The year was 1970. The Vietnam War was raging and it was becoming a thing for Irish American Jesuits to run for political office.
In Massachusetts, Father Robert Drinan won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, running as an anti-war Democrat.
But as Bob Dylan had sung a few years earlier, the times they were a-changin’. And that was certainly the case among Irish Catholics. The days when the Irish were solidly Democratic were coming to an end. The late 1960s had soured many once-liberal Democratic Irish Americans. At home they saw crime spiraling out of control, and abroad the war in Vietnam seemed to be going poorly, in part, because so many people openly disrespected the military.
Enter John Joseph McLaughlin of Providence, Rhode Island.
McLaughlin, who died earlier this month at the age of 89, rose to fame as a provocative political talk show host. For better or worse, he was a pioneer in the field of yelling-and-screaming, highly-partisan chat shows.
But before hosting shows such as "The McLaughlin Group," McLaughlin was just another Irish American boy with his eyes on the priesthood. He attended LaSalle Academy in Providence and then Weston College in Massachusetts, preparing for the priesthood at what would later become Boston College’s theological seminary. He joined the Jesuits and was ordained a priest in the late 1950s.
These were, of course, heady days for Irish American Democrats. Going back a century earlier, when the newly-formed Republican Party included rabidly anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic factions, the Democratic Party became a haven for immigrants and their children.
In the 1920s, when another spasm of nativism swept the land, elements of which supported the prohibition of alcohol as the answer to all of the ills ailing America, the Democrats went and nominated Catholic Al Smith for president. Smith, of course, was roundly defeated.
By 1960, another lifelong Irish Democrat was nominated for the presidency. And despite fears of a Catholic president, John F. Kennedy won. Within a decade, however, things would get a lot more complicated.
Vietnam was a big part of that. The war – as well as the broader debate over if, or even how, to support or oppose it – created major political splits in the Irish American community.
John McLaughlin, a Catholic priest in his forties, was a stark symbol of those fissures. He switched party affiliations and ran for the U.S. Senate, earning the wrath of Providence’s Irish American bishop Russell McVinney.
Unlike many on the right, McLaughlin actually called for a swift end to the Vietnam War. He lost the election badly but went to Washington where – thanks to a recommendation from pal Pat Buchanan – he joined President Nixon’s staff. McLaughlin was well on his way to becoming one of the nation’s most stridently conservative voices.
“Nicknamed Nixon’s Priest, he gave frequent speeches in defense of the president’s conduct of the Vietnam War, including bombing missions into Cambodia,” McLaughlin’s obituary in The New York Times noted. “As the Watergate crisis deepened, Father McLaughlin became one of the president’s most visible supporters. At one news conference, he dismissed Nixon’s use of profanity as ‘emotional drainage.’ Less than two weeks before the president resigned, Father McLaughlin warned in a speech at the National Press Club that the nation would face a ‘parade of horrors’ should Nixon be impeached.”
In a wonderful bit of irony, who was the first congressman to call for Nixon’s impeachment? None other than McLaughlin’s fellow priest, Father Drinan.
The charms of priestly life faded fast for McLaughlin, who was suddenly enjoying a lavish Washington lifestyle unfamiliar to many Jesuits. In 1975, Pope Paul IV excused McLaughlin from his religious duties.
That same year, McLaughlin entered into the first of two marriages, both of which – and here’s one more irony for the former Catholic priest – ended in divorce.