The McLaughlin Group Talks Presidential Politics During Baylor Appearance

Sept. 26, 2000

by Lori Scott Fogleman

One of public television's most popular programs, "The McLaughlin Group," talked presidential politics Sept. 25 before a full house at Waco Hall.

The group - creator, executive producer and host John McLaughlin and panel members Michael Barone, senior staff editor of Reader's Digest; Eleanor Clift, contributing editor of Newsweek; Lawrence O'Donnell, MSNBC senior political analyst;and Eric Felten, Washington correspondent for Reader's Digest - visited Baylor University as part of the President's Forum lecture series.

The event brings to the campus national and international figures, all with varying viewpoints, and gives students and faculty a common experience about which to talk, said Baylor President Robert B. Sloan Jr.

"The President's Forum is one of our opportunities during the year to provoke discussion on campus. Universities used to have curricula where everybody took the same courses, but now curricula are so diverse that it's sometimes hard to carry on a common conversation except about athletics," Sloan said. "One of the functions of the President's Forum is not only to bring about provocative issues but to give people a common text and common academic experience which they can then reflect on together."

Known for its spirited, enlightening and sometimes controversial debate about national issues, "The McLaughlin Group," now in its eighteenth season, is carried on more than 300 public television stations and on commercial stations in Washington, D.C., New York, and Los Angeles. In Waco, it is broadcast on KWBU-TV Ch. 34 Fridays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 11:30 a.m.

After each of the panelists was introduced by the president, it was McLaughlin who brought greetings on behalf of the group.

"It's a pleasure and an honor for us to be here at this university of such great heritage and achievement, and your hospitality is overwhelming. We wish to thank you in advance in case the tide turns the other way before this lecture is over," McLaughlin said.

The McLaughlin Group, led by its tenacious host, then took the Baylor audience through an animated discussion of campaign politics involving Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic candidate, their running mates Dick Cheney and Joseph Lieberman and the issues surrounding both campaigns, including the evaporation of Bush's double-digit lead over Gore in the polls.

O'Donnell, a writer for the television show "The West Wing" and a former Democratic congressional staffer, said Gore's campaign, with Bush's "inadvertent cooperation," has been successful by making the election about confidence.

"That little open-mike thing that Bush was caught saying about the New York Times reporter. It doesn't matter what the content of it was. What it indicated to the voter was that it was a very large blunder and it gave the sense to the voter that does this guy know what he's doing? Gore's confidence has never been in question," O'Donnell said.

After a lengthly discussion about Gore's selection of Lieberman as his running mate, noted by Clift as the event she believes started the vice president's rise in the polls, McLaughlin moved the discussion to how faith is being played out in the campaign. The debate turned into a verbal sparring match between Clift, Felten and Barone about Gore's attempted disassociation with the "immoralities" of the Clinton presidency.

McLaughlin later led the discussion back to issues like education and prescription drugs which Barone considers the strengths of the Bush-Cheney campaign.

"Getting his innovative positions out there on such things helped Bush in the spring when he did it against John McCain. It's helping him now because the press certainly doesn't give him any help getting his positions out there," Barone said.

Another topic put forth by McLaughlin was the appearances of both candidates on such television shows as "Oprah," "Late Night with David Letterman" and "Live with Regis."

"Is this legit?" asked McLaughlin.

"Women are going to decide this election. That's why Bush is going on 'Oprah' and 'Regis,'" Clift said.

"This is a different generation," Barone said. "We don't have nightly evening newscasts which used to be the public square of America. A majority of the people used to be tuned into one of the three (network newscasts). Some think that the biasness of the networks might have something to do with that. In any case, they no longer have a monopoly. People get their news from all over, including from this program," Barone said.

At the conclusion of the forum, McLaughlin led the group through a round-robin of predictions, the same way they wrap up their weekly television show.

McLaughlin's question: on Nov. 8, the day after the presidential and congressional elections, what will the headline be?

Michael Barone: "I would bet $1,000 that it would be Bush with a Narrow Victory, but I wouldn't put up that money right now."

Eleanor Clift: "Gore Edges Bush in Popular Vote, Wins in Electoral Landslide."

Eric Felton: "It almost parallels the race in 1960. It will almost come down to who does the better job of stuffing ballot boxes in West Virginia. I think it will be Bush Pulls Out Win."

Lawrence O'Donnell: "Gore Wins, Rebublicans Retain Senate."

John McLaughlin: "I consulted my favorite political scientest, Mae West. She said, 'When I'm faced with choosing between two evils, I always pick the one I've not tried before.' I predict the next president of the United States will be W."

Before the panel left the stage, they answered questions from the audience, read by the president, that were submitted prior to the forum. The question and answer part of the program, which also has been done at previous forums featuring Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes, proved to be popular with students, as was The McLaughlin Group's entire presentation.

"It's such a privilege for us to be able to hear from people not only of their political stature but of their popular stature in television and to be able to listen to their wisdom, too, especially in an election year," said Matt Burchett, a senior religion major from Garland and Baylor's student body external vice president. "As students who are advocates for politics, we have so many groups on campus like Young Democrats and College Republicans that are so involved in elections and voting, and it's just great to have the group here for us to hear very differing and incredible points of view."

Earlier in the day, the well-known panel of national journalists met with about 50 Baylor students for a question and answer session.

Dr. Steve Moore, vice president for student life, facilitated the discussion, beginning with a question that surprised the panelists.

"Several students said to me they were interested in hearing something personal and not just getting immediately into the issues. They said we'd like to know what their story is," Moore said. "I gave the panelists a heads up that the question was coming. They all five said, oh my gosh, I never get asked anything personal."

But judging from their responses, Moore said, which took about 20 minutes, they each enjoyed telling students about their most influential experience or indentifying the person who made a lasting impression upon them.

Calling it her "Cinderella" story, Clift talked about her early years at Newsweek, where she began as a secretary to the national affairs editor and later became one of the first women at the magazine to move from secretary to reporter. One of her first assignments, laughed at by her colleagues, was covering the presidential campaign of then-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter. After Carter won the presidency in 1976, it was Clift who had the last laugh.

"One of the traditions at Newsweek is that the reporter who covers the winning candidate's campaign from the beginning follows him into The White House. I did and I'm still here," she said.

McLaughlin called his days as a speechwriter for President Richard Nixon a "horrible" experience.

"But it gave me the opportunity to see how public policy is formed and to see the power of the office and how people tend to wield that power in surprising ways," McLaughlin said.

Students later delved into the issues surrounding the presidential campaign. Burchett asked The McLaughlin Group about the seemingly different reactions of the media to the faith proclamations made by Republican candidate George W. Bush, Vice President Al Gore and Gore's running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman.

"I was referring to a conference on faith and values and student leadership that student government attended in Washington, D.C., where the big topic of discussion there obviously was Christianity within the presidential campaign," Burchett said. "When George W. Bush referred to Jesus Christ as his philosophical hero and when he calls himself a Christian, he really gets critiqued by the media. On the other hand, the media seems to not react as harshly to Joseph Lieberman's proclamation of faith. So I was wondering what the group's feelings were on that issue.

"Most of them appeared to take the stance that Joseph Lieberman has been probably a little overly anxious pronouncing his faith and what it means to him in the campaign and maybe he needs to back off a little bit," he said. "They had a nice, hearty debate about it. It was very intriguing and fun and interesting to watch them go back and forth."

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