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Peter J. DonaldsonAugust 19, 2016
John McLaughlin (Wikimedia Commons)

John McLaughlin, a former Jesuit and onetime editor at America, who hosted the television show "The McLaughlin Report" for many years, died on Aug. 16. This article from America's archives details Father McLaughlin's run for a Senate seat in Rhode Island in 1970. It was originally published on Nov. 21, 1970. 

He claimed that "the agonies and convulsions of our era have a spiritual dimension." And he thought people liked "the idea of having someone who is spiritually trained and committed taking a place where the action is, dealing with the spiritual aspects of our local and national problems." So, John McLaughlin, a 43-year-old Jesuit priest and former associate editor of this magazine, ran for the U. S. Senate. Fr. McLaughlin was selected by the Rhode Island Republican party to oppose the state's senior Senator, the durable John O. Pastore.

Although John McLaughlin grew up in Rhode Island, he left the state after graduation from high school to enter the Society of Jesus. He hasn't voted in Rhode Island for over 20 years. Nevertheless, for many of the state's Republicans, the party's endorsement of Fr. McLaughlin made good sense.

Rhode Island politics are dominated by the Democrats. The state's Congressional delegation is Democratic, so is the Governor and the Mayor of Providence, Rhode Island's only important urban center. Republican candidates for local office cannot be found in some areas. In short, the Republican party in Rhode Island is an almost lifeless entity. In addition, there was John O. Pastore.

Senator Pastore would have been a formidable opponent even without the support of a strong party. The last time he ran, he got 82 percent of the vote. The Republican leadership considered Mr. Pastore the most secure of the state's Democratic office holders. The man chosen to run against him fills the role of victim. This year's victim was Fr. John McLaughlin. He 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.

Prior to the start of the campaign, both local Republican leaders and the administration considered the election lost. Fr. McLaughlin admits the administration was writing off the Rhode Island contest. During the summer Washington supposedly took a second look, increasing what he termed its "level of surveillance." Fr. McLaughlin was able to report that Nixon expressed "significant interest." But apparently the administration gave up hopes of a McLaughlin victory. The president's visit to Hartford, Conn., put him within an hour of Providence. But he didn't favor the Republican party candidate with a stop in Rhode Island. That's too bad, because Fr. McLaughlin spent a fair amount of time courting the Administration.

Perhaps he got what he deserved, since he had at one time considered challenging Senator Pastore in the Democratic primary, presumably with the same "new politics" he ended up selling for the Republicans. But the Jesuit did do his best not to offend the White House. Throughout the campaign, he listed areas of agreement between himself and President Nixon. Included were the Guam Doctrine, the Philadelphia Plan, the proposed reorganization of the welfare system, the cutbacks in defense spending, the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam and what he called "the reordering of priorities."

Fr. McLaughlin was not the complete Nixonite, however. His independence was apparent in his position on the District of Columbia's "no-knock" crime bill. He viewed it as an "unconstitutional measure" which could only contribute to an "atmosphere of violence." The Jesuit candidate also opposed the ABM. He claimed the "ABM has no real value but is being built for the sake of industrial pork barrel contracts."

But Fr. McLaughlin's relationship with Washington wasn't as important as his Roman collar in determining his fate on election day. Although he termed it "the one non-issue of the campaign," his priesthood was in many respects the major issue for the people of Rhode Island. In spite of what he said, Fr. McLaughlin was aware that this was the case.

The assets and liabilities of being a priest were always apparent when Fr. McLaughlin was campaigning. The publicity he received in both local and national media meant that he was recognized by almost everyone he encountered during his trips around the" state. He rapidly became well-known in Rhode Island. Fr. McLaughlin wanted to look like "a serious active politician, not a priest." But for the people, he was foremost a priest. His priesthood provided him with an already determined image. Much of his campaign effort was directed at explaining how that image was compatible with the role of politician.

Fr. McLaughlin stressed that he had never been a parish priest. He felt voters would be more receptive to his candidacy if they understood he was not leaving the duties of a parish to become involved in politics. He said he had been involved in "public service activities." "I have been a teacher, a writer, a lecturer, a social and political critic, a counselor and, from time to time. I have publicly administered the sacraments."

While it's true that he had not been a parish priest, the extent of Fr. McLaughlin's public service activities was exaggerated in order to create the proper image. What he had done was teach high school and college in Connecticut (until 1964), get a Ph.D. at Columbia (in 1967), and for the last three years operate as an associate editor of AMERICA. He asked his audiences to "spread the word," "tell your friends, I have never been a parish priest."

In his speeches, Fr. McLaughlin employed a mixture of history, law and current events to persuade his listeners that there was nothing wrong with a priest becoming involved in politics. He pointed out that the first Speaker of the House was a Lutheran pastor and that Rhode Island sent a Baptist minister, James Manning, to Congress in 1785. He noted that a priest served in the House of Representatives in the last century. He argued that neither the American Civil Liberties Union nor Chief Justice Warren Burger found difficulty with the concept of Catholic priests campaigning for national office. He cited Article Six of the Constitution, which prohibits the use of religious tests as a means of discriminating against candidates for public office. He reminded his audience that three Protestant clergymen are currently serving in the House. In short, he devoted a lot of time to the "non-issue" of his priesthood. This was most evident when Fr. McLaughlin was on one of his walking tours.

Walking tours played an important role in the McLaughlin strategy. Campaign aides wanted the priest to shake 1,000 hands a day until November 3rd. He said the purpose of these trips was "to show people I'm not a freak." While the campaign of a priest for the U.S. Senate may be somewhat bizarre, there was nothing freakish about John McLaughlin.

On the contrary, Fr. McLaughlin, who almost always wore his Roman collar while campaigning, is handsome, six foot two, with a near perfect physique (kept that way by daily jogging), with reddish blond hair graying at the temples, and blue eyes. If nothing else, he looked good.

The candidate had a standard routine which he used when greeting voters. "Hi, may I introduce myself. I'm John McLaughlin. I'm running for the Senate against John Pastore. Pastore's been in for 20 years, if he wins it will be six more. I think it's time for a change. I hope you'll consider giving me your support." At the first sign that the person be was talking to was wary, Fr. McLaughlin asked: "It isn't the Roman collar, is it?" Some were quick to admit it was, either to Fr. McLaughlin himself, or, more frequently, to someone else when he left. More often, however, feelings were ambivalent.

Because of the inexperience of many of those on his staff, the candidate occasionally blundered. At times he appeared poorly briefed on the neighborhoods he visited. Once he couldn't recall the population of Providence, even though at the time he was remarking that the city was a crucial area for his campaign. At another stop he wasn't aware of the history of controversy surrounding a local shopping center. At least twice he mistook members of the state's large Portuguese minority, once for Italians, a second time for Greeks.

In addition to his walking tours, Fr. McLaughlin’s campaign activities included speaking to a wide variety of organizations throughout the state. He is an extremely effective public speaker whose talks reminded me (no doubt because of his Roman collar) of the traveling evangelist. He would declare: "You've got to believe in me. You've got to believe that I can rehabilitate the Republican party." He also spent time at evening cocktail parties, though he himself is an abstainer. These provided an opportunity for the voters to meet and question him and for Fr. McLaughlin to approach potential volunteers and contributors. In the little free time he had, he read about the campaigns of Bobby Kennedy, John Lindsay and others. He was also occupied with learning more about the state he hoped to represent.

Senator Pastore appeared very much aware of the widespread confusion about the legitimacy of the priest-politician. He answered a McLaughlin charge of conflict of interest with the remark that Fr. McLaughlin was the last one who should be talking about conflict of interest. Mr. Pastore, no doubt, hoped to convince voters that priest and politician were incompatible occupations. The two roles, however, appeared happily married in Fr. McLaughlin, who claimed that "ecclesiastical politics make civil politics look like child’s play." But there were signs that it was not an easy union to hold together.

Fr. McLaughlin legitimated the combination by means of a distinction between what is moral and vi-hat is legal. "A Catholic judge, for example, who takes his religion very seriously, can grant a divorce to a Catholic couple with the certain knowledge that one or both will remarry. This judicial decision in no way compromises the judge's religious convictions about divorce and remarriage. Divorce and remarriage are legal acts in this country, whatever their morality may be. So, too, I can support the legality of— let us say—federally subsidized birth control clinics, without in any way compromising whatever my beliefs may be on the morality of contraceptive birth control and without compromising my persona] and internal compliance with what the Pope teaches about the morality of birth control. This is not a new distinction: The Church has been teaching it since the Middle Ages. My situation, moreover, is no different essentially from that of any Catholic layman serving in elective office, and for that matter no different from the situation of a practicing Protestant or Jew."

The promise to avoid allowing his moral point of view to interfere with his duties as a Senator did make Fr. McLaughlin’s allegiance to the "new politics" suspect. One thinks of the "new politics" as characterized by a sense of moral outrage. Such it turned out was not to be expected from this candidate. His sense of outrage appeared to adapt easily to changing environments.

Readers of America may recall Fr. McLaughlin’s description ("Saigon at War," 11/23/68) of the following episodes from a visit to Vietnam, "With an American professor of political science, I took a meal at a regionally popular bistro. La Casita, and ordered the house specialty, a savory beef fondue. Did we feel guilty that our comfortable dining did not match the grimness of this bloodletting taking place in the battlefields around us? Not really. . . Saigon's que sera, sera mood takes hold of one, I guess." In addition to enjoying the local cuisine, be appreciated the Vietnamese women, whom he termed "sensitively featured, with delicate coloration and texture of skin." Their charm, he later wrote, "is brought to perfection when they are educated in Paris."

Fr. McLaughlin's trip also showed him close up the horror of the war he now terms that "vile cancer." The Jesuit found the "most distressing corruption" to be that of "the young, the very young." His alarm resulted from the attempt (unsuccessful) of a group of children to pick his pocket.

In his campaign, Fr. McLaughlin told people of somewhat different memories. He said he had lived through the war in Vietnam, "seen and felt the awful human and material wreckage of war." He reported that the war "has been devastating to the Vietnamese people and their environment. The loss of life, the wounds and human suffering endured by the Vietnamese people are incalculable. There are now more bomb craters than people in Vietnam." "The killing is ghastly and must be stopped as soon as possible." There was no mention of La Casita or the "perfection" of Paris-educated Vietnamese women.

Fr. McLaughlin was advertised as an anti-war candidate. His position on Vietnam, he told voters, "has been consistently antiwar." He would point to a 1965 letter to the editor of the New York Time, in which he found antiwar demonstrations "justified and needed." He cited a 1968 article, written for AMERICA, favoring an unconditional pause in the bombing of North Vietnam. During the campaign he stressed the importance of a political rather than military solution to the conflict. He said: "In the interest of achieving a political settlement, we should be prepared to make honorable but realistic compromises at the peace talks. Neither free elections for South Vietnam nor anything else should be regarded as a precondition to negotiating a political settlement."

If elected, he promised, he would introduce a "McLaughlin Amendment" to next year's military appropriations bill. "Under this amendment, the President would be required to withdraw all United States military personnel from Vietnam according to a timetable, with the completion date set on Nov. 3, 1971…

Under the McLaughlin Amendment, the President would be prohibited from sending American men. military equipment and military aid funds to Vietnam without Congressional approval, after the designated completion date." The proposed amendment would also require the President "to order an immediate end to all purely offensive military operations..."

In addition to the problems inherent in the lack of strong party support and his priesthood, Fr. McLaughlin had to answer the charge that he was a carpetbagger. Since his ordination in 1959, his contact with Rhode Island consisted mainly in giving retreats and lectures to various groups. Hardly the background of the typical Senate nominee.

The McLaughlin family does have roots in the state and in state politics. Father McLaughlin is a fourth generation Rhode Islander, two of whose uncles were moderately well-known Democrats. Nevertheless, his long absence from the state probably hurt him.

Rhode Island did provide a favorable environment for him in some respects. The state measures only 48 by 37 miles; you can drive from one end of Rhode Island to another in a morning, with time out for coffee. Fr. McLaughlin was able to meet voters in every area of Rhode Island with little trouble.

Rhode Island's political campaigns are cheap by current standards. Although money was an ever-present problem, Fr. McLaughlin proved to be an effective fund raiser. One local Republican tells of the surprise caused by the Jesuit's ability and apparent enthusiasm for wringing contributions from party regulars.

For Fr. McLaughlin, the most important fact about Rhode Island was probably the number of Catholics in the state. A reasonable estimate is that Catholics make up 60 per cent of the state's total population. Hence, he had to convince members of his own faith that voting a priest into the Senate made sense. That proved not to be easy. A number of studies indicate that many Catholics prefer their priests in the pulpit, not on the Senate floor. Fr. McLaughlin found out the validity of these reports firsthand.

The impact of his priesthood is still unknown. Common sense says some people didn't vote for him because he was a priest, while others didn't vote against him for the same reason. But nobody knows how many voters did either. Fr. McLaughlin had to argue the case for a priest-senator. His opponent could play upon people's suspicions of the priest's effort. One recurring report around Providence was that Senator Pastore was privately saying he was not a "real priest."

It would be a mistake, however, to attribute Fr. McLaughlin's defeat exclusively to the fact that he was a priest. Throughout the campaign he was unable to develop a single issue that hit either the conscience or the self-interest of Rhode Island's citizens. Fr. McLaughlin said the major issue was Senator Pastore's failure, especially during the past six years, to meet "the representational needs of the state." According to Fr. McLaughlin, Mr. Pastore was charmed by out-of-state interests. He cited the Senator's endorsement of military contracts to firms in the South and West as evidence. The priest also tried to implicate Mr. Pastore in the chicanery of one Nicholas Zapple, the chief counsel of the Senate communications subcommittee, chaired by Senator Pastore. The Senator countered by claiming Fr. McLaughlin had asked Mr. Zapple for a job. Fr. McLaughlin denied the charge. And so it went. Late in the campaign, Fr. McLaughlin often appeared to be stressing the appropriateness of a priest-politician because he had nothing else to say.

He couldn't get Senator Pastore on the defensive. He couldn't get his opponent on television cither. Mr. Pastore refused all of Fr. McLaughlin's requests to debate by claiming he could not debate a priest of his church. This phony, almost offensive, ruse kept the Senator free from what might have been damaging encounters with Fr. McLaughlin, while, apparently, not hurting his popularity with the voters.

Fr. McLaughlin himself purchased a half-hour of local television time on each of the last six nights of the campaign. Fourteen thousand dollars, needed for these spots and other last minute campaign expenses, was raised by him with the help of a dozen prominent Republicans. He offered to share his TV time with Senator Pastore. But the Senator refused and Fr. McLaughlin used the time to answer questions called in by viewers. His money, nearly everyone agrees, would have been better spent on a series of shorter commercials. But the candidate supposedly wanted the folksy, question-and-answer format because he thought the voters would appreciate seeing the real person, not some packaged substitute.

The "real man" that Fr. McLaughlin presented to the voters on his television shows, especially the last one, was not a politician or even a priest-politician; he was a priest. John McLaughlin started his campaign with a sense of humor and realism about the foolishness of a priest running against Senator Pastore. By November, he had become a "believer," who thought he really could win and scraped up $14,000 to insure that victory. On the last night of the campaign, he closed his half hour television show by listing what, I think, he saw as his major qualifications: intelligence (that was always a favorite of his), honesty, sincerity and enthusiasm. He sounded like a Boy Scout. He told viewers they knew he had these qualities, but they hesitated to vote for him because of his Roman collar. He pleaded with them not to hesitate. During this final broadcast, he was, for me at any rate, more priest than ever before in the campaign. He had failed as a politician. While telling viewers not to hesitate because of his collar, he was reminding them of it— closing his campaign with what he had so often called the "one non-issue." I think what he really wanted to say was: "Vote for this sincere, honest, enthusiastic priest." The key word is priest, someone who commands respect, trust and, hopefully, votes. For all the symbolic significance of Fr. McLaughlin's candidacy in terms of the movement of priests from informal, behind-the-scenes participation in community affairs to formal, public participation, he himself, on his last night as Senate nominee, was back in an older church where being a priest really counted for something.

Any other priests who have plans to follow Fr. McLaughlin into public life ought to be advised that there is likely to be opposition, especially from those clerics who are comfortable with the informal and indirect way they exercise power. This was the case in Rhode Island, where Russell J, McVinney, the Bishop of Providence, whose diocese is coterminous with the state of Rhode Island, issued a statement in which he informed Catholics 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."

Bishop McVinney went on; "Canon 139 of the Code of Canon Law states that priests should avoid work unsuited to the clerical state and must obtain permission to run for public office. The United States Bishops at their general meeting last April approved a report which urged all bishops to discourage priests from seeking public office. Therefore, as Bishop of Providence, without seeking in any way to enter into politics, I judge it my responsibility at this time to inform the people of the Diocese for the welfare of both the state and the church that the candidacy of Father McLaughlin has no connection whatsoever with the Church in this Diocese."

While the bishop's statement may appear to be a reasonable, if somewhat pointed, attempt to clarify the role of the Church in Fr. McLaughlin's candidacy, the purity of his desire to remain free of political involvement was questioned.

The argument that he sought to influence voters against Fr. McLaughlin was based on the bishop's long and close friendship with Senator Pastore. The two have vacationed together. And earlier this year Bishop McVinney attended a fundraising dinner for the Senator. The fact that he waited until late August to issue a statement about a candidacy that was rumored in April and announced in June was considered another indication of his attempt to sabotage the McLaughlin campaign.

Bishop McVinney's remarks first appeared in Rhode Island's Catholic newspaper, the Providence Visitor. Published directly under his statement on the front page was an editorial which expanded his theme. The editors were unrestrained by the responsibilities that limit what a bishop can say. The result was a statement that was decidedly political, with a vindictive tone turned foolish.

The immediate effect of the bishop's statement and the resulting hullabaloo was, in addition to a lot of exposure for Fr. McLaughlin, a backlash which mobilized liberal Catholics against Bishop McVinney. The long-run effect of the pronouncement hurt the priest by providing material for an underground campaign aimed at showing that Fr. McLaughlin somehow was not a "real priest." The major difficulty his forces faced was how to answer the bishop while making it appear that Fr. McLaughlin was not a maverick; he always wanted to remain an Establishment priest—he was no Berrigan.

The McLaughlin strategy was to agree with the spirit of the bishop's pronouncement, i.e., separation of church and state must be maintained, while disputing his application of canon law and the U.S. Bishops' report to the current campaign. Like so much else in the McLaughlin campaign, the result was awkward.

Informants report both the Jesuits and the Rhode Island clergy were divided on Fr. McLaughlin's candidacy and the bishop's involvement. Some thought public life is no place for a priest. They believe a priest should guide conscience, but not assume a direct political role. Others were sympathetic but not enthusiastic. In general, there seemed to be an indifference to the candidacy. Most priests in the area are Democrats and nearly all considered Fr. McLaughlin a sore loser. They were wondering "What does he really want?"

That is a good question. He isn't saying what his plans are, so no one knows what he really wants. All we know is he wanted to be Senator McLaughlin, S.J.

Fr. McLaughlin's defeat was not an embarrassment, at least by the standards of the 1964 Pastore landslide. The priest got 31 percent of the vote. a good deal more than was expected. Most interesting was the fact that his strongest showing was in traditional Republican, Protestant areas of Rhode Island. Apparently local Catholics weren't ready to endorse a priest-politician, especially one who was more priest than politician.

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