This is the year of the political talk show. Never have so many had so much to say about so little. No wonder CNN snapped up Tony Snow, when he left his job as White House press secretary. David Gregory, the uncontested successor to ABC’s Sam Donaldson as press corps lightening rod, is missing from NBC’s booth at the White House. He is doing a talk show for MSNBC–just one more talk show host in long lineup that includes Bill O’Reilly, Hannity & Colmes, Keith Olbermann, Dan Abrahms, Wolf Blitzer, Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs and Campbell Brown. Even C-SPAN does politics.
But if you do not get cable, do not worry. You can still get your fix of talking hosts on over-the-air broadcasting. Beginning on Friday night, there is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.” It is the national anthem before the main event. The first-string players take the field on Sunday morning. On my dial the lineup is “Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace,” “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press with Tim Russert” and “Face the Nation with Bob Schieffer.”
Two programs, “Meet the Press” and “Face the Nation,” have been around since the days of radio. But all political broadcasting today owes much to a half-hour show that thundered to life 25 years ago. I speak of “The McLaughlin Group” and its extraordinary host, John McLaughlin.
McLaughlin invigorated the television talk show. He made the host a participant and encouraged contention, even shouting, among the guests.
It is hard now to remember how static the talk shows were. The host was a magisterial figure, who pretended he had no interest in the discussion. I was a panelist on “Meet The Press,” when Bill Monroe moderated it. There was a single guest who was interviewed by a panel of reporters. You could get in two questions, and that was it. It was a structure more satisfactory in concept than in practice. Once, when I was on the panel, Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson was a guest. I knew Jackson well and while we were in makeup, he said, “I want you to take me to the mat, and ask me the hard questions.” Of course he knew, and I was to learn, that the format did not include hard questions.
McLaughlin’s show is now in some decline, overshadowed by the resources and sheer volume of the competition. It has moved to another channel in Washington; and its rating are falling, according to The Weekly Standard. The show is a little tired, and McLaughlin’s conservatism a little idiosyncratic.
I have to confess that McLaughlin has been important to my career. I started a television talk show called “White House Chronicle,” which airs on some PBS and many public access channels, mostly because I got tired of waiting on the short list to be a guest on “The McLaughlin Group.”
At a White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner, McLaughlin came over and told me how much he enjoyed my show. I told him how much he was responsible for it. This seemed to make him very happy.
Meanwhile, back on the dial, it is all politics, all the time. Or, more accurately, it is more people saying more about the tiniest perturbation in the week’s presidential campaign news. The question is whether the public interest in politics will continue after this extraordinary election year–and with it, the 24-7 political talk.