John McLaughlin died today. The long-time host of The McLaughlin Group, he was 89.
I haven’t watched The McLaughlin Group for years, and wasn’t even aware it was still on the air. However, there was a time, long ago, when The McLaughlin Group was a staple of the Webner household viewing schedule.
It was the early ’80s, when we lived in Washington, D.C., and everyone we knew ate, slept, and breathed politics. In those days Reagan was the President and Tip O’Neill was the Speaker of the House, and there was lots to talk about in the political world. People would actually talk about politics at the workplace, and you needed to watch shows like The McLaughlin Group and Agronsky & Company if you wanted to keep up and make sure you were aware of the latest spin coming from the Ds or the Rs. We would come home from work on Friday night, catch the shows, and then go on with our weekend.
The McLaughlin Group was different from the other political shows because it was, well, a lot louder than traditional shows like Meet the Press, and it actually tried to be entertaining. McLaughlin’s trademark catchphrases — like intoning “WRONG!” if a fellow panel member offered an opinion that he disagreed with — seemed fresh and funny and edgy at the time. But the show often devolved into people arguing with each other, and when Kish and I moved back to Columbus we just stopped watching it. Here in the heartland, all the insider chit-chat from the likes of Fred Barnes and Pat Buchanan and Eleanor Clift just seemed a lot less important.
Little did we know that The McLaughlin Group would be a kind of precursor of the ultimate direction of TV news and public affairs shows. They moved from the boring, sober discussions of the ’60s and ’70s to the more fast-moving, glitzy, and much louder broadcasts of the modern era. The McLaughlin Group was one of the transitional programs that paved the way for the modern approach — an approach that I think is appalling and bears as much resemblance to true journalism as the “weird trick” health advice you get on the internet bears to legitimate medicine.
I wonder if McLaughlin ever regretted his role in that change.