THE POOP: Even more so than the bow-tied, genteel George Will (towards whom he seems to have a cordial hatred), Father John McLaughlin is American conservativism’s forgotten man. Once an advisor to presidents, he has, like a low-rent, back-alley edition of Bill Buckley, been largely passed by a new generation of conservatives more radical, less sophisticated, and infinitely more ruthless than himself. His career is not exactly at its apex; doughy, steak-faced and apparently shrinking downwards and expanding outwards at the same rate, McLaughlin – once considered the fightin’est right-wing Catholic since Father Coughlin – now looks much older than his 78 years and has been reduced to what his officially biography politely refers to as a “news personality”. However, as we wait for Father Time and one too many butter-soaked baked potatoes at GOP fundraisers to remove Jowly John from the public eye, let’s not forget that despite the fact that he hasn’t been a leading light of the conservative movement since before parachute pants were fashionable, he did make one massive contribution to our culture. He almost single-handedly invented the current default mode of American political discourse: people yelling at each other angrily on television.
You see, the United States, unlike most lively European democracies which are forced, due to their dynamic multi-party parliamentary systems, to engage in intense and passionate debate over the issues in order to build the coalitions so necessary to the functioning of government, has only two parties. As a result, political action is made to happen not by vigorous debate and fragile coalition-building, but by slander, dirt-mongering and polarizing us-or-them rhetoric. We don’t have anything like Prime Minister’s Question Time, because we’ve decided that accountability is un-American and that if you don’t support the president you are some kind of subhuman traitor who would sell out the whole country for a Tic Tac. We define ourselves politically not by issue-centered positions, but by a bipolar party affiliation that leaves very little wiggle room: you’re either a Democrat or a Republican, a liberal or a conservative, and even if you’re a Democrat who doesn’t think abortion is such a hot idea, or a Republican who thinks maybe the government shouldn’t interfere in people’s sex lives, you’ll clam up about it and vote the straight party line; otherwise, you might as well be voting for Lyndon LaRouche or something for all the good it’s going to do you. That’s why we prefer our political discourse in the form of a minimum of three and a maximum of six people, all white or at least a non-threatening shade of black, all wearing suits, sitting in a badly-lit studio in Washington, D.C., and screaming at each other like it was Thanksgiving night at Al Coholic’s house. And it was John McLaughlin – who used to be called “pugnacious” before the word “asshole” was invented – who first brought us that format with his groundbreaking program The McLaughlin Group.
The Group dynamic is a charming one, even now, 23 years after its inception. There’s never any surprises – Jowly John knows what his audience likes. Here’s what they like: they like to see John behind the desk, with two people on either side of him. One of the four guests will be Pat Buchanan. Another will be Eleanor “ELEANOOAAAAH” Clift, or someone who might as well be Eleanor Clift. The remaining two will be a right-wing journalists and a left-wing journalist, thus providing the lineup (three rock-hard conservatives, one moderate conservative, and a timid liberal or a boring centrist like Morton “Mor-TAAAAHN” Kondracke) that they pretend represents balance. Then McLaughlin summons every bit of wind in his bellows and blasts out a ‘question’, though really it’s more like a challenge, about some current event and throws it to the panel like a breeder throwing a raw steak to his fighting pit bulls. “Embattledjudicialnominee HARRIET MAAAH-ERS isfacedwith GROWING resistancefromliberalsaswellas CONSEEEEHVATIVES! Cansheweatherthestorm. PAAAAAAT!” And then, Pat is supposed to pretend he knows what the hell is going on and answer the ‘question’ in twenty seconds. Then the next person does the same, until someone – usually a girl – lets slip an opinion in which the panel detects a hint of weakness, effeminacy or inconsistency. When this happens, they all jump on the sissy panelist and berate her for an hour. Then the show ends and everything is solved forever. It’s a brilliant format as entertainment goes, and it’s absolutely and unquestionably the way political debate takes place in this country at every level. There’s simply no way to overestimate the influence McLaughlin-style discourse has had on our nation, and if you dare to suggest, as Jon Stewart famously did on the McLaughlin Group knock-off Crossfire, that there's something wrong with that, people will tell you to go to Russia.
McLaughlin himself, once a conservative firebrand, has considerably toned down his ‘pugnacious’ politics, probably because his ticker can’t take it; he saves it all for the show now. Once upon a time, he opposed the Vietnam War (unusual for a ‘60s conservative) and worked for Richard Nixon (unusual for a devout Catholic priest). After a couple of electoral disasters – a common thread with the talking-head crew, who despite all their bluster tend not to have the guts of cast iron necessary for a successful political career – he disappeared for a while, resurfacing (as did many Nixon toadies) in the 1980s to become a full-time hack for the Reagan administration. Although it was an unpaid gig, he got the spiritual satisfaction of working for the most shameless political panderer of the century. Oh, and plus, his wife, by a crazy coincidence, was appointed Secretary of Labor. Because of his ‘no, YOU shut up’ style of debate and tendency to use comprehensible words, he’s never had the intellectual reputation of a George Will or a William F. Buckley, despite holding three advanced degrees from elite schools; his short-lived opinion journal, America, was best described as New Republic’s developmentally disabled younger brother. However, his distinctive speaking voice and willingness to make a total jerk out of himself has netted him plum roles in Independence Day, Mission: Impossible and The Adventures of Pete & Pete, among others, playing a belligerent jackass named John McLaughlin.
When he dies, hundreds of people will gather around dozens of desks in dozens of television studios and scream loudly and angrily at each other about his memory, his importance, and his legacy. And John McLaughlin will look up (from Hell, where he will burn in torment for all eternity for various sins including abandoning the priesthood and getting a divorce) and smile.
WHAT’S THE ONE THING HE KNOWS FOR SURE? Eleanor Clift is a mark.
DEFINING MOMENT: In 1972, following a dismal senatorial campaign, McLaughlin’s best buddy Pat Buchanan (the Batman to his Robin, or the Goebbels to his Himmler) told him he could get him a job writing speeches for President Richard M. Nixon. Despite the fact that Nixon was gung-ho for the war that McLaughlin putatively opposed, he jumped at the chance, but the Catholic Church told Father John to get his ass back to Boston and resume his priestly duties. Faced with the choice of (a) returning to the service of his god, to whom he had made a lifetime commitment of service, faith, and honor or (b) going to work writing position papers for the worst president of the country to date, Father John told the Church to go fuck itself, resigned his commission, and started cashing checks from Satan.