John McLaughlin, Political Talk Show Host, Dies at 89

John McLaughlin - Getty - P 2016
Getty Images

John McLaughlin - Getty - P 2016

His combustible program 'The McLaughlin Group' aired for more than three decades, and Dana Carvey on 'Saturday Night Live' impersonated him.

John McLaughlin, the former priest and presidential speechwriter who created and served as the combative ringleader of the boisterous political public affairs program The McLaughlin Group, has died. He was 89. 

McLaughlin, who also was a professor, editor and columnist before becoming an unlikely TV star impersonated by Dana Carvey, died Tuesday at his home in Virginia, according to the show's producers. He missed his first show in 34 years on Sunday.

On its Facebook page, the show posted a message from the McLaughlin Group family, saying, "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."

The McLaughlin Group premiered in 1982 and featured the Rhode Island native moderating a panel discussion that included pundits representing the right (like Pat Buchanan) and left (think Eleanor Clift) of the U.S. political spectrum. The argumentative McLaughlin would introduce an "issue," and then he and his panelists barked about it for a fast-paced show.

In 1982, Richard Sandomir of The New York Times called McLaughlin "the provocateur in chief" who "cows, points, cajoles, glares, implores and insults his way through the program." Others called him a blowhard and a bully.

He also was behind the conversation shows John McLaughlin's One on One, which aired from 1984 through 2013, and other talk shows for CNBC and MSNBC.

In 1991, Saturday Night Live writer Robert Smigel noticed the comic potential of The McLaughlin Group, and Carvey mimicked the host in several sketches on the NBC show. "We never found anything we could make fun of easier than your show," Carvey once told McLaughlin.

Born in Providence on March 29, 1927, McLaughlin grew up in an Irish-American family (his father was a furniture salesman) and attended Weston College in Massachusetts to become a priest. He was ordained in 1947, earned master's degrees in philosophy and English from Boston College and taught at a Jesuit prep school.

After earning his Ph.D. in communications from Columbia University, he became a writer and editor for a weekly Jesuit opinion journal, America, based in New York. In 1970, he switched parties to run for senator of Rhode Island as a Republican but attracted just 32 percent of the vote in the general election.

Through a friendship with Buchanan, McLaughlin became a speechwriter for Richard Nixon — he once told a national TV audience that the president would be remembered as "the greatest moral leader of the last third of this century" — and shared a plush Watergate Hotel apartment with Oliver, his basset hound. After Nixon resigned, he worked briefly for President Gerald Ford.

McLaughlin left the Jesuits, and in 1975 he married Ann Dore — who had served as his Senate campaign manager and worked for Nixon at the Environmental Protection Agency — in a civil ceremony. (Dore later was named Secretary of Labor by President Ronald Reagan, who said, "If she's handled John McLaughlin this long, she can handle anything.")

In 1988, his former assistant Linda Dean filed a $4 million sexual harassment suit against McLaughlin (he denied the charges) that was settled out of court a year later. He and Dore divorced in 1992, and McLaughlin later was married to Cristina Clara Vidal, an executive with the company that produced The McLaughlin Group, from 1997 until their divorce in 2010.

From 1981-89, McLaughlin was Washington editor for the National Review with a monthly column, "From Washington Straight." He had a radio show, a forerunner of The McLaughlin Group, on D.C. station WRC before moving to television.

McLaughlin hosted a panel discussion with the cast of Cheers in November 1990 after their 200th show aired, and he appeared on such TV shows as ALF and Murphy Brown and in the films Dave (1993), Independence Day (1996), Mission: Impossible (1996) and War Inc. (2008).

In Zack Snyder's Watchmen (2009), actors portraying members of The McLaughlin Group (including Gary Houston as the host) discussed the threat of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.