For you kiddies too young to remember, "The McLaughlin Group" – an unrehearsed program of news and opinions – was pretty much all we had back in the 1980s as far as political shoutmatches go. CNN was in its infancy, blogs and the Internet weren’t even that far, but every Sunday morning, we could tune in to four journalists and a sybaritic priest* arguing over the issues of the day.
John McLaughlin had been a Jesuit priest and unofficial advisor to the Nixon administration before being defrocked and turning to TV, roughly in that order. He was joined each weekend on his PBS chatfest by the rumpled, cynical Baltimore columnist Jack Germond, who served basically as the group’s Tip O’Neill, an old-fashioned big-city liberal. He was joined by some combination of Eleanor Clift as Pat Schroeder, Fred Barnes as Trent Lott, Morton Kondracke as Sam Nunn, and Pat Buchanan as Pat Buchanan. (They’d also occasionally flatter someone like Mortimer Zuckerman – whose journalism experience consisted of owning U.S. News and World Report – by treating them as if anyone cared about their opinions.)
Issue Two: Does the World Need Another Teddy White?
Germond, along with his partner Jules Witcover, wrote quadrennial doorstops on the presidential elections. I was unfortunate enough to buy and read “Blue Smoke and Mirrors,” their book on the 1988 campaign. Not only was the Bush-Dukakis race one of the dullest elections in American history, but they had to misfortune to be outclassed that cycle by one of the best election books ever, Robert Ben Cramer’s “What It Takes.” I would quote you something from “Blue Smoke and Mirrors,” but I left it in a box labeled FREE BOOKS long ago.
Issue Three: A Stinking Pile of Crap
The genius of "The McLaughlin Group" was that it was the first show to recognize that politics could be fun, especially if it was largely substance-free. No one made any pretense that anyone was being enlightened by it. In an Esquire article on the show, Eleanor Clift called it “the Super Bowl of bullshit.” McLaughlin generally acted like such a buffoon that he was eventually lampooned by Dana Carvey on “Saturday Night Live.”
Fred Barnes may have kidded himself that he was making a serious case for something or other, but Germond never fell for that. He made no bones about the fact that he was doing the show for the money. Once his daughter finished medical school, Germond quit the show. He sent John McLaughlin a fax reading simply, “Bye-bye.”
It would be nice if Germond would be remembered for one of his campaign books, or for his charmingly titled memoir "Fat Man in a Middle Seat," but heck, I haven’t even read that. He’ll be remembered as someone who held the banner for old-fashioned liberalism in a period of Reaganism and New Democrats, and as someone who made politics fun. Let’s hope he’s not remembered as someone who paved the way for the likes of "George" and "Politico."
Next week: How much longer can Mort Kondracke hold on?
* Epithet courtesy of Hunter S. Thompson.