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John McLaughlin says final ‘bye bye’ — pioneering host dead at 89

John McLaughlin. Facebook photo.

John McLaughlin, the conservative political commentator and host of the namesake long-running television show that pioneered hollering-heads discussions of Washington politics, died Tuesday morning.

The death of the staple of public affairs TV came just days after he informed viewers that he was “under the weather … yet my spirit is strong.”

He was 89.

His death was announced Tuesday on the program’s Facebook page:

“Earlier this morning, a beloved friend and mentor, Dr. John McLaughlin, passed away peacefully at the age of 89. As a former Jesuit priest, teacher, pundit and news host, John touched many lives.

“For 34 years, The McLaughlin Group informed millions of Americans. Now he has said bye bye for the last time, to rejoin his beloved dog, Oliver, in heaven. He will always be remembered.”

No cause of death was mentioned, but an ailing McLaughlin had missed the taping for this past weekend’s show — his first absence in the series’ 34 years.

John McLaughlin in 1984. Sun-Times File Photo.
John McLaughlin in 1984. Sun-Times File Photo.

The gruff and blunt-spoken McLaughlin hosted the syndicated program, which appeared on PBS and some CBS stations, since 1982. This season, it was carried on Chicago’s WTTW-TV on Fridays and rerun on Saturdays.

McLaughlin moderated a lively discussion about politics and other events of the day — “the sharpest minds, best sources, hardest talk” — with a panel of journalists and pundits.

Since its debut in April 1982, “The McLaughlin Group” upended the soft-spoken and non-confrontational style of shows such as “Washington Week in Review” and “Agronsky & Co.” with a raucous format that largely dispensed with politicians. It instead featured journalists quizzing, talking over and sometimes insulting each other. In recent years, the show billed itself as “The American Original” — a nod to all the shows that copied its format.

“John McLaughlin was a TV institution for generations of Americans,” tweeted House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. “We will miss his contagious spirit & tireless dedication.”

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In this April 28, 2012 file photo, John McLaughlin arrives at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in Washington. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf, File)
In this April 28, 2012 file photo, John McLaughlin arrives at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in Washington. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf, File)

In an interview with The Associated Press in 1986, McLaughlin said he felt talk shows hadn’t kept pace with changes in television.

“I began the group as a talk show of the ’90s,” he said, adding that he thought informing an audience could be entertaining: “The acquisition of knowledge need not be like listening to the Gregorian chant.”

Critics said the show was more about show business and entertainment than journalism and politics. They said it celebrated nasty posturing, abhorred complexity and featured a group of mostly aging conservative white men spouting off on topics they knew little about.

“Whether it was the guerrilla strategy of Afghan mujahedeen or the next open-market operation by the Federal Reserve Board, the members of the group always seemed to have just gotten off the phone with the guy in charge,” Eric Alterman charged in his 2000 book, “Sound and Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy.”

But the format was hugely successful. As McLaughlin himself might have said, on a probability scale from zero to 10 — zero meaning zero probability, 10 meaning metaphysical certitude — in the show’s heyday, the chances that the Washington establishment were faithfully tuning in each week was definitely a 10.

The show began with McLaughlin declaring, “Issue One!” and often featured the journalists pontificating on four or five issues. It would end with the journalists forecasting the future — usually with a high degree of certainty, if not accuracy — and McLaughlin declaring, “Buh-bye!”

The show made stars of its panelists, who could go on to command high-priced speaking engagements and even played themselves in movies such as “Independence Day,” ”Mission: Impossible” and “Watchmen.” McLaughlin also played himself on episodes of “ALF” and “Murphy Brown” and was ridiculed as a speed-talking egomaniac by Dana Carvey on “Saturday Night Live.”

The current group of panelists included Pat Buchanan, Eleanor Clift, Tom Rogan and Clarence Page.

“Sad news,” Page tweeted. “We lost John McLaughlin this morning. I hear that he smiled before he passed. His final gift to us.”

“My parents made us watch him every week,” tweeted former “Saturday Night Live” player and current “Late Night” host Seth Meyers, “which made the SNL sketches all the sweeter.”

The 1982 pilot featured syndicated columnists Jack Germond and Robert Novak as well as Chuck Stone of the Philadelphia Daily News and Judith Miller of The New York Times. Stone and Miller were quickly replaced by Buchanan and Morton Kondracke.

Fred Barnes and Clift were added in 1985, after Buchanan left to become Reagan’s communications director.

Journalists (I. to r.) Robert Novak. Morton Kondracke. John McLaughlin. Jack Germond and Patrick Buchanan discuss presidential politics during a special Chicago taping of public television “The McLaughlin Group” in 1983.
Journalists (I. to r.) Robert Novak. Morton Kondracke. John McLaughlin. Jack Germond and Patrick Buchanan discuss presidential politics during a special Chicago taping of public television “The McLaughlin Group” in 1983.

In July 1984 McLaughlin began hosting “John McLaughlin’s One on One,” an in-depth interview program. He also hosted a CNBC show, “McLaughlin,” from April 1989 to January 1994.

McLaughlin could be a hard boss to work for. A 1990 article in The Washington Post Magazine by Alterman quoted former McLaughlin staffers Anne Rumsey, Kara Swisher and Tom Miller recalling instances of petty tyranny and McLaughlin leering at female employees.

His former office manager, Linda Dean, filed a $4 million lawsuit against McLaughlin in 1988, claiming she was fired after protesting his unwanted sexual advances. McLaughlin denied the allegations; the suit was settled out of court in December 1989.

McLaughlin and his wife of 16 years, former Labor Secretary Ann Dore McLaughlin, divorced three years later.

In 1997, McLaughlin, then 70, married 36-year-old Cristina Vidal, the vice president of his production company. They divorced in 2010.

Born March 29, 1927, McLaughlin grew up in a middle-class neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island, where his father was a furniture salesman. He trained for the priesthood at Shadowbrook, a small Jesuit seminary in western Massachusetts, and earned master’s degrees in philosophy and English at Boston College and a doctorate in communications at Columbia University.

He worked as an editor at a Jesuit weekly and gave lectures on sex before shocking his friends in 1970 by switching parties to run unsuccessfully as a dovish, anti-war Republican against Rhode Island’s hawkish incumbent Democratic U.S. senator.

John Mclaughlin in 1972. Sun-Times File Photo.
John Mclaughlin in 1972. Sun-Times File Photo.

He opened a consulting firm and gave up his Roman collar in 1975 to marry longtime friend Dore, who served as secretary of labor from December 1987 to January 1989. McLaughlin became a talk radio show host on a Washington station in 1980, but only lasted a year.

In 1982, he persuaded wealthy friend Robert Moore, a former aide in the Nixon White House, to underwrite a new form of public affairs television — and a juggernaut was born.

He was not able to appear on last week’s program. His recorded voice introduced segments, but he handed off hosting duties to his panelists, asking his viewers’ forgiveness.

“As the panel’s recent absences attest, I am under the weather,” McLaughlin was quoted as saying as the show opened. “The final issue of this episode has my voice, but please forgive me for its weaker than usual quality. Yet my spirit is strong and my dedication to the show remains absolute.”

Despite his brash and confrontational style on TV, McLaughlin also had a softer side, particularly when it came to his dog. He ended a year-end show in 2014 with a fond remembrance.

“Person of the year: Pope Francis, especially now that he’s told that animals can go to heaven. And Oliver is up there waiting for me.”

Contributing: Former Associated Press writer Derek Rose and Chicago Sun-Times staff.