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John McLaughlin, center of influential TV pundit chat show 'The McLaughlin Group,' dies at 89

John McLaughlin, center of influential TV pundit chat show 'The McLaughlin Group,' dies at 89
John McLaughlin, host of "The McLaughlin Group," arrives at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner in Washington in 2012. (Kevin Wolf / AP)

If you recently tuned into a cable news program centered around politics, and the discourse drifted into something more akin to a combative holiday dinner than buttoned-up Beltway chatter, you have John McLaughlin to thank.

He was a tireless conservative voice whose long-running weekly public television program "The McLaughlin Group" helped alter the shape of political discourse since its debut in 1982. McLaughlin died Tuesday, according to an announcement on the show's Facebook page. He was 89. No cause of death was revealed, but the ailing pundit was absent from a taping last weekend. It was the first time in the series' 34 years he had missed one.

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When it debuted, "The McLaughlin Group" stood in sharp contrast with "Firing Line," "Washington Week in Review" and other political programming of its day, with a contentious atmosphere in which  politicians were set aside in favor of giving voice to opinion journalists.

Initially, the program 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, though the latter two were replaced by Pat Buchanan and Morton Kondracke. The show's current panelists include Buchanan, Eleanor Clift, Clarence Page and Tom Rogan.

"The McLaughlin Group" opened with a voiceover that promised "the sharpest minds, best sources and hardest talk." In recent years, the show also introduced itself as "the American original," a reference to the multitudes of similar, ideologically tilted political programs that proliferated in its wake, including CNN's "Crossfire" and MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews."

Eschewing the flashy sets of the 24-hour cable news era for a simple grouping of chairs around a small table, McLaughlin ran his program with an irascible sort of impatience. "Issue one" he began on every broadcast, and he was never shy about cutting off his panelists to transition into the next three or four issues of the week.

For all its influential qualities, critics scolded the show for treating politics as another form of televised entertainment and setting aside more nuanced examination of current events for heated confrontation among the panelists, who generally reflected the host by skewing white, male and conservative.

"My feeling is talk shows have not kept pace with the breakthroughs and changes in format in television generally," McLaughlin told The Associated Press in 1986. "The acquisition of knowledge need not be like listening to the Gregorian chant."

His growling, rapid-fire delivery also made him a target for late night comedy, and even after more than 30 years on the air he was recently singled out on the HBO political-comedy series "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" for a video segment called "John McLaughlin angrily introduces discussion topics." In the early '90s, Dana Carvey's "Saturday Night Live" impersonation was a recurring sketch and was often referenced in remembrances of McLaughlin on social media.

"RIP John McLaughlin," wrote former "Saturday Night Live" writer/"Weekend Update" anchor and current NBC late night host Seth Meyers on Twitter. "My parents made us watch him every week which made the SNL sketches all the sweeter."

Born March 29, 1927, in Providence, R.I., McLaughlin was a Jesuit priest early in life and studied at seminary in Massachusetts, followed by earning master's degrees in philosophy and English at Boston College and a doctorate in communications at Columbia University.

In 1970, he launched an unsuccessful Republican campaign for senator in Rhode Island, and in 1975 he left the priesthood to marry friend, Ann Dore, who later served as secretary of labor under President  Ronald Reagan from 1987 to 1989. The couple divorced in 1992.

In 1988 a former office manager at "The McLaughlin Group" filed a lawsuit claiming she was fired for resisting McLaughlin's sexual advances. McLaughlin denied the allegations, and the case was settled out of court in 1989 under undisclosed terms.

In 1997, the 70-year-old McLaughlin married Cristina Vidal, 36, but the pair divorced in 2010. McLaughlin had no children, but his legacy of confrontational conversation can be seen on any given night.

"People say under pressure for the most part what they really mean," McLaughlin told writer Howard Kurtz in the 1996 book "Hot Air: All Talk, All the Time."

"In a confrontational situation, you'll get their gut. And I want their gut! And that's why people watch this show!"

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Follow me over here @chrisbarton.

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