John McLaughlin, former Jesuit priest turned television pundit, was asked one day why so many people treated him with such respect.

According to his assistant, Kara Swisher, McLaughlin "got down really low on his desk, almost like he was a lizard." Then he looked up at Swisher and replied, "They're all whores. Every one of them, they're all whores. And so am I. But I've got the TV show."

I have been watching The McLaughlin Group on KAET-TV Channel 8 for several years, growing to actively dislike or even loathe its various participants as time passes.

But it was not until I read Sound and Fury, a new book by Eric Alterman, that I fully understood what's going on behind the scenes of this weekly show that so many viewers have come to believe is a true insider's look at national politics.

McLaughlin, an intellectual bully and a world-class self-promoter, serves as moderator and chief fulminator. He has never been a working newsman. His background, aside from the Jesuit priesthood, consists of having served as a low-level speech writer during the last days of the Richard Nixon White House. Mort Kondracke of the New Republic is a wimpy hand-raiser who readily gave up his natural liberal convictions to parrot the conservative line for a big paycheck.

Pat Buchanan, until he decided there was a cry from the populace for him to be president, was the resident anti-Semite.

Fred Barnes, also from the New Republic, is a yuppie know-it-all. Eleanor Clift of Newsweek is predictably strident.

The only truly likable presence is supplied by Jack Germond, the rotund syndicated columnist, who serves as the voice of reason. It is Germond who sometimes has the decency to emit a grunt of disgust for McLaughlin's self-serving compliments to the rich and powerful.

Alterman cites an incident that occurred in 1988 during an altercation between McLaughlin and Robert Novak, then a panel member.

McLaughlin had grown to detest Novak, who was attempting to dominate the show with his insider's knowledge of Washington, D.C. On that night, Novak accused McLaughlin of playing footsy with the Democrats in hopes of gaining an appointment if Michael Dukakis were elected president.

At the commercial break, McLaughlin turned beet red and began shouting at Novak, "Vile! Vile! Vile!"

Novak and Germond looked at each other, amazed.
Germond reportedly said to Novak: "If you want to tell this guy go fuck himself and walk, I'm with you."

This kind of panel, as might be expected, functions smoothest when there are no blacks or women on board. William Greider of Rolling Stone relates that this is when it becomes possible for the group to function as a collection of good old boys. He cites the discussion about a Texas candidate for governor who insisted that the only place for young men to get serviced in west Texas is in Mexican brothels.

Germond added wryly that this was being unfair to west Texas sheep.
McLaughlin is described by Alterman as a "pure creation of the nexus of media power, corporate money and the conservative insider boys' club." He is a man with tremendous appetite for "power, riches and control over the lives of those around him."

Alterman points out that the show came into being only after McLaughlin succeeded in cultivating the right-wing General Electric Corporation to become the sponsor. General Electric, which once sponsored Ronald Reagan's radio shows, began spending millions to advertise the show, and even gave it away free to any PBS station that would run it.

Before ascending to the talk-show circuit, McLaughlin was known around Washington as "The Watergate Priest" who worked for Nixon. His rise to fame began one day because he was the only member of the White House staff willing to face the media in a press conference.

McLaughlin gave an impressive performance. The following day, four television crews showed up at his office.

Larry Speakes, Nixon's top man at the time, recalls saying: "My God, he's a monster and I've created him."

McLaughlin also raised eyebrows around Washington because he was the only priest anyone knew of who earned $33,000 a year at the White House while living in the plush Watergate hotel.

The hostess for all his parties at the time was Ann Dore, who was later to become Ann Dore McLaughlin as well as a member of Ronald Reagan's cabinet. They were divorced in 1991 after a long stand-off, during which Mrs. McLaughlin refused to move out of their home.

During his days as a Jesuit priest, McLaughlin was considered a sex expert. He traveled about the country giving lectures on such topics as "Intimacy Outside Marriage" and "Intimacy Before Marriage."

Those who have worked under him in his office have related that McLaughlin is a petty tyrant. In addition, three women have offered sworn statements that he is "an insatiable sexual harasser." He has been sued as such four times.

A woman named Linda Dean, who was McLaughlin's former office manager, is one who has sued him for sexual harassment. She gave a sworn statement claiming that McLaughlin once told her "he needed a lot of sex" and that if she stuck by him "he would take care of every material desire" she had.

These incidents create a credibility problem for the show. Despite the sexual harassment charges against McLaughlin, he remains comfortable being judgmental when discussing the problems of Senator Chuck Robb, as well as attacking the testimony of Anita Hill. And yet The McLaughlin Group remains one of the most popular shows of its kind. What makes its success an ugly phenomenon is its total adherence to racist stereotypes. As Alterman points out so tellingly:

"When historians one day seek to understand how George Bush and Lee Atwater succeeded in making 'liberalism' a dirty political word in 1988, they will need to look no further than the tapes of five upper-middle-class white guys sitting around a TV studio talking about how black families 'are just going to have to stop relying on government and politics to solve their problems."


KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tom Fitzpatrick