If there were a Mount Olympus for talk-show hosts, John McLaughlin would be on it. He was the first to recognize the value of combative political talk on television when he launched the McLaughlin Group in the early ’80s. After 34 years of never missing a show, his moderator’s chair was empty last Sunday, and long-serving panelist Pat Buchanan opened the show.
An opening statement said John was “under the weather,” but we all knew it was more than that. He passed away peacefully early Tuesday morning at home with hospice care, and under the watchful care of Maritza, his partner, who helped him carry on until almost the end.
In an email today, she said he went to join his beloved Oliver in heaven. Oliver was the basset hound by his side back in the Nixon years, who his production company is named after.
McLaughlin was 89 years old, and the cause of death was prostate cancer that was diagnosed some time ago and that had spread. The last show he presided over was taped the Friday after the Republican Convention, and it was clear to viewers that his health was declining.
We panelists could see he wasn’t well, 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.
I went to see him at home and I told him, “John, you made me who I am before I knew who I was.” That made him smile. The Friday before he died, with the help of Maritza, he painstakingly narrated the show’s final issue on what Pope Francis had said recently about elevating women in the Roman Catholic Church.
John was hard to understand and there were captions added so viewers could follow his words, but the will to go on with the show he had created never wavered.
Not everyone realized it, but John was a former Jesuit priest. During the Vietnam years, he ran for the U.S. Senate from his native Rhode Island as an anti-war priest on the Republican ticket. He didn’t win; he got 36 percent of the vote against the Democrat, John Pastore for trivia buffs.
He went on to work for the Nixon campaign and then the Nixon White House, which is where he met Pat Buchanan. They were comrades in arms, spouting Latin and church dogma and trading political stories that a neophyte like me found fascinating both on the set and off. They referred to President Nixon as “the old man.”
John was one of the old man’s last defenders, along with Rabbi Korff, and when I came to Washington in December of 1976, having covered Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign, I knew John as “that crazy right-wing priest” who hosted a radio show where he and his guests really let loose.
Turns out he was on to something, and the McLaughlin Group followed soon after. I wasn’t part of the original cast, but in 1983, as a reporter in Washington for Newsweek, he summoned me to his then office on K Street and peppered me with a series of questions. I remember two of them: What did I think about Barney Clark’s heart transplant? He was the first recipient of an artificial heart, and he died after 112 days. There was a debate over the ethics of how much it cost and whether it was worth it.
The second question was about arms to Taiwan. What was my position on that? I looked at John, dumbfounded, and said, I’m a reporter, I don’t have strong opinions.
“You want to be on my show, you better get some strong opinions,” he said. That turned out to be really easy. I was seated across from Buchanan, the original culture warrior, and next to Bob Novak, the conservative columnist with a permanent scowl known as the “Prince of Darkness.”
You couldn’t find better character actors, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Jack Germond, one of the original panelists who for years was every viewer’s favorite for his grumpy insights and his defiantly liberal positions.
John, with his imposing stature and his booming voice of God, was of course the larger-than-life figure that dominated the show. He created such a high-octane atmosphere that there was no time for hemming and hawing, or for pretending to be fairer than you felt. You had to blurt out what you actually thought before you got cut off.
As one of the few women in the early years to appear regularly as a panelist, I got cut off more than the men. But I held my own, which is what other women would often tell me, and that will be the title of the memoir I plan to write some day.
I told John when I saw him the week before he died that he made me seem a lot fiercer than I am. My late husband, Tom Brazaitis, who was also a journalist, used to joke that he helped me prep for the show by shouting “Wrong!” over and over. Tom said the show was like a men’s locker room with the guys towel-snapping while they one-upped each other.
It was a game, but it was also serious. Every issue was deeply researched, and John relished weightier issues like NATO enlargement, making us eat our vegetables before we would get to the easy headlines. The show was memorialized on Saturday Night Live back in the day with Dana Carvey playing John, and John later playing himself.
We will miss his signature phrases, beginning with Issue One, and ending with Bye-Bye. And we will miss the man, who was always a blast to be around. John was an original, and while there are many imitators, he will never be overtaken. He got there first, and he created something that in its own way is as iconic as The Honeymooners with Jackie Gleason, a comparison I know John would love.