McLaughlin Changed The Way We Yell About Politics

If, like me, you were born in the early 1980s, developed an unusual appetite for politics as a teenager, and grew up without cable television, you might know of John McLaughlin, who died Tuesday at age 89. You’d probably also recognize the so-'80s-it-hurts logo for his show, The McLaughlin Group, a weekend political panel which beat CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and all the other cable news networks to the punch. But most of all, you might remember the shouting: people yelling over one another, trying to get a word in edgewise before McLaughlin, the dagger-eyed, jowly host gave his verdict: “WRONG!”

Incredibly, McLaughlin, a former aide to Richard Nixon, hosted every episode of his political talk show for a jaw-dropping 34 years; his absence this past Sunday was his first.

If you’re not like me and have never seen The McLaughlin Group, let me set it up for you. At first blush, especially in the context of the current, slick style of political news, the show looks like it might have been filmed in the lobby of a Marriott. McLaughlin, seated at the center of the action like an angry gargoyle, sets up a political topic with a tone of voice that suggests it is the height of stupidity. Then he would — without warning — call on one of his panelists to comment. God help them if they answer "wrongly."

What made the show fascinating to watch was how quickly a panel could go from dry political talk to fisticuffs. The ornery host’s direct questioning style and willingness to go after his guests put the stakes miles high. After watching only a few episodes, I found myself having a visceral reaction to the right-leaning program, especially when Newsweek columnist Eleanor Clift, for years the only woman and often the only liberal on the show, was ganged up on by the other, right-leaning participants. Even when fellow left-leaner Clarence Page of The Chicago Tribune would be on hand, things could get rough.

McLaughlin’s show transformed the way people on TV were allowed to talk about politics. Chris Matthews, whose own screaming-match show Hardball defined cable-era political talk, got early television exposure on The McLaughlin Group.

When the show began in 1982, critics claimed it was turning politics into entertainment. That may or may not have been true, but it made for compelling television. By the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, The McLaughlin Group had left its mark on the way the media covers politics.

While much of the show’s 34-year run is available to watch online, perhaps the best encapsulation of the spirit of the McLaughlin group is Dana Carvey’s impression of McLaughlin on Saturday Night Live. It’s mockery, sure, but there’s love in there.

Looking at more recent editions of the show, it was clear to me that McLaughlin was waning, with his comments lacking their earlier bite. But his legacy is undeniable. Whether we should thank him or not is another matter.