Former Jesuit, failed Senate candidate and Nixon speechwriter: the colorful life of John McLaughlin
Should priests be involved in politics? Whether it involves preaching about politics from the pulpit, publicly supporting a party’s policies or endorsing specific candidates, the degree to which our religious leaders should engage in our political wrangling has been a neuralgic one since the founding of the republic—and it’s an issue that comes up at least every four years in America. Fifty years ago, however, it wasn’t only a question of “should the priest tell me who to vote for?” The question in several locales was “should I vote for the priest?”
John McLaughlin had “a way with words in a baroque way—you don’t know quite what they mean, but they sort of stun you.”
Robert Drinan, S.J., the Jesuit priest who served for 10 years in Congress in the House of Representatives on behalf of Massachusetts, is perhaps the most famous priest-politician in U.S. history, but he wasn’t the only one who ran for office in 1970: The Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from Rhode Island was another Jesuit, one who had worked as an associate editor at America: John J. McLaughlin, S.J. A colorful character even during his time as a priest (he didn’t win his Senate race), McLaughlin later served as a speechwriter for President Richard Nixon.
McLaughlin left the Jesuits and the priesthood in 1975 and had a long and successful career as a political pundit and the host of a popular television show, “The McLaughlin Group,” from 1982 to 2016.
Born and raised in Providence, R.I., McLaughlin entered the Jesuits in 1947 and was ordained in 1959. After ordination, he taught at Fairfield College Prep and Fairfield University in Connecticut. (Some of his students remembered him as a somewhat idiosyncratic teacher, given to wearing a cape with his clerical garb.) After studying briefly at Stanford he earned a doctorate at Columbia University in English literature in 1967, with a dissertation on Gerard Manley Hopkins, and was appointed an associate editor of America.
McLaughlin’s tenure at America was short (three years), and according to magazine lore he found himself at odds with the new editor in chief, Donald R. Campion, S.J., who replaced Thurston Davis, S.J., in 1968. McLaughlin’s articles for America in those years were on varied subjects ranging from education to the American novel to Vietnam, which he visited in 1968 and reported on for the magazine. He also made appearances at various colleges and universities giving lectures on sex and marriage. Father Campion later said that McLaughlin had “a way with words in a baroque way—you don’t know quite what they mean, but they sort of stun you.”
While McLaughlin played down his priesthood in his public comments, he also campaigned in his Roman collar.
When McLaughlin announced his bid for Senate as the Republican candidate, most pundits saw his campaign as a quixotic one at best: Rhode Island politics at the time were solidly controlled by the Democratic Party, and his opponent, Democratic Senator John Pastore, had defeated his previous opponent with 82 percent of the vote. Further, McLaughlin hadn’t been a resident of the state for more than two decades. McLaughlin, wrote Peter Donaldson in a largely negative 1970 America report on McLaughlin and the Rhode Island race, “was selected as the Senate candidate, not because anyone thought he had a chance of winning, but because it was thought he would make an attractive and respectable candidate.”
While McLaughlin played down his priesthood in his public comments, he also campaigned in his Roman collar, raising questions about the separation of church and state should he win. Bishop Russell J. McVinney of the Diocese of Providence, citing Canon 139 of the Code of Canon Law, stated publicly that “Father McLaughlin announced his candidacy and is now conducting his campaign for public office without permission from me and without endorsement of any kind from the Diocese of Providence.” McLaughlin, however, pointed out that clergy from various other denominations had long served in political office in the United States, and that he would be perfectly capable of distinguishing between his religious and civil obligations.
It didn’t matter: Pastore, also a Catholic, refused to debate McLaughlin and didn’t have to mount much of a campaign in the overwhelmingly Democratic state. McLaughlin got only 31 percent of the vote.
In the aftermath, McLaughlin was recruited to the Nixon White House by Pat Buchanan, where McLaughlin was named a speechwriter. In a 2014 article for America, “Watergate, S.J.: Three Jesuits and the downfall of a president,” former America literary editor Raymond Schroth, S.J., noted that McLaughlin was no shrinking violet in his new role as “resident Jesuit” and unofficial spokesperson for the Nixon administration. McLaughlin told CBS News at one point that President Nixon was “the greatest moral leader in the last third of this century.” (Click here to listen to President Nixon refer to McLaughlin as one of the only good Jesuits among “all-out, barn-burning radicals” in a taped phone conversation with Billy Graham.)
John McLaughlin told CBS News that President Nixon was “the greatest moral leader in the last third of this century.”
McLaughlin’s tenure at the White House would extend through the Watergate hearings and the Nixon impeachment, putting him awkwardly in juxtaposition with Father Drinan, who was a prominent member of the impeachment committee. (Reporters were not unaware of the irony; one combined two separate interviews to create the appearance of a debate in an article for the Los Angeles Times, “Two Jesuits at Odds Over Nixon.”) In May of 1974, the Jesuit provincial of the New England Province (of which both Drinan and McLaughlin were members) told reporters that he asked McLaughlin to return to Boston for an eight-day retreat to, in the words of Father Schroth, “reconsider his lifestyle and his interpretations of moral laws, which some had misunderstood as representing those of the Society of Jesus.”
President Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, though McLaughlin briefly continued on in the administration of President Gerald Ford. In October, the internal Jesuit publication The National Jesuit News reported that McLaughlin had been ordered to quit the White House job. McLaughlin resigned, but argued that it was because President Ford wanted a new staff. He left the Jesuits the next year and worked in radio and television for a number of years, eventually becoming the host of “The McLaughlin Group” in 1982. He died in 2016 at the age of 89.
If you are of a certain age, you might remember Dana Carvey’s brilliant impersonation of McLaughlin and “The McLaughlin Group” on “Saturday Night Live” in 1990, playing up McLaughlin’s assertiveness, self-assured persona and habit of interrupting his guests. McLaughlin himself enjoyed the impersonation so much he later appeared on the show as himself.
In a 2016 comic tribute to John McLaughlin in America, Maureen Miller had this to say:
Whatever one’s feelings about McLaughlin’s politics or rectitude, it is hard to deny his righteous star power. People are into the McLaughlin persona, but also into what he conveys as a celebrity Jesuit: truth-seeking, confronting doubt, sustained engagement with the world. He insisted on decorum and never fell for pious appeals to “civility.” He was energized by a secular mission rather than moved to despair.
Nixon called McLaughlin one of the only good Jesuits among “all-out, barn-burning radicals” in a conversation with Billy Graham.
Our poetry selection for this week is “To Make of Hell a Heaven,” by Philip Metres. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.
In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.
Other Catholic Book Club columns:
- Putting Vatican II into action: The life of Archbishop John Quinn
- Theophilus Lewis brought the Harlem Renaissance to the pages of America
- William Lynch, the greatest American Jesuit you’ve probably never heard of
- The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison
- Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)
- Joan Didion: A chronicler of modern life’s horrors and consolations
James T. Keane
Correction (Feb. 8): A previous version of this article had described Senator John Pastore as a Republican; he was a Democrat in office. This has since been corrected.