John McLaughlin is clearly in his element. On the set of "McLaughlin" in the studios of NBC's cable affiliate, CNBC, in Fort Lee, N.J., with camera lights flashing and teleprompters rolling, he struts across the stage and circles his victim, Democratic Senator Tim Wirth. Nearly bursting out of his dark pin-stripe suit, he thrusts his chest forward, eyes darting from the camera to the teleprompter to Wirth, who is seated at center stage. When the camera turns away, McLaughlin pops a Rolaid so quickly that the gesture appears almost involuntary.

The subject is Soviet environmental problems. McLaughlin leans into the lanky Coloradan like a district attorney about to accuse a witness of having planted the murder weapon himself.

Wirth is looking up at his pacing inquisitor, fighting a losing battle to finish a sentence. "The Soviets have even more severe environmental problems than almost anyone in the world. They . . ."

"Why? Why?"

"Their rivers are extraordinarily polluted . . ."

"Why? Why?"

"Their industry has been so . . ."

"Why? Why?"

". . . so inefficient . . ."

"Why? Why?"

". . . extraordinary inefficiency, central economy, no uhh . . ."

"What about attitude? Attitude?"

"Well, the attitude has been growth, growth, growth, in terms of making the economy grow."

Finally, McLaughlin gets the answer he wants and even the lighting fixtures seem to sigh with relief. It's easy to see why Manuel Noriega called McLaughlin his favorite journalist. With his booming baritone and scowling visage, he could have given Laurence Olivier a run for his money playing Richard III. There is just that sort of mock-epic grandeur in the way this man conducts his everyday conversation.

Even more successfully than "The McLaughlin Group" on PBS and four NBC affiliates, or "John McLaughlin's One on One," also on PBS and NBC, "McLaughlin" manages to marry the high-minded agenda of "Meet the Press" with the low-life histrionics of Geraldo Rivera. McLaughlin quizzes Andrew Cuomo on whether he and his father hung up girlie pictures in their apartment with the same fervor that he queries Jeane Kirkpatrick about her views on Eastern Europe. This is public affairs television for an MTV era. Where else could Georgette Mosbacher reveal that her husband, the secretary of commerce, uses her brand of ladies' facial cream? Where else would anyone care?

McLaughlin has already earned himself a kind of '80s immortality by being cast to play himself on "ALF." Now, with the ascension of "McLaughlin" in prime time, cable-equipped devotees may enjoy a full 6 1/2 hours of undiluted McLaughlinania each week. Some days it seems his only real competitors for air time are Lucy and Ricky Ricardo.

Almost eight years into his career as a media impresario, John McLaughlin sits at the red-hot epicenter of the Washington punditocracy. Composed of journalists, columnists, former government officials and wanna-be experts, the punditocracy is Washington's varsity talking team, the boys everybody turns out to see. The favored members of this tiny but influential squad are offered the emotionally satisfying opportunity to mouth off about the issues of the day on television . . . and make piles of money for it. George Will may be the most famous member of the punditocracy and William Safire the most admired, but John McLaughlin is in many ways the most powerful.

Aspiring team members from the nation's op-ed pages, little magazines and past administrations scramble for the opportunity to park their posteriors on one of the coveted upholstered seats of "The McLaughlin Group" and begin pontificating. Politicians lust for the hot seat on his "One on One."

It's been an amazing journey for a man who more than 40 years ago vowed to dedicate his life to poverty, chastity and obedience to the Society of Jesus. McLaughlin has risen, fallen and risen once more to power, fame and riches that almost certainly exceed anything the young seminarian imagined. The personal and professional saga of Father John McLaughlin provides an almost Nixonian story of self-reinvention and limitless ambition on the fringes of political power and intellectual fashion.

In 1974, the Ford administration -- having little use for a Jesuit speechwriter who lived at the Watergate and defended the disgraced president to the bitter end -- packed McLaughlin's bags for him and kicked him out the White House front door. McLaughlin sought the help of his friend, former White House speechwriter Patrick Buchanan. Buchanan wrote to William F. Buckley, inquiring if maybe the pundit could help a fellow Catholic conservative down on his luck with a bit of TV work.

Buckley replied with a telegram: "Dear Patrick. Intending no disrespect. Who is John McLaughlin?" Sixteen years later, the framed telegram hangs proudly on McLaughlin's office wall.

McLaughlin's success has not been without its complications and has been tarnished by accusations of frightful petty tyranny and deliberate sexual harassment. The youthful underlings he hires to help with the production and research of the two Washington-based shows tell stories of a brilliant but obsessive man intoxicated with his own influence. A widely publicized sexual harassment lawsuit brought against him by Linda D. Dean, his former executive assistant and office manager, was settled out of court in November, and neither side is willing to discuss the size or conditions of the settlement. In her complaint filed in U.S. District Court, Dean alleged that she "recognized a pattern of sexually discriminatory and sexually harassing behavior toward women" on McLaughlin's part and cited, in addition to her own experiences, the case of a receptionist who left McLaughlin's employment after a little more than a month because of sexual harassment and abuse. Dean said she was forced to leave because of her insistence that the harassment stop. Depositions taken by Dean's attorneys in the suit turned up other former female employees who shared Dean's concerns. McLaughlin denied he committed acts of sexual harassment or abuse toward Dean or anyone in his office, insisting Dean was fired because she was not up to the job.

Even the nature of McLaughlin's media triumph generates controversy, since it is regarded by many as one of entertainment over journalism, and glibness over expertise. No matter how complex a particular issue of policy, how arcane its origins or how much specialization may be required to understand it, McLaughlin directs his questioning in machine-gun fashion. Speakers and guests are allowed no time for qualification, ambivalence or complexity. "By creating a context of pressure, I can exact more preciseness, more brilliance," McLaughlin once told Esquire. "It's just as if coal is subjected to enormous pressure, you can get a diamond."

Yet the pressure-cooker discussions McLaughlin engenders often seem less diamond mine than garbage dump. Reporters and guests face off as ideological gladiators rather than as seekers of truth and understanding. Journalists who quite possibly failed physics in college muse unashamedly on the aerodynamics of an SDI launch. People whose primary experience outside the Beltway involves being chauffeured from the airport and back to give a speech diagnose the mood and motives of striking mine workers and baggage handlers. "To turn the discussion of very delicate and even dangerous subjects into a shouting match may be good theater," says New York Times contributing columnist James Reston, "but it's not good analysis."

But good theater is what John McLaughlin has always been about.

UNTIL HE STRUCK PAY DIRT WITH "THE McLaughlin Group" in April 1982, John McLaughlin had spent most of his adult life on the margins of influence. He was an ideological chameleon who confounded his critics with a quick, barbed wit and, until 1975, a Jesuit priest's collar. Whether an outspoken sex lecturer, magazine editor, Senate candidate, White House speechwriter or political consultant, McLaughlin placed his intellectual brilliance and gift of gab in the service of confusing, often contradictory, political and intellectual agendas.

"The strangest thing about John McLaughlin," says his lifelong friend, the Rev. Bill O'Halloran, vice president of Holy Cross College, "is that he is no different today than he was when we were studying Latin and algebra together." McLaughlin grew up in a middle-class neighborhood of Providence, where his father operated a furniture store. Irish on his father's side and French on his mother's, McLaughlin was raised in a deeply religious Catholic home. Together with O'Halloran, in 1945 he entered Shadowbrook, a small New England Jesuit novitiate, where McLaughlin quickly developed a reputation as the school's most theatrical student. O'Halloran recalls McLaughlin helping to produce "an extraordinary 'Macbeth' and a fantastic 'Alcestis.' "

In training for the priesthood, McLaughlin was expected to endure months of uninterrupted silence and weave small whips with thongs on the end to occasionally engage in self-flagellation. The novices were also told, according to McLaughlin, to wear a chain made of barbed wire around the upper thigh, "to subdue the flesh."

McLaughlin went on to earn master's degrees in philosophy and English at Boston College and a doctorate in communications at Columbia University. (He now insists that his underlings call him "Dr." -- Henry Kissinger style.)

His first foray into public life was an associate editorship at America magazine, the Jesuit weekly. There McLaughlin began to develop his unique public persona, traveling and lecturing on subjects such as "Intimacy Outside Marriage" and "Intimacy Before Marriage: The Swedish Experience (Parts I, II, III and IV)."

The Jesuit editor shocked virtually everyone who knew him when, in 1970, he announced that he would switch parties to challenge Sen. John Pastore (D-R.I.) as a Republican. McLaughlin campaigned as a high-profile dove, calling for an even quicker withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam than George McGovern and supporting rapprochement with both Cuba and China. Pastore, the Democratic hawk, agonized over how to attack his opponent without upsetting Rhode Island's Catholic majority.

Though Pastore scored a 2-1 victory, McLaughlin won a political plum -- an appointment to the White House. Human Events magazine ex- pressed the far right's displeasure, calling McLaughlin the "Playboy Padre" and lamenting that during McLaughlin's Senate campaign, the priest-politician had "allowed himself to be chauffeured about by a striking brunette" while showing a "permissive" attitude toward sex.

But McLaughlin had support where it counted. Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan was behind him and so was Charles Colson. Raymond Price, Nixon's chief speechwriter, recalls being impressed with McLaughlin's keen intelligence and multiple degrees.

McLaughlin began his tenure as a relatively low-level speechwriter and special assistant to Nixon on refugees. It was during Watergate that he made his break for the limelight. Larry Speakes, who was working in Nixon's press office at the time, recalls that the office was having trouble finding people to show their faces on television in defense of their increasingly besieged boss. McLaughlin volunteered to go out on the White House lawn before the television crews one afternoon and gave a boffo performance. The next morning, four camera crews showed up in McLaughlin's office. A colleague turned to Speakes and moaned, "My God, he's a monster, and I've created him."

McLaughlin called Nixon "the greatest moral leader of the last third of this century." He defended the president's 1972 Christmas bombing of Hanoi and the mining of Haiphong harbor. He termed Nixon's frequent use of profanity "a form of emotional drainage . . . a form of release, almost therapy." As late as May 9, 1974, barely 90 days before Nixon ended our Long National Nightmare, McLaughlin was still insisting that Nixon was a "moral man thirsting for truth."

The press had quite a good time with McLaughlin's atypical Jesuit lifestyle. McLaughlin lived in the Watergate and reportedly earned more than $30,000 a year. He claimed that he could not live among the other Washington Jesuits because they were "too left of center." He made no pretense of donating his salary to the Jesuit community, as is customary, and his attempts to justify his lifestyle on theological grounds had a decided lack of seriousness. He told friends that while, yes, he did live in the luxurious Watergate, his apartment faced a gas station and he only rode the trash elevator.

In May 1974, the Very Rev. Richard Cleary, the Jesuit superior to whom McLaughlin ostensibly owed unquestioning obedience, held a press conference in Boston in which he announced, "I am indeed puzzled by his {Father McLaughlin's} publicly stated interpretations of his vow of poverty and obedience, as well as his understanding of his status as a Jesuit priest." Cleary then summoned McLaughlin to Boston for a period of "prayer and reflection," the Jesuit euphemism for a public spanking.

Washington expected fireworks, but instead the two men struck a deal: McLaughlin would resign from the White House and Cleary would refrain from further public criticism of McLaughlin.

Yet, when Nixon finally headed for San Clemente on August 9, 1974, McLaughlin did everything but handcuff himself to his White House desk. Ford Press Secretary Jerald terHorst announced that he had "no slot whatsoever" for McLaughlin. But as late as September 30, columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak reported that "the notorious Father John McLaughlin" was still on the job. That did it. Seventy-two hours later, McLaughlin was eligible for unemployment.

ACCORDING TO HIS FRIEND FATHER O'Halloran, McLaughlin suffered terrible disillusionment following Watergate. John McLaughlin declined to discuss this or any other period of his life for this article, but his admirers point to this period as a time when McLaughlin really showed his mettle as a human being.

"John picked himself up off the ground and remade his life when he was way down, and that took a lot of courage," says Morton Kondracke, New Republic senior editor and member of "The McLaughlin Group." First, McLaughlin opened up a consulting firm and petitioned Pope Paul VI to release him from his vows of celibacy. Then, in August 1975, in a civil -- not Catholic -- ceremony, McLaughlin married longtime friend Ann Dore.

Rumors of a love affair had swirled around Dore and McLaughlin since they arrived in Washington in 1971. Dore, 14 years McLaughlin's junior, was born in 1941 in Chatham, N.J., graduated from Marymount College in Tarrytown, N.Y., in 1963 and married William Dore shortly after graduation. That first marriage turned out to be a brief one. In 1968, she met McLaughlin when he lectured at Marymount, where she was working as director of public relations. The two hit it off, and McLaughlin persuaded her to join him as the campaign manager of his 1970 Rhode Island Senate race. After he lost and took the White House job, Dore followed him to Washington.

For a 30-year-old woman who had engineered a resounding Senate defeat and who previously had been only an alumnae and public relations director at a small Catholic college, Dore enjoyed a meteoric rise in Washington power circles. First, she became director of communications for Nixon's Presidential Election Committee and then press secretary for the Presidential Inaugural Committee. After Nixon's inauguration, Dore was public affairs director of the Environmental Protection Agency, which led through the revolving door to Union Carbide's Washington office, where she served as communications director and government liaison. Dore was working at Union Carbide when she became Mrs. McLaughlin, and she left in 1977 to join her husband as a political and media consultant.

In 1981, when Ronald Reagan took office, she became an assistant secretary at Don Regan's Treasury Department, and after that, the first woman to serve as an undersecretary at the Department of Interior. When Reagan named her secretary of labor toward the end of his final term, she became only the second woman ever to hold that job.

Meanwhile, McLaughlin gradually worked his way back into the spotlight. He was hired in 1980 by WRC-AM to host a radio talk show but was fired a year later, reportedly for talking too much and taking too few calls. Later on, while subbing for Pat Buchanan on the "Braden and Buchanan" radio show, McLaughlin so infuriated Tom Braden by hogging the microphone that Braden stormed out of the studio while McLaughlin was still talking.

By this time, however, McLaughlin had raised his sights. He had persuaded his wealthy friend Richard Moore, a former Nixon White House aide (and now ambassador to Ireland), to back him in creating a new kind of television public affairs program. The pilot for "The McLaughlin Group" featured syndicated columnists Jack Germond and Robert Novak, Chuck Stone of the Philadelphia Daily News and Judith Miller of the New York Times. Miller lectured, Stone was silent, and the show lacked fireworks. But it did attract the sponsorship of the Edison Electric Institute, the principal trade association for the nation's electric utilities. MCLAUGHLIN11,,MG,ADV,McLaughlin replaced Stone, who is black, and Miller with two white men -- Patrick Buchanan, a conservative, and Morton Kondracke, who was becoming one. In April 1982, the juggernaut was launched.

JOURNALISTS' PUBLIC AFFAIRS DISCUSsions have had a mixed history on television. WETA's "Washington Week in Review," softspoken and non-confrontational, debuted in 1967. The show stuck to the unremarkable premise that reporters who covered a particular beat during the week might be able to place the events of that week in a larger context for television viewers. Because personalities are downplayed and virtually every observation made can be found within the news analyses of the New York Times and The Washington Post, "Washington Week" is irrelevant to Washington insider culture.

Post-Newsweek's 20-year-old "Agronsky and Company," now called "Inside Washington," broke the barrier that had insisted journalists express opinions only on subjects they cover. But Martin Agronsky still played by the old rules, as does his successor, WUSA anchor Gordon Peterson, in that the show's regulars are, by and large, experts in one particular area of reporting.

"The McLaughlin Group" took the old "Agronsky" formula and bent it until it broke. In the first place, some panelists were only nominally journalists.

McLaughlin was a journalist in the sense that somebody who takes his car into the shop to get it fixed a great deal is a mechanic. He had always hung around with journalists and had gone to their dinner parties, but he hardly spent his days wearing out shoe leather or typewriter ribbons. During the period from 1983 to 1989, when McLaughlin held the title of Washington editor of National Review, his column was regularly ghostwritten by his assistants. "Sometimes he would change it," recalls one former writer, "sometimes it would sail right through."

Pat Buchanan spent a grand total of two months as a reporter before becoming an editorial writer and beginning his high-flying career as a conservative polemicist and sometime government official. Robert Novak, on the other hand, had been among the most respected and hard-working reporters in Washington during the 1960s. But in the '70s, Novak's intense conservative bias had diminished his reputation as a straight-shooting journalist. Germond alone retained the reputation of a fair-minded reporter.

"The Group" had no blacks or women. The atmosphere was steeped in the same country-club machismo that dominated the White House during the Reagan years. Rolling Stone national editor William Greider, a guest on the show, recalls an early run-through in which McLaughlin, Novak and Kondracke spent the whole time telling "incredibly crude and sexist jokes" about prostitutes in Bangkok.

Politically, the show also reflected the contours of the Reagan administration. McLaughlin (sometimes), Buchanan and Novak would represent the "ideological" side of Reaganism, while Kondracke, a former liberal slouching toward neoconservatism, came to reflect the administration's "pragmatist" wing. Centrist Jack Germond became the show's "liberal" by default.

Unapologetic liberals were occasionally trotted out as guests, but they often sounded as if they were speaking about another planet. What kind of reasoned reply could they offer to a "Group" member insisting that black teenagers were unemployed because "these kids don't want to work"; or that the only way to deal with Moammar Gadhafi was to "slit his throat with no fingerprints"; or that the reason the National Organization for Women differed so strongly with the Reagan administration on women's issues was because the group was "25 percent lesbian"? To even engage these issues on such far-out terms is to admit defeat.

Some tried, of course. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen compared his appearances on the show to sitting down in the war zone between Iran and Iraq. And Christopher Hitchens, columnist for the Nation magazine, managed to survive one show only to be sucker-punched seconds before going off the air when Novak referred to Cuban drug runners as Hitchens's "friends." (Hitchens later retaliated by calling Novak a "polecat" and a "McCarthyite bum," on CNN's "Crossfire.")

The show's success derived from McLaughlin's ability to conduct the discussions in a fashion that owed more to roller derby than to public affairs television. Some topics were run through in as few as 30 seconds, and each panelist played a stock character.

McLaughlin was the ringleader -- a combination Catholic school headmaster and circus announcer. Buchanan played the tough Irish cop with twinkly eyes and a heart of granite. Novak was Joe Six-Pack, a beer-bellied tough guy whose idea of a good time was to sic his German shepherd on welfare queens and pinko student demonstrators. Kondracke, with his much ridiculed altar boy haircut and yuppie steel-rim glasses, was the guy who always sat in the front of the class waving his arms at the teacher, only to forget the answer once he was finally called on; his wishy-washy responses almost always gave Novak the opportunity to call him a weenie and threaten to take away his lunch. Balding old-timer Jack Germond was by far the most attractive character of the lot. He was the sort of pundit Fred Mertz might have been had Ethel let him out of the house -- he had trouble taking the whole thing seriously.

Judged strictly on its entertainment value, the show worked just fine. Germond harumphed. Buchanan huffed and puffed. Kondracke hemmed and hawed until Novak pounced. McLaughlin would then close out the discussion by saying something like: Okay, let's get out. On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf, 10 being the Ten Commandments, George Shultz's Middle East peace plan rates what on the scale of divine inspiration, Mor-TAHN?

Washington loved to hate it. "The McLaughlin Group" quickly surpassed "Agronsky and Company" as the pundit show to watch. Pundits and would-be pundits vied with one another for the important rotating seat. Occasionally a mere politician would be granted the honor of sitting in. But it had to be a politician with special qualities; somebody with the charm and self-deprecation of, say, Ed Koch.

The McLaughlin show advertised itself not as a group of Walter Lippmann-like sages or Seymour Hersh-type investigators but as a collection of Washington "authorities" giving "inside opinions and forecasts." Excluding Germond, the words "I don't know" or even "I think" or "I believe" were not to be found in the panelists' vocabulary. Whether it was the guerrilla strategy of the contra high command or the next open-market operation by the Federal Reserve Board, the members always seemed to have just spoken to the guy in charge.

IN WASHINGTON, "INSIDER" CULTURE is defined not by the depth of a person's knowledge of any subject but by the speed with which it is obtained. If you get your election returns in the afternoon, via exit polls, rather than waiting for the networks to announce projections that evening, you're an insider. If you know who might replace whom as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs -- even if you have no idea where in heaven's name either one is -- you're an insider.

The whiff of insiderdom is crucial to one's social standing in political Washington. When soon-to-be-convicted perjurer Michael Deaver began calling associates to tell them of Don Regan's impending replacement as White House chief of staff during the Iran-contra affair three years ago, what he was saying was, "Indictment or no indictment, I'm still a force to be reckoned with." The potential power of any insider is difficult to gauge for those outside the charmed circle and thus tends to inspire a mixture of fear and respect on the part of the ambitious. This is Henry Kissinger's secret. And it is this mixture that members of "The McLaughlin Group" and other insiders are so adept at exploiting to prevent anyone from challenging the basis of their knowledge. After all, who wants to lose an argument to an opponent who says, "Yeah, well, the secretary just left here. And he says you don't know what you're talking about."

But when journalists become insiders, who are they working for? Walter Lippmann spoke of the need for "a certain distance between high public officials and newspapermen" but largely ignored his own advice. I.F. Stone, the late investigative journalist, adhered to this rule with a fierce passion but spent most of his life as a social and political pariah. Yet, he also set a standard. As the Watergate and Vietnam disclosures of the '70s revealed a government made up of liars and criminals at some of the highest levels, reporters like Seymour Hersh, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, like Stone before them, came to represent a model for aspiring reporters and government critics.

The reign of the independent journalist was brief, however, replaced by the punditocracy that came to dominate political dialogue in the '80s. Whereas Woodward and Bernstein had helped force a president from office, John McLaughlin -- like George Will, the punditocracy's team captain -- had the president over for dinner. McLaughlin, Will and William F. Buckley Jr. counted Nancy and Ronald Reagan as their personal friends. Buchanan served the White House directly, becoming Reagan's director of communications for a time. Novak threw insider conferences for CEO-types at which Cabinet secretaries, such as then-Treasury Secretary James Baker, would schmooze with the guests. These megastars of the punditocracy earned their living on television by agreeing with the president. No hanging around in abandoned parking garages was necessary to get this job done. If a source wished to meet with one of the big-name players, it had better be at Maison Blanche.

The White House press office set up special Friday briefings for the pundits scheduled to appear on the weekend talk shows. Coincidentally, perhaps, the briefings were conducted in the Reagan family theater. At these briefings, White House officials would come by and give "not for attribution" information to television's chosen few. The boys would then hustle straight to their tapings, where the tidbits and leaks were repeated verbatim, either in the form of predictions or insider scoops.

Passing along favorable tidbits and floating trial balloons were only two of the functions performed by members of "The McLaughlin Group" for the Reagan administration. Another was the show's deliberate constriction of the parameters of the political dialogue. By keeping true liberals off the show, McLaughlin helped to delegitimize liberal solutions to national problems. With Novak, Buchanan and New Republic senior editor Fred Barnes attacking from the right and Kondracke agreeing from their left, Ronald Reagan's brand of genial reactionary politics was made to appear downright reasonable. Centrist solutions became "liberal" by virtue of the show's political landscape, and truly liberal ideas were marginalized entirely. When historians one day seek to understand how George Bush and Lee Atwater succeeded in making "liberalism" a dirty word in 1988, they will need to look no further than the tapes of five upper-middle-class white guys sitting around a TV studio talking about how black families "are just going to have to stop relying on government and politics to solve your problems for you."

Inside the Beltway, "Group" members became the Washington equivalent of Hollywood starlets. The White House let it be known that Reagan watched the show at Camp David and would bang his fists on the table when one of the "Groupies" failed to take his side. At one McLaughlin party, Reagan dropped by and read a speech about the "Group" written for him by, you guessed it, Patrick Buchanan.

WRC began airing the show twice each weekend, where it quickly outpaced its competitors. Its corporate sponsors shelled out what looks to be millions of dollars and offered the show free to any PBS station that wanted it. Though the sponsors won't give any advertising or cost figures, so far 270 PBS stations have picked it up, in addition to four NBC affiliates.

Meanwhile, article after article celebrated the rise of Washington's newest media star. Esquire, The Washington Post, Washingtonian and Dossier, among others, all published glowing profiles of McLaughlin or the show. Ignored, until James Fallows wrote about it in the New York Review of Books in 1986, was the effect "The McLaughlin Group" was having on the craft of journalism and the discussion of issues in Washington. The show's abhorrence of complexity, its reductiveness, its celebration of nastiness and macho posturing, its flouting of the original ideal that journalists should remain at a distance from the subjects they cover, were reducing the public debate to the level of schoolyard taunts.

EVEN FALLOWS COULD NOT HELP BUT point out that, "for all his bluster," McLaughlin was "enormously likable." Michael Kinsley, former editor of the New Republic -- who later lost his shot at the show's rotating chair after his magazine, in April 1988, carried testimony of McLaughlin's reliance on ghostwriters -- tells this story of his first appearance on the show. A bit nervous, Kinsley had amassed a considerable package of notes about each issue to keep on his lap during the taping. Upon discovering the crib notes, McLaughlin, who relies on his own set of notes, not to mention a teleprompter, mimicked the show's intro and thundered in mock-McLaughlin style: "Put those notes away right now! Don't you know this show is completely SPONTANEOUS AND UNREHEARSED?!"

It's hard to tell sometimes when John McLaughlin is serious and when he is making fun of himself being serious. On the set of the show one day, just minutes before the program began, McLaughlin screamed "WATER!" at the top of his lungs. Within seconds, a young assistant leaped over the set with a glass of water and plopped it next to the host. "Too late," McLaughlin cackled, and went back to what he was doing. As Richard Cohen observes, "His anger and his humor come out at the same decibel level. It's almost impossible to tell whether you're getting kidded or getting kicked."

McLaughlin's staff seemed to have some of the same confusion, but until Linda Dean's sexual harassment suit, few considered it a matter of public interest. McLaughlin drove his staff hard, but so what? When a man is riding high in Washington, a few personal "foibles" and "peccadilloes" are considered the price of getting things done.

Some of McLaughlin's former employees had no complaints. Mark Farris, who used to pick McLaughlin up in the morning and drive him home at night, says the office "was a great place to work." Tom Liddy, now a law student in New York, calls McLaughlin a "brilliant" and "inspiring" boss. Once, when Liddy came back for a visit during a three-week leave from the Marines, McLaughlin took him into the office, shut the door and said, "I understand you're free for three weeks. I want you to work here." Liddy protested. It was his only vacation and he would like to be able to spend some time with his family. McLaughlin replied, "Look, I really need you." Liddy gave in. His characterization of McLaughlin as "demanding, but not overly demanding" appears astonishingly generous, but, as he points out, "Don't forget, I was raised by Gordon Liddy."

The stories involving McLaughlin and the young women on his staff do not have such endearing punch lines. McLaughlin would toss personal insults at some of his female underlings, according to former staffers, telling them that they were "fat," "stupid" and "would be out on the street" were it not for him. It was the responsibility of one staffer to cut the pieces of his chicken sandwich into the right sizes and shapes. Former staffer Kara Swisher, now a reporter at The Washington Post, was once buzzed by McLaughlin and told to make toast. When she refused, McLaughlin called it "a very serious toast situation," and insisted -- seriously, according to Swisher -- "if I ask you to make toast and you don't do it, I can fire you."

One McLaughlin employee had the responsibility of arranging the pens and pads in McLaughlin's briefcase in exactly the order he preferred. "If one of the pens was out of place," the staffer said, "it was a national security emergency." All were expected to run, literally, into McLaughlin's office whenever he buzzed them, and he loved his buzzer. Once there, they were told where to stand, like bad schoolchildren, until dismissed.

The staff's basic attitude, says Anne Rumsey, a former employee and now a reporter for AP Radio, was that "yes, he was a lunatic, but he has this, this and this going for him, so I'll try to stick it out." Rumsey quit after only six weeks at the job, after McLaughlin asked her to walk him to the elevator, only to thunder, "I've been told that you spend a lot of time on the phone with your friends. Do you value your job?" While McLaughlin was reading Rumsey's resignation letter, she was out collecting his shirts.

But some of those who could not stick it out point to far more egregious offenses than simple petty tyranny. McLaughlin's past interviews are littered with strange philosophical musings about the relationship between power and sex. McLaughlin told one reporter: "Power as an experience is as intense as sex. Power is more pervasive and unremitting. Sex has periods of remission." Documents filed in the Dean suit, as well as interviews with former employees of McLaughlin's production company, Oliver Productions Inc., give the impression that power and sex were also inextricably intertwined in the mind and work habits of John McLaughlin.

When former office manager Linda Dean promulgated her now-settled lawsuit against McLaughlin, she filed a complaint with the court alleging that McLaughlin told her that he "needed a lot of sex" and that if she would stick by him, "he would take care of every material desire she had." McLaughlin, according to Dean, insisted that he "owned" her and on several occasions touched her "intimately and against her will." Dean, who was eventually fired -- because of her work performance, according to McLaughlin -- refuses to discuss the matter.

Dean's complaint also referred to the case of a female receptionist who, according to Dean, complained in a written statement to her employment agency that McLaughlin had "behaved improperly towards her by committing acts which the receptionist perceived to be sexual harassment." The receptionist, reached by telephone, refused to discuss the incident. McLaughlin denies these allegations.

A third female McLaughlin employee, Sharon T. Wulbern, also appears in the court record. Having read of Dean's suit in The Washington Post, Wulbern, according to a portion of her deposition included in the court record, said "quite a bit of my experience was similar to hers {Dean's}." She added, "I could not believe what I had read, how it was all the things I had been experiencing." According to her deposition, Wulbern's job was "dissolved" and she was given notice in January 1989. Wulbern, whose name is spelled three different ways in the court record, could not be reached for comment.

A fourth female former employee confirmed that McLaughlin made unwanted sexual advances toward her on more than one occasion. Both Kara Swisher and Tom Miller, a former issues consultant to McLaughlin, recall instances of McLaughlin "leering" at this woman, who asked that her name not be used, and making suggestive sexual comments to her. McLaughlin, according to the recollections of these same two employees, occasionally put his arm around the woman in a way that struck both of them as surprising and undesired.

McLaughlin also liked to make personal comments about his young female employees. Anne Rumsey recalls his telling her one day that her sweater was too tight. "I think that sexual harassment is like pornography," Swisher says. "You know it when you see it. People can tell you you look nice and there will be no menace to it. With John McLaughlin, there was menace."

Miller recalls McLaughlin's asking an employee whether she liked her sex rough. When an article appeared about a Supreme Court decision on sexual harassment, handed down during Miller's tenure on the job, he says he gave it to Beverly Larson, then a high-level staffer, to pass along to McLaughlin. The message, Miller says, was, "Whoa, pull back, fella. You've got some exposure here." Swisher says she met with Margaret Suzor, executive director of Oliver Productions, to complain of McLaughlin's alleged sexual harassment with no results. Suzor did not return repeated phone calls requesting information on this issue.

McLaughlin refuses to discuss any and all accusations about sexual harassment, except to deny those laid out in Dean's lawsuit, including the allegation that anyone in his office ever complained to him about alleged sexual harassment. A spokesman for General Electric, McLaughlin's current sponsor, calls it "a private matter." All of the "McLaughlin Group" members, past and present, claim never to have heard these allegations before reading them in the paper. Because the suit is no longer pending and court records were sealed, it is unlikely that the accusations will ever be given a full public airing.

WHILE MCLAUGHLIN HAS EARNED THE kind of grudging respect that comes with power and financial success in Washington, he has never been fully accepted as a member of its senior journalistic fraternity. The Dean suit has unavoidably affected McLaughlin's reputation, and even within "The Group," positive assessments of McLaughlin's character and journalistic talents are distinctly muted.

Germond says the only reason he gets along with McLaughlin is that "I have very little to do with the guy." Kondracke believes that McLaughlin has simply "gone in a different direction -- show business." Eleanor Clift, Newsweek's chief congressional correspondent and a new "Group" member, calls him a "showboater." Fred Barnes observes that "not getting along with John McLaughlin is no distinction." Of all the regulars, only Pat Buchanan calls McLaughlin "a friend."

McLaughlin's well-publicized recent feud with Robert Novak also won him few defenders. As Novak recalls it, after two years of friendly cooperation between the men, McLaughlin began to behave in a hostile and authoritarian manner. He would instruct his assistants to call Novak after every show to tell him he was talking too much; he would refuse to give Novak advance notice of the show's schedule and often, off camera, McLaughlin would cue Novak by literally thumbing his nose at him. Finally, in the summer of 1988, McLaughlin spontaneously combusted.

Needling McLaughlin about his chameleon-like political views, Novak accused McLaughlin on the air of tailoring his opinions to fit the contours of what might be a Democratic administration, given Michael Dukakis's then-strong standing in the polls. During a commercial break, McLaughlin exploded, turning "beet red in the face" and screaming at the top of his lungs, "VILE! VILE! VILE!" Novak said he expected McLaughlin to have a heart attack any minute. Germond, who is a longtime friend of Novak's, said to his buddy, "If you want to walk, I'm with you." McLaughlin managed to compose himself by the time the commercial break ended. The grateful Novak declined Germond's offer but left "The Group" to create his own McLaughlin-like show on CNN, "The Capitol Gang" -- hosted by the ubiquitous Buchanan.

Wall Street Journal bureau chief Al Hunt used to delight in running into McLaughlin while the two men were working out at the downtown YMCA. Hunt would concoct astronomical figures that he said his friend Novak was earning by giving speeches and the like. McLaughlin, Hunt says, would then turn red in the face and immediately repeat the numbers into his portable tape recorder.

As the ideological axis of the city has shifted from far-right Reaganism to respectable-right Bushism, so too has "The McLaughlin Group" slightly adjusted its course. McLaughlin himself is suddenly all over the political spectrum, observing one day that George Bush was "emerging as a political genius," while on another attacking liberal Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry for supporting Bush's invasion of Panama.

Meanwhile, in an attempt to reshuffle "The Group" to reflect the changing political tides, McLaughlin has replaced Novak with a combination of Barnes, a preppy Bush Republican, and Newsweek's Clift, a self-described liberal and a woman to boot.

This slight shift toward the center, however, has done little to moderate the show's jingoist orientation and its blatant disregard for nuance, complexity and often fact, and, in the end, may not be enough to preserve its currency in a rapidly shifting political world. The underlying values of "The Group," displayed in last July's special edition devoted to "watershed issues and events within the context of history," can be summarized as: America is good, foreigners are bad. We learned from Patrick Buchanan that the United States constitutes "the center of the world." Fred Barnes argued that "all the smart people and entrepreneurs are winding up in the U.S.," whereas "it is the Europeans that are going to be in trouble and, to a lesser extent, the Japanese in the 1990s." Morton Kondracke observed that "the more we know about the Japanese ways of living and Chinese and Korean, the less we like them. I mean, they're rigid, they're nasty, you know, they're still Confucian and all that."

The political sophistication of these statements was echoed by McLaughlin himself in a recent "McLaughlin" taping on CNBC. Discussing bilingualism with former Reagan aide Linda Chavez, McLaughlin suddenly became enraged by the fact that both the current and the former presidents of Mexico had spoken in their native language on his program, necessitating translation. "When are they going to get into the 20th century down there?" he demanded of the befuddled Chavez. "Don't you think that they should realize that they ought to be sufficiently cosmopolitan that when their head of state is visiting a neighbor that is English-speaking, he ought to speak English so that he can be understood? . . . Somebody should tell the president of Mexico that when he appears on American television, he should speak English."

An observer might be tempted to ask what right an American television host has to tell the president of Mexico what language he should use to conduct his interviews. But this would betray considerable naivete. A man with a television show, an audience and millions of corporate dollars behind him can tell just about anyone just about anything. Whether this will always be true for John McLaughlin, however, remains an open question.

Slowly, Washington is shifting away from the cold war agenda that sustained "The McLaughlin Group" in past years. A far more complicated, nonconfrontational world view is likely to replace it. Will McLaughlin be able, once again, to change with the prevailing political winds?

Don't bet against him.

During one hectic afternoon when all of Washington seemed to be calling "The McLaughlin Group," Kara Swisher asked him, "Why do so many people kowtow to you?" McLaughlin, she remembers, "got down really low on his desk, almost like he was a lizard," looked up at her and said, "They're all whores. Every one of them, they're all whores. And so am I. But I've got the TV show."

Eric Alterman is writing a book on Washington pundits for Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

The Boys and the Bucks

FAME AND RICHES ARRIVED TOGETHER FOR MEMBERS OF "The McLaughlin Group." Business organizations seeking light entertainment for their conventions and positive reinforcement for their political views would pay tens of thousands of dollars for a chance to rub elbows with those smart guys from their television sets. The only requirements, according to Washington agent Joe Cosby, who handles bookings for individual "McLaughlin Group" members, were to "be on television" and "be conservative." Popular pundits like William Safire or George Will can easily make $15,000 to $18,000 per speech.

The boys on "The McLaughlin Group" aren't quite in that league, but they command high enough fees that money matters, large and small, became a source of constant friction between the rest of the cast and John McLaughlin, who handles "Group" joint appearances through his agent, the Washington Speakers Bureau. Robert Novak, a former "Group" member, recalls an appearance in Memphis with Fred Barnes and McLaughlin in which all three men arrived at the airport at the same time. When they got to the parking lot, Barnes and Novak discovered that McLaughlin's office had arranged for the two of them to be allotted an old station wagon. McLaughlin rode alone in a chauffeur-driven stretch limousine. More significant was McLaughlin's complete unwillingness to divulge to the others just how much he personally made during their joint appearances. McLaughlin would usually pay each guest $2,500 for out-of-town trips and between $1,500 and $2,000 for local bookings. His refusal to divulge the size of his take infuriated Jack Germond, who discovered that at one appearance "The McLaughlin Group's" fee had been $18,000, leaving McLaughlin with more than three times the $2,500 he paid the other "Group" members who participated. Arguments between McLaughlin and Germond grew heated at times. According to one associate of both men, McLaughlin seemed "physically intimidated by Jack. I know it's a strange thing to say about a guy who is 6-3, but I don't get the impression that John had gotten into a lot of fights when he was younger." Violence was avoided, but Germond has since refused to do any more road shows.

Both McLaughlin and the public relations staff at General Electric, "The Group's" sponsor, refuse to reveal the amount of his contract, and the Washington Speakers Bureau will not divulge the fees McLaughlin makes from his speaking engagements.

Shooting From the Lip

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN JUSTIFIES THE FAST PACE AND SHOW business atmosphere of "The McLaughlin Group" on the grounds that he can extract "more preciseness, more brilliance" that way. Let's see how the theory holds up on the question of violence in El Salvador.

Last November, six Jesuit priests were murdered at the University of Central America in San Salvador by uniformed men, according to a witness to the killings, while the university was surrounded by the Salvadoran military during a curfew. Prior to the murders, the military had been issuing death threats for months against the priests.

When "The McLaughlin Group" aired two days after reports of the killings, the boys treated the priests' murders as if they were a natural disaster on the order of an earthquake, without any apparent roots in El Salvador's recent past. Morton Kondracke insisted, "You can either say it was the right-wing death squads, and that's what the Communists will say, and that's what the left wing in the United States will say, but it could have been the FMLN {Marxist-led guerrillas} itself in order to raise that kind of thing because they are desperate." McLaughlin concurred, saying, "To create the impression that it was the right wing." Germond said he doubted this, but his offhand point was lost.

In fact, among the "Communists" and American "left-wingers" who suspected the military was responsible were the Salvadoran president, Alfredo Cristiani, a rightist, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Bernard Aronson. Both men acknowledged almost immediately that members of the Salvadoran armed forces were the likely suspects in the killings. Subsequently, nine members of the army were arrested and charged in the murders. Most were members of the elite, U.S.-trained Atlacatl battalion. Four days after the show aired, an unsigned New Republic editorial written by Kondracke said that the Salvadoran military had "almost certainly" carried out the murders. When, in an interview, he was asked to defend his original statements, Kondracke explained that just four hours before the taping of the show, he had received a call from a friend telling him only that the priests had been killed. He did not then know the university had been surrounded by the army, he said, nor did he know that an eyewitness had seen uniformed men leave the scene of the crime. Previous to the arrests, Kondracke acknowledged that "I sort of hope, frankly, that it was the left that did it," because, Kondracke says, "the left in El Salvador is as murderous as the right."

Kondracke's comments offer an almost too-perfect example of "The McLaughlin Group's" approach to journalism and its effect on the American political dialogue. In this case, both he and McLaughlin found themselves being more partisan than the Bush administration -- even more partisan, it turned out, than the Salvadoran president.

Kondracke does not defend his statements on the basis of fact, only on the basis of his relative ignorance at the time he made them, two days before the show aired. Kondracke says he hopes he will ultimately be judged by what he writes in the New Republic, with its limited circulation, rather than what he says to millions of viewers on "The McLaughlin Group."

"I do my serious work in the New Republic," he insists. " 'McLaughlin' is fun and I enjoy it and I'm glad I do it and all that stuff, and it will help pay my kids' college tuition . . . but I would not want whatever I said on 'McLaughlin' to be on my tombstone."