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Anticipating the tempestuous partisan political mediascape of the cable news wars by more than a decade, John McLaughlin made his strident monotone delivery of institutional conservative views a regular sound in the Washington, D.C. noise machine, starting in 1982. A one-time Jesuit priest and failed congressional candidate, McLaughlin began his career as a low-level speechwriter for President Richard Nixon, and in the wake of Watergate, began a public brushfire amid a firestorm by extolling Nixon's virtues even as the unraveling scandal suggested far differently. Upon the ouster of Republicans from power in 1976, he found his way into journalism. With conservative politics reemerging in the country, he began writing a column for National Review in 1981 and the next year started the syndicated weekly roundtable program "The McLaughlin Group" (1982- ). His trademark gruff, fast-paced moderation of discussions, and not infrequent pat dismissals of views he disagreed with, made the show relatively lively for the then-staid American news landscape. He faced scandal himself when a former office manager sued him in 1988, alleging he had sexually harassed her and other employees - conspicuous for a pundit...
Anticipating the tempestuous partisan political mediascape of the cable news wars by more than a decade, John McLaughlin made his strident monotone delivery of institutional conservative views a regular sound in the Washington, D.C. noise machine, starting in 1982. A one-time Jesuit priest and failed congressional candidate, McLaughlin began his career as a low-level speechwriter for President Richard Nixon, and in the wake of Watergate, began a public brushfire amid a firestorm by extolling Nixon's virtues even as the unraveling scandal suggested far differently. Upon the ouster of Republicans from power in 1976, he found his way into journalism. With conservative politics reemerging in the country, he began writing a column for National Review in 1981 and the next year started the syndicated weekly roundtable program "The McLaughlin Group" (1982- ). His trademark gruff, fast-paced moderation of discussions, and not infrequent pat dismissals of views he disagreed with, made the show relatively lively for the then-staid American news landscape. He faced scandal himself when a former office manager sued him in 1988, alleging he had sexually harassed her and other employees - conspicuous for a pundit routinely moralizing the "family values" trope. He expanded his media imprint with a more staid interview show, "McLaughlin One on One" (1984- ), as well as an eponymous CNBC show from 1989 through 1994. His unique style made him gimmick booking for TV and film producers, often playing himself as a chorus device in politically themed fare such as "Murphy Brown" (CBS, 1988-1998) and the presidential-themed feature "Dave" (1993). McLaughlin remained a stalwart, if less distinctive, voice of the weekend American talking-head parade even into his eighties, with news channels such as Fox News and vast tracts of talk radio long since forwarding his standard of fairly depthless exchanges of talking points as news analysis.
He was born John Joseph McLaughlin on March 29, 1927, in Providence, RI, son of Eva and Augustus McLaughlin; the latter a regional salesman for Thomasville Furniture. His second-generation Irish parents raised him devoutly Catholic and Democrat, as per the party's longtime hold on East Coast urban wards, and they sent him to the Providence Catholic prep school LaSalle Academy for his junior high and high school years. McLaughlin was drawn to the priesthood and, upon graduating LaSalle, began studying at the Jesuit-run Weston College in Weston, MA, later to merge with Boston College as its School of Theology and Ministry. The Jesuits ordained him as a priest in 1947, and he went on to study at BC, where he earned master's degrees in both English and philosophy. McLaughlin taught high school for a time at the Jesuit-run Fairfield College Preparatory School in Fairfield, CT. There, he developed a pedagogic streak that, by one account, led some students to refer to him as "Father God." He took time off from teaching to attend Columbia University in New York, where he would earn a doctorate in philosophy. During his time in New York he began working for America, the Jesuit current affairs magazine. By some accounts, he adopted a curious expertise for a supposed sexless priest, writing and becoming an expert lecturer on propriety of sex in and out of marriage.
By the late 1960s, though still ostensibly a Democrat and opposed to the Vietnam War, he identified in print with the Nixon administration's reactionary stance towards the peace and civil rights movements and what he deemed an irresponsible mass media. At odds with other editors at the magazine and noting that their superiors had given fellow Jesuit Father Robert Drinan their assent to his running for a Congressional seat in Massachusetts, McLaughlin decided on a similar path. He returned to Rhode Island, changed his party affiliation, and ran for the U.S. Senate as an anti-war Republican, challenging incumbent John Pastore. For a campaign manager, he hired a young wonk 14 years his junior named Ann Dore. He garnered only 32 percent of the vote, but his entry into the political field won him the friendship of another Jesuit-indoctrinated conservative, Pat Buchanan, then a speechwriter and advisor to President Nixon. McLaughlin came aboard the administration as a speechwriter and did some work touring Southeast Asia, delivering rosy reports about the war. During Nixon's re-election campaign, Dore took a job with the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP), followed by a position in the Environmental Protection Agency. CREEP would soon become central to media and congressional investigations into the administration's financing of a sweeping, illicit domestic espionage program first revealed with a break-in at Democratic offices in the Watergate Hotel - where, curiously, McLaughlin kept an apartment on his for-the-time considerable $33,000 salary.
McLaughlin began garnering media attention as one of the last Nixonites to publicly defend the president. In May 1974, even in the wake of the release of Oval Office audiotapes ultimately corroborating Nixon's cover-up, McLaughlin told CBS News that Nixon was "the greatest moral leader in the last third of this century." In a 1974 storyTime headlined "The Presidential Priest," reported on the ensuing conflict between "Father McLaughlin" and his superior in Boston, who dissociated the Jesuits from McLaughlin's views and attempted to recall him. McLaughlin survived the fallout from Nixon's resignation, working for a time in the Ford administration until forced out. Still in conflict with the Jesuits, he renounced his vows and, in 1975, married Dore. The two together starting a political consultancy. In 1980, he began his career in broadcasting with a talk radio show on Washington, D.C. station WRC, bringing on guests such as columnists Robert Novak and Fred Barnes, but mostly proselytizing his own views through the program. The show only lasted a year. In 1981, with the start of the conservative Reagan era, he landed a job as Washington editor of William F. Buckley's conservative bastion National Review, while his wife, now Ann Dore McLaughlin, went to work for the Treasury Department, but he was intent on doing something more groundbreaking in broadcast media, which he perceived to be too polite and ossified.
Funded by wealthy ex-Nixonite cronies, he founded Oliver Productions and floated his new concept for a show, "The McLaughlin Group." It would marshal panels of pundits to approximate Beltway reporters' raucous insider barroom discussions, which McLaughlin would moderate with bullying zeal, often growling out the last word on any subject. He chose panels he perceived as representing the "left" and "right" of the U.S. political spectrum, initially with reactionaries Buchanan and columnist Robert Novak representing the latter, moderate conservative Morton Kondracke of The New Republic and Baltimore Sun columnist Jack Germond ostensibly representing the liberal viewpoints. A 1988 review in The New York Times would encapsulate the show as one that "may not tell you much you haven't heard before, but it tells it fast and loud." The syndicated show sold into local TV stations; many, but not all were PBS affiliates. A missionary for Reagan's messages of homespun family values, anti-Communism, and cross-the-board deregulation of the economy, McLaughlin ingratiated himself to his wife's boss, who even stopped by the show's third anniversary party, delivering a speech penned by Buchanan, that called the show "the most tasteful programming alternative to professional wrestling," according to Howard Kurtz's 1997 book Hot Air.
In 1984, with "The McLaughlin Group" on 300-plus stations nationwide, McLaughlin floated a new show, "McLaughlin One on One," in which he would interview major newsmakers. By 1987, McLaughlin's celebrity had grown to where non-news producers were seeking him out for gimmick appearances, such as one on the sitcom "ALF" (NBC, 1986-1990), and later hosting the 200th episode of "Cheers" (NBC, 1982-1993). Also in 1987, Reagan upped the ante on McLaughlin's conflicts-of-interest by appointing his wife Ann as Secretary of Labor. In making the appointment, Reagan quipped to reporters, "If she's handled John McLaughlin this long, she can handle anything." Said handling came into question in 1988 when Linda Dean, a former assistant, filed a $4 million sexual harassment suit against McLaughlin. While he reputedly ran the show tyrannically, Dean alleged he did far worse in a sworn statement, saying McLaughlin explicitly suggested a preternatural sex-drive on his part, groped her and insinuated he would compensate her handsomely for sexual favors. The news broke just as Ann was scheduled to give a speech to the Republican National Convention, and it reputedly proved the spark the led to the eventual dissolution of the marriage. McLaughlin settled the lawsuit out of court in 1989. Progressive writer Eric Alterman, in his 1992 book Sound & Fury: The Washington Punditocracy and the Collapse of American Politics, posited that Dean was not alone and that at least three other women claimed to have been sexually harassed by McLaughlin.
He and Ann divorced in 1992. His abrasive management and discursive style also finally alienated Novak, who left to start a similar show and later wound up in a "point-counterpoint" on CNN. In 1989, McLaughlin grew his empire with a more conventional talk show on CNBC. He also began picking up more crossover bookings, with TV and film producers using him in politics-related narratives as a signature Washington voice. He did cameos in the presidential doppelganger comedy "Dave" (1993), CBS' news-themed sitcom "Murphy Brown," the sci-fi outing "Independence Day" (1996), and curiously, Warren Beatty's radically anti-Washington-establishment opus "Bulworth" (1998). Through the 1990s, the onetime edge of "The McLaughlin Group" softened somewhat, and seemed increasingly indistinct from Fox News' right-centric news narrative 24/7, and other cable news channels floating their own point-counterpoint programming. In 1997, McLaughlin married his Vice President for Operations, Cristina Clara Vidal. By the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, McLaughlin periodically intimated that George W. Bush and his cadre of "neo-cons" had shifted the Republican Party ever too far rightward even for him. After a long absence from narrative media, he returned in 2008 for a cameo in another anti-establishment film, "War Inc.," a rapier critique of Bush's pro-corporate adventurism produced, written by and starring John Cusack. During the 2008 election cycle, McLaughlin drew some controversy again when he suggested Democratic candidate Barack Obama fit the definition of "Oreo."
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