John McLaughlin’s career came to an abrupt end at the age of 89 in the middle of August as he died from complications to prostate cancer. Before his days in television public affairs talk shows, most notably The McLaughlin Group, he was a Jesuit priest, ran for the Senate in 1970, and then later became President Richard Nixon’s speechwriter – defending Nixon vehemently throughout the Watergate scandal and hearings. Later, beginning in 1982, his program hit the airwaves making use of the time he’d spent in front of the camera during those hearings and later commentary.
At the time his program launched on WRC in DC, his conservative views and his somewhat combative approach was new and uncomfortable for those watching as well as the ones being grilled by McLaughlin or on the receiving end of his boisterous “WRONGGGGG!” comments.
But by the time of his death, his style of public affairs journalism on The McLaughlin Group shows could be considered almost tame. Such have been the changes over 30 years in the Washington DC political arena. Before his programs, public affairs television in our capitol was rather mannered, always respectful, and treated the guests as if their opinions were not to be challenged. McLaughlin changed that forever. Like many big changes, it took some time to catch on, but when it did, politicians and analysts alike had to be on their game whenever they appeared on his or other similar programs.
As part of his show he frequently grilled guests to have them rate different issues. When Bill Clinton’s presidency was nearing the final days and much talk rumbled through the nation about impeachment over the Lewinsky problem, McLaughlin did not shy away. He asked, “On a survival probability scale of zero to ten – zero, Mr. Clinton leaves office, he’s out, almost overnight; ten, Clinton stays, he finishes his term til January two thousand-and-one – rate the survival probability level of Bill Clinton as president.”
McLaughlin was a hard-working man; he continued doing his syndicated program right up to the week before his death. But as this nation faces one of the hottest contended presidential campaigns ever, it’s hard not to wonder what McLaughlin’s zero to ten questions would be this and every week moving to election day in November. The sure bet is he wouldn’t have pulled any punches.