A famous Rhode Islander whom many did not know was a Rhode Islander, John McLaughlin of the eponymous political show, died August 16th. It took me a while to collect my thoughts on his passing. The busy, second-to-second world seemed to notice, then move.
Indeed, something good came out of Providence. Born in 1927, he studied to become a Jesuit priest. He was a preacher, a teacher, then a politician. His students referred to him as “Father God” for his authoritarian stance and presence. The boom and doom of “Wrong!” that shook Catholic high school classrooms would overtake the airwaves in years to come.
A liberal Republican — no kidding and no longer a Democrat — defined by his opposition stance on Vietnam, and McLaughlin challenged United States Senator John Pastore in 1970. The 43-year-old priest got walloped, even though the incumbent struggled with how to attack a challenger whom he had to call “Father.” Pastore probably stopped going to confession by then, if he ever went at all.
Six years later, Pastore retired, and former Republican governor John Chafee would be the next U.S. senator from Rhode Island, even though Democrat Jimmy Carter was knocking out a Republican presidential incumbent the same year. One has to wonder if the priest-turned conservative pundit hastened Pastore’s departure and Chafee’s pre-eminence.
By then, McLaughlin was speech-writing and politicizing. Laicized from the Catholic Church, the Rhode Islander still issued his opinionated edicts like holy writ. Owing his career to Pat Buchanan (who also ascended the D.C. ranks as a speech writer), McLaughlin turned to editing, headed National Review, and then starred in his own talk show, starting in 1982: one moderator, four commentators, the sharpest minds and the hardest talk squared off every week.
How did I discover The McLaughlin Group, this wary, brilliant yet brazen band of opinionators? First, MAD Magazine carried an intriguing spoof, gleefully covered by caricaturist Gerry Gersten. Then, my Dad used to watch The Group, laughing at the commandeering insouciance of the head honcho. “He just cuts people off and doesn’t care what people think.”
At first, I thought that McLaughlin was boorish, brute, and just plain rude. Then I began watching the program off and on, starting in high school and on the weekends. The first episode I remember from beginning to end, McLaughlin was dissecting President Bill Clinton’s admission on national television that he did indeed “have sex with that woman.”
The president had lied to the public, had an “inappropriate relationship” with another woman, and would have to settle that problem with Congress, with the public, and with his god. McLaughlin gave him a “C-, for showing up.”
Usually, Saturdays at 6:00 p.m. or 6:30 p.m. were the best times for me to watch him. Cerebral types like me had to use the weekends to catch up on the ideological tremors of the previous week. He discussed the most pressing, and sometimes the most inconsequential, issues of the day. But no matter what the topic, the engagement from Buchanan to Blakely (later James Rogan), the back-and-forth bickering, and in extreme cases the intellectual sniper fire was invigorating.
The McLaughlin Group was like reality TV for political junkies and sharpened my own mind to discuss, to descant on, then to write at length about the commanding topics of our times. McLaughlin earned an A+ for having the best forum with the strongest, most-revealing exchanges.
Issue One: diversity of opinion, not just ethnicity.
The McLaughlin Group brought to the forefront the dire necessity to look at all sides of an issue. How sorely lacking that insight has become in our times. Sound bites and digital bytes have replaced mental might and editorial light. Let’s really talk about issues, and call out the other side on their unswerving adherence to what we recognize to be untrue.
The bluster and bruising of the leading immoderate moderator was something to behold. He was right, even when he was wrong, or at least held to his convictions on the discussion of the moment, and delivered his answers even after his four guests had their say. He was a strange breed of conservatism, one which demonstrated its intellectual superiority without the timidity to confront the confirmation bias of unhinged liberalism.
He fiercely distrusted the power of the state to regulate economies. He disliked interventionist foreign policy, including George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. He invited then embraced a unique coven of talking heads, warring minds who fired off their arguments on the issues with the hardest talk.
Issue Two: Rigor of facts and research, not emotionalism.
Before Ben Shapiro declared the obvious (though not apparent to our oblivious generation), McLaughlin demonstrated in action and word that facts do not care about our feelings. The struggle and clash of opposing world views meant putting aside our feelings, and the transparent biases of our media culture did not have to hide, but could be challenged.
Issue Three: He combined mid-day talk show with political commentary in the most entertaining way.
Meet the Press and Face the Nation attempted to bear a banner of impartial reporting. McLaughlin understood that events, outcomes, and their implications could not be conveyed without a proper respect for who was telling the story and how the narrator viewed the telling of the tale. From paleo-conservative nationalist Pat Buchanan to socialist liberal Eleanor Clift, McLaughlin’s presented of the entire spectrum ensured a broad balance of who’s in, who’s out, and what was going on in the world.
I watched Father John’s funeral at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. How tragic that I could not be there and that too few well wishers attended to pay their respects. He served our country, our political discourse with an intense immensity. A review of his archive will open a window onto our political history which we must not forget.
And he was a Rhode Islander, too!
Prediction: His absence will signal the growing harshness and blandness of modern politics. John McLaughlin, RIP.
Arthur Christopher Schaper is a blogger, writer, and commentator on topics both timeless and timely; political, cultural, and eternal. A life-long Southern California resident, Arthur currently lives in Torrance. Follow his blogs at The State of the Union and As He Is, So Are We Ministries and on Twitter.