Freddy the Beadle Barnes remembers John McLaughlin.
By FRED BARNES
August 16, 2016
John McLaughlin was a Jesuit priest, unsuccessful Senate candidate in Rhode Island, and White House aide to Richard Nixon. But he won't be remembered for any of that because he did something a lot bigger. He changed TV political commentary and made it faster, funnier, and far more watchable—in other words, a whole lot better.
McLaughlin, who died Tuesday at 89, actually invented a new type of political chat show. He was the bombastic anchor. He was joined by four Washington journalists—big names in some cases—from whom he elicited opinions on the week's happenings. Then he often mocked what they said.
There weren't many political shows on TV when The McLaughlin Group went on the air in 1982. And the existing ones were staid and less exciting than a weather report. McLaughlin changed that. TMG was rambunctious, sometimes raucous, always sharply opinionated. The panelists argued with each other, at times angrily, and McLaughlin frequently declared their views "WRONG!"
Without letting on to what he was doing, McLaughlin turned the journalists on his show into television characters. He gave them nicknames. There was Eleanor Rodham Clinton. I got the nickname Freddy the Beadle Barnes. Viewers picked their favorites and rooted for them.
The show was a hit almost from the day it went on the air. The Reagans watched it at the White House and once came to McLaughlin's house for dinner. In those early years, the panelists were Robert Novak, Jack Germond, Mort Kondracke, and Pat Buchanan. They all wrote columns, and in that era columnists were the top dogs in Washington journalism. They were respected. Already well known, McLaughlin made them famous.
McLaughlin wasn't larger than life, but he was close. He treated his panelists as subordinates. Once when Novak and I arrived with McLaughlin for a paying gig in Memphis, he was picked up by a limo. A Ford compact drove up to take Novak and me into town. He was also a skinflint, paying the panelists a few hundred dollars per show.
Being on TMG was worth the low pay. I got to know McLaughlin awfully well, which wasn't easy. I wish I could say he had a soft side, but if he had one, he hid it. But he was fun to be around, interesting to talk to, very smart, and always eager to hear what others thought.
For me, being invited to appear on his show in 1984 was a step up in the news business. I was a political reporter in the Washington bureau of the Baltimore Sun at the time. I had been a questioner on the first Reagan-Mondale debate, and I guess that qualified me in McLaughlin's eyes.
McLaughlin was such a character and the show so unique that spoofs on Saturday Night Live were inevitable. Dana Carvey played McLaughlin brilliantly. And McLaughlin loved it. I still hear from people about those SNL takeoffs.
The way to think about John McLaughlin is a man who created something out of nothing. Zero to one, as Peter Thiel would put it. He had a vision of how to present political opinions on TV that no one else had thought of. It was new and different and exciting. I'm grateful to McLaughlin for having been part of it.