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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

John McLaughlin, RIP

 Yes, yes, I know, Holy political purist: The McLaughlin Group could be indirectly blamed for the coarsening of American political dialogue (Averted Gaze). John McLaughlin was almost certainly a provocateur, prodding his subservient panel to heated argument and controversial statements. But I for one never really took the man or the show for that that seriously, so that's why maybe I am not so hot-around-the-collar over the death of the host of the McLaughlin Group.

And how could you really take it all that seriously? The production values were atrocious, the program was 22-minutes long soaking wet and it gave maybe 4-minutes tops to discussing issues as weighty as the START Treaty or Turkish membership in the European Union. I got my information, quite frankly, from the New York Times and Washington Post  -- even in high school and certainly in college -- but I got my political entertainment, and I have always loved political entertainment, back in the day, from the McLaughlin Group.

I have been watching The McLaughlin Group since before I went to college, which seems like aeons ago in retrospect. In those days it was John, Jack Germond, Eleanor, Pat Buchanan and Robert Novak. Novak soon left (or, rather, was fired), as did Germond. But Eleanor and Pat -- the shows barometers of left and right -- always reamined, loyalists to the end.

What I loved most about the show is how McLaughlin created a narrative beyond the politics involving the panelists on the show. John would openly flirt with Eleanor Clift (who was married at the time), "Eleanor, Eleanor, gee you're swell and all," he crooned, badly. Sometime panelist Freddie "the Beetle" Barnes was a stone-cold geek, and billionaire Mort Zuckerman endured endless ribbing about his money, a source of infinite McLaughlin's envy. McLaughlin kept mentioning the rumpled Germond's weakness for "the track," in careless whispers (Ah, the 80s). I always thought it was all very old school, very HL Mencken-ish, the image of a rumpled, chubby Germond, armed with a hip flask at the track betting on a substantial tip from an equally soused colleague. Germond always seemed about as enchanted in being a panelist on the show as he would have been with an impromptu prostate examination. From his obituary:

He later characterized that program — which for better or worse was intended to be a high-pitched political food fight — as 'really bad TV.' He said he had stayed only so he could pay his daughter’s medical school tuition.

I have no illusions about the "badness" of the show, oh purist media commentators. It was bad politics and after the age of 21 I never learned anything new from watching the show. The budget for McLaughlin Group was clearly cut-rate, although the panel probably made out like bandits. That having been said, it was entertaining (particularly to young politcs geeks), nostalgic (to those same politics geeks returning home from college), lovingly predictable (one always knew where Eleanor and Pat stood on an issue), and a wonderful prod to open conversation over the holidays (especially among my close immediate family of Ugandan immigrants). I loved the show largely because it was a part of my childhood and adulthood, it was entertainment that brought my Ugandan-American immigrant family closer together. Over the years many of my politics-geek friends from diverse backgrounds have said much the same.

It has been a Sunday ritual for as my family long as I can remember. The last few years though the old guy had been getting up there in age, and it showed. He is not as quick on the draw. McLaughlin read most of his dialogue from a sheet that was probably prepared by someone else. He spoke less and less, allowing the panelists to dominate the conversation -- something the old McLaughlin would never have allowed. I’ve noticed, I’m sure a lot of fans have, that the show was winding down. The schedule was really starting to wear on the former Jesuit priest, which made the last episodes all the more sad. "The sharpest minds, best sources, hardest talk” has come to an abrupt end. I particularly loved the year-end “awards” show (or is it Thanksgiving ― “gobble gobble”) when the panel ― Pat, Eleanor, now Tom and Clarence Page ― dress up at their Beltway swishiest, while McLaughlin gets his festive red blazer out of the back of his mothballed closet. I also remember the moving tribute John gave to Eleanor's husband, Tom Brazaitis on the occasion of his death. And after the death of Tom Brazaitis, Eleanor wore black for what seemed like the rest of the year. I remember wondering aloud "How long can a human being mourn."?

And then one day Eleanor laughed, and stopped wearing black, and the show becamse light again.

To me the show was most relevant during the Second Persian Gulf War when Eleanor and Pat Buchanan, curiously, were on the same side of the fence ―liberalism and paleoconservative at one in an odd post-Cold war moment where even neoconservative Jeanne Kirkpatrick leaned "America First." Although Pat Buchanan frequently said unfortunate things ― especially about immigrants and race ― his paleoconservative critique of Tony Blankley's mainstream conservatism-neoconservatism was something not seen on the cable networks. And now Buchanan’s paleoconservatism has come up again as highly relevant via the rise of Trump.

 The last year, however, John McLaughlin totally missed the Brexit. That was a clarion sign that something was not quite right in McLaughlinWorld. I mean, this was Jesuit, philosophically-trained John McLaughlin, right? 

I have no idea if they continue with the show (McLaughlin Group hosted by Eleanor Clift?) or if this is the end of an era.If they do continue with Pat or Eleanor hosting, it will not quite be the same.
While the young breathe a collective "Whatevs" at the death of such a louche beltway public television provocateur, those of us who grew up in the shadow of the Cold War loved the madcap, almost antic comic vibe that pervaded the McLaughlin Show. Whether or not McLaughlin meant the show to be taken as entertainment, I most certainly did. And as entertainment -- or, rather, political entertainment -- it was a pretty good thing.

Unfortunately even good things must come to an end.

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