Back in the early 1990s, when our son was 4 years old and accustomed to seeing his dad on a certain Washington-based public television talk show, he’d annoy us by skipping through the house singing, “Bye-bye! Bye-bye…!”
John McLaughlin, creator-host of “The McLaughlin Group,” was delighted to hear that news. “Watch out, Clarence,” he said in his professorial bellow. “I’m subverting a new generation.”
“Father John,” as some of us regulars on his news-panel sometimes called him backstage, has uttered his last “bye-bye.” The former Roman Catholic priest, who became an aide to President Richard Nixon and later pioneered a pugilistic style of political punditry, died on Tuesday (Aug. 18) at his home in Washington. He was 89.
I was fortunate enough to be part of the “Group” for 28 of its 34 years on the air. McLaughlin invited me to join the panel, he told me later, on the recommendation of another visionary broadcaster, William McCarter, the Chicago public TV and radio chief who brought the show to PBS in 1982. McCarter died in 2011.
My biggest regret when I heard of Father John’s death was my own failure to thank him for the changes his program has brought to my life, let alone his influence on the way politics are discussed on television.
Before the Group came along, political talk shows tended to be polite interrogations of politicians, authors and other newsmakers. McLaughlin bypassed the newsmakers to let us commentators argue about them.
He further enlivened the conversation by giving his panelists too many topics and too little time to make our points without raising our voices and talking over one another.
And there were his unique McLaughlin-isms. He opened the show by plunging directly into “Issue one…!”
He headlined topics with festive labels like “political potpourri!” and halted our responses in mid-sentence with a resounding “Wrong!”
He forced us to compress complexities into a tidy scale of zero-to-10, “zero being absolute impossibility and 10 being metaphysical certitude.”
And he branded his distinguished panel with such nicknames as Freddy “the Beadle” Barnes, now at The Weekly Standard, Jack “Germondo” Germond, since-deceased Baltimore Sun columnist, and Eleanor “You’re Swell-a-nor” Clift, now with the Daily Beast.
We knew we had entered pop culture when the show was lampooned on Saturday Night Live, once with Dana Carvey playing a spot-on McLaughlin and another with McLaughlin playing himself – “almost as well as Carvey did,” I later joked.
I missed out on the SNL spoof but I was included in one of Mad magazine’s cartoon depictions of the Group in the late 1990s edition – which enabled me to score some rare cool points with my son’s fifth-grade classmates. Priceless.
The show did have its critics. Columnist Mike Royko, another master of nicknames, called it “the McGoofy Group.” Germond called it “TV at its worst” and insisted he was only sticking around to pay for his daughter’s medical school tuition. My grandmother simply called it “the shouting show.” Sounds about right.
A more scholarly critic is best-selling author Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown University linguistics professor. In her 1998 book “The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words,” she includes the McLaughlin Group among media that have promoted “agonism,” forms of ritualized fighting that use words instead of fists or weapons.
When the belief that “watching fights can be fun” enters our public discourse,” she said in an email exchange, there is a “degradation of information.” Landing “a good – and entertaining – blow” becomes more important than getting the facts right, she said, or getting useful information across.
Donald Trump used that aesthetic in his TV show, “The Apprentice” with his “belligerent, entertaining, ‘You’re fired!' “ Tannen said, and his Republican presidential candidacy that represents “the inevitable result – of the merging and confusing of information and entertainment.”
Could the Group have played a role in the rise of Trump? That should give all of us pause.
Yet the worst sin in our business, besides plagiarism and inaccuracies, is to be boring. If McLaughlin’s Group helped to make today’s complicated news and issues a little easier for the public to digest, I hear it encouraged quite a few to read newspapers, too.
For all that and more, I'll miss you, Father John. Bye-bye!
Reach Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.