ or Brinkley effect any massive political or social change. To me, that’s ridiculous.”

Wemple described how the show rose in popularity through the 1980s and ’90s before losing traction in cultural relevancy in recent years.

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In 1992 […] 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.

In 1990, Dana Carvey performed a Saturday Night Live impression of McLaughlin as a bombastic lunatic berating his fellow panelists for being “WRONGG!” on every topic that will likely go down as one of the enduring public images of McLaughlin’s life. (“On a scale of one to 14, one being the lowest degree of likelihood, 14 being absolute metaphysical certitude….”)

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“John off the set was very much like the John you saw on the set,” Page said. At an anniversary event for the show one year, Page gave a toast saying this: “People ask me what John’s really like I tell them that inside of that cold crusty exterior, there’s a cold crusty interior. But inside of that there’s a heart of gold.

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“I really mean that. He really did have a heart of gold inside,” Page added.

Wemple wrote that the reputed crustiness was not just in the popular imagination:

And some of Mr. 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 Mr. 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.”

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McLaughlin was a Jesuit priest before entering politics and political journalism, having been ordained in 1959. After a failed Senate bid in 1970, he joined the administration of Richard Nixon as a key member of his staff. He was one of Nixon’s greatest defenders in his final days in office, Wemple noted, having reportedly told Republicans that the president would go down as “the greatest moral leader of the last third of this century.” Nixon resigned soon after that facing impeachment over the Watergate scandal, but McLaughlin continued to defend him for years.

“I’m proud to be associated with the public policies of Richard Nixon,” he said in 1980. “The penetration of China, he gave the 18-year-olders to vote, he brought into existence the environmental protection agency.”

McLaughlin’s first marriage ended in divorce in 1992 and his second marriage ended in divorce in 2010. He has no immediate surviving relatives.

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