Ronald Reagan -- yes or no?
If the question is the president's feel for comedy, the answer's an emphatic yes.
At last night's third-anniversary bash for "The McLaughlin Group" -- the blustery political panel show named for the blustery John McLaughlin -- the Leader of the Free World brought down the house.
He treated a VIP crowd at the Ritz Carlton to a deft presidential parody of the show's host, an ex-Jesuit priest turned TV star, plus a few well-aimed barbs at charter "Groupies" Morton Kondracke, Newsweek's Washington bureau chief, and newspaper columnists Robert Novak and Jack Germond.
Much to everyone's delight, the president -- calling the show "an obedience school for White House staffers" -- singled out former "Groupie" Pat Buchanan for special attention. Buchanan left "The Group" this year to become the White House communications director -- and his political fortunes since have been decidedly mixed.
"ISSUE TWO -- political potpourri," Reagan declaimed in high McLaughlin style. "We're talking about the four horsemen of the political apocalypse and their now-famous rotating chair. By the way, Pat Buchanan rotated all the way to a windowless office down the hall in the West Wing just across from the broom closet."
The crowd of 400 -- including a score of senators, countless congressmen and Cabinet officers past and present, including former attorney general John Mitchell -- roared with laughter. Buchanan, standing next to Reagan on stage, managed to look wounded.
"I can dish it out as well as take it," the president added. "That's 'McLaughlin Group' talk."
The show airs weekly in 205 markets from coast to coast, and will soon add NBC's owned and operated stations to its list of carriers. "Obviously," said McLaughlin, who is also Washington editor of the National Review, "NBC is looking to 'The Group' to propel them into the number one position." Reagan seemed to agree.
"Just three short years and 'The McLaughlin Group' has distinguished itself on three fronts. First it became a stable -- staple, Freudian slip -- of America's diet of political commentary. Its intellectual nutritional value falls somewhere between potato chips and Twinkies.
" 'The McLaughlin Group' also serves as the most tasteful programming alternative to professional wrestling."
After discussing the third front -- "obedience training" -- Reagan tackled the "Groupies" one by one.
"Robert Novak -- the Prince of Darkness . . .
"Mor-tahn," he went on, assailing the former New Republic editor. "Neoconservative. Neoliberal. One of the best open minds in the business.
"Jack Germond -- everything Geraldine Ferraro is today she owes to Jack." Big laugh. "At least he got Minnesota right.
"And John McLaughlin -- the Mr. T of TV journalism. I once described John by saying that the United States needs a tax increase like John McLaughlin needs assertiveness training. John took a simple Sunday morning discussion format out of the issues of our day, and using the insight, skill and great humility which have become his trademark, managed to turn it into a political version of 'Animal House.' "
Buchanan declined to own up to writing the president's speech. "I'm sorry, that's Process. I can't talk about Process."
McLaughlin, shaking his head sadly, said of Buchanan, "He's really changed his stripes. I knew him when he was a journalist."
Charles Z. Wick was one of the few guests sporting a tux, not unlike the ones worn by the fellows passing hors d'oeuvres. "I'm going to help wait tables at the Korean Embassy later on tonight," the director of the United States Information Agency explained.
McLaughlin, understandably, was beside himself with glee at the whole affair. "There are those who say that as host of 'The McLaughlin Group' I am too soft on Ronald Reagan. Well, as anyone can plainly see, it pays off."
"He's always a challenge," said his wife of 10 years, Ann, who is undersecretary of the interior. "What you see on TV is what you get in our living room. If we're going to make a decision, say, about dinner, John goes, 'Am I right or am I wrong? Yes or no!' "
"Look at John," said Kondracke. "They gave him a Secret Service badge. This is the kind of thing McLaughlin goes for. It gives him the idea that he can be official. I'm a liberal so I don't get a Secret Service badge. I mean, I'm a moderate."
Morton Kondracke, yes or no!
"The answer is yes! . . . I guess I'll say no."
You're wrong, Mort! Jack Germond!
"If Mort says yes, I'll say no."
"No! No! Always no!"
And, Pat Buchanan, yes or no!
"Yes or no what? What are you talking about? I don't know what you're referring to. I'm sorry." And then he receded into the throng.