There’s this thing John McLaughlin does when he wants to move the action along on The McLaughlin Group, the idiosyncratic weekly half-hour political talk show over which he has presided for 10 years. He twists a shoulder and leans forward and to the side of his chair. He scrunches his triangular brows and compresses his lips. He glowers at his colleague — it could be syndicated columnist Morton Kondracke or Fred Barnes of The New Republic, Eleanor Clift of Newsweek, or Jack Germond of the — and he barks something erudite, something (exactly) like this: ”You’re missing the boat, pal!”
Whereupon certain effects follow: McLaughlin’s panel of esteemed political journalists bark back. They lob opinions and analyses. They fling predictions and observations, they attack each other’s political beliefs and flaunt their knowledge like smarty-pants college debaters. They act, in short, exactly the way you’d hope esteemed political journalists act when they’re off duty: They brawl. Insults fly and cameras cut from face to animated face. The host scolds and corrects, interrupts and overrides and mocks. ”Freddy!” he nudges. ”Mor-TAHN!” ”Eli-NAWWWH!” ”IaskyouJackJerMAHHND! ” The scent of dyspepsia hangs in the air like cigar smoke at a power poker game.
And you, what are you doing? You’re still in your bathrobe on Sunday morning.
Fueled by cranky energy and popularized by parodies on Saturday Night Live, The McLaughlin Group (carried on PBS and some NBC stations) has become must-watch public-affairs viewing for amused Washington insiders, bemused outsiders, and confused high school kids curious about the guy from whom comedian Dana Carvey has drawn manic (”Bye-BYE!”) inspiration. Such verbal roughhousing, a fringe act once the province of news junkies, has changed the tone of political analysis on television from one of sobersided thumbsucking to that of freewheeling sparring. Says Clift, ”You don’t have all the crutches of ‘My sources tell me.’ So I think it gets closer to the core of what one actually thinks.” But, she adds, ”It’s also a little bit like watching the Christians fed to the lions.” With ratings rising consistently in the past three years, The Group is now the highest-rated political talk show in Washington.
First given national distribution on public TV — that perennial target of right-wing critics — The McLaughlin Group is itself often right-wing in outlook, although less predictably so since the departure in 1988 of syndicated columnist Robert Novak and Patrick Buchanan, who went on to Crossfire and then to a bid for the Presidency. ”I was on the show early, before it was famous,” says Clift, who is insistently liberal. ”I thought it was a bunch of conservatives sitting around, and Pat was this washed-up Nixon speechwriter.” Conservative scoop: Buchanan will return, according to senior producer Allyson Kennedy, sometime after the election.
Limited in dramatic possibilities to the speech and actions of people sitting in chairs, The Group has made TV stars out of its print journalists. ”I had a cop yelling at me, ‘Hey, Mort, get that McLaughlin!”’ says Kondracke, who is frequently the victim of the host’s jibes. ”I’m astounded at the viewership of this thing.”
McLaughlin, 65, is an unlikely pop-culture hero. A Jesuit priest for 15 years, he left the order in 1975 when he married Ann Dore, who later became Secretary of Labor in the Reagan administration. (They divorced earlier this year.) As a Jesuit, he taught literature and cinema (”sin-ay-MAHHHH,” says he) at Fairfield Prep in Connecticut. He has also been an editor and columnist for The National Review and a radio commentator. These days, in addition to The Group, he cranks out John McLaughlin’s One on One (a weekly public-affairs interview show on PBS and Washington’s local NBC station), and McLaughlin, a thrice-weekly Donahue-like program on CNBC. And he’s dogged by references to a $4 million sexual harassment suit filed in 1988 by a former employee and settled out of court the following year; he has denied the charges.
”The three top managers of my office are all women. And it’s their view that it’s a crock,” McLaughlin says in measured tones. ”A tabloid journalist may have a variety of different reasons for what he’s doing — economic reasons, reasons of establishing his or her name, he might disapprove of my politics or feel that I’m a bane of society…”
Of McLaughlin’s on-air persona, Kondracke says, ”His shtick is that he has to try to victimize somebody.” But the host did not, he swears, yelp ”Wrong!” to his guests until Carvey impersonated him doing so. ”But now I’m saying ‘Wrong!’ because Carvey cemented that into my image, and it’s kind of funny.” He says the program was ”probably more civilized and more measured” when it first began on WRC in Washington in 1982.
You can kiss that civilization goodbye. Here’s crusty liberal Germond, McLaughlin regular and professional curmudgeon, on the host: ”I don’t take him , seriously. I think he takes himself seriously — probably more than he deserves.”
On a recent Friday afternoon, a half hour after taping was theoretically supposed to begin, the set is empty; for such a tightly timed production, libertarian sensibility prevails. With no time for postproduction (the show is fed to PBS stations on Friday nights), the work is in the preparation: defining the issues to be introduced and assembling news footage, framing discussion questions, and fortifying the individual bravura ”predictions” with which each panelist signs off. Participants are given topics (but not questions) the day before taping.
It’s nearly 2 p.m. before Jack and Eleanor, Fred and Mort take their seats and take up their stances: Clift and Germond for the left, Barnes for conservatives; Kondracke for the pick-and-choose moderates; and McLaughlin for the eclectic right. (Clarence Page of The Chicago Tribune, ”somewhere to the left of Jack Kemp,” is official regular substitute panelist.)
The panelists are not shy about taking measure of their fellows. Kondracke on himself: ”I’m a moderate moderate. I used to be a liberal, but I find myself alienated from the liberals.”
Clift on McLaughlin: ”I think he has been searching for every possible scenario where Bush could make a comeback.”
Barnes on McLaughlin: ”John is an opportunist, a man with his finger in the wind.”
”Eli-NAWWH,” McLaughlin snaps before the cameras roll to the reporter covering the Clinton campaign, ”any scoops in Little Rock?” Barnes pops a Life Saver in his mouth. Germond stuffs a newspaper under his seat. The jumpy, generic Sunday-talk-show theme music fades in.
”Issue ONE,” booms McLaughlin. Germond hefts his baggy body away from the host’s noise. Arguments fly. ”Is anybody still awake out there?” hmppfs Germond to the camera during a topic that bores him.
”Oh, Jack,” says Clift later. ”Jack has just the right tone. He’s like Norm at the bar in Cheers.”
”The way to make your point,” Barnes says later, ”is to slide to the end of your seat, leap in fast, horn your way right in, and don’t be deferential. Once you start talking, don’t stop.”
”I don’t care what any of those people say,” Germond growls later. ”What’s this show about? It’s something to put my daughter through medical school.”