Pat Buchanan is cramming. In the moments before the taping of "The McLaughlin Group," he's trying to etch some nifty quips and quotables into that conservative brain of his.
Jack Germond is perched in the corner of the "Group's" waiting room, filling out a cushy upholstered chair -- and the Daily Racing Form. Pre-show preparation is against his religion.
"What issues are we doing?" he asks, peering up from the newspaper.
"The budget is second," says Mr. Buchanan. "Iraq is first, Gorby's third, Madonna fourth."
"What's the story with Madonna, anyway?" asks Mr. Germond who, truth be told, isn't sure whether Madonna is a who or a what.
Fellow panelists Eleanor Clift and Fred Barnes explain that a bikini- and American-flag-clad Madonna has made a controversial get-out-the-vote TV ad.
Mr. Germond goes back to Split-Second in the fifth.
The four journalists move to their studio set where soon they'll be insulting each other, interrupting each other and bashing each other like a life-sized game of "whack-a-mole" -- Ms. Clift's metaphor for the spirited half-hour talk show.
But not until ringleader John McLaughlin makes his ceremonial entrance and ignites the caustic mixture. "Issue ONE!" the former Jesuit priest barks in his grand and histrionic pit-bull style. And the popular Saturday night talk show, the professional wrestling of public affairs programs, Washington's version of "Family Feud," is rolling.
If McLaughlin Group," in its ninth year, has become an institution here, the show's blustery 63-year-old creator and executive producer has become a sort of icon of popular culture. He has appeared on an episode of "Alf," and tonight will play himself on the anniversary episode of "Cheers."
He's the loud-mouth pontificator you love to hate. "He's a Cecil B. DeMille figure," says Newsweek's Ms. Clift. "Everything about him is larger than life."
"There's no question John is arrogant, overbearing, abrupt, obstreperous," says panelist Fred Barnes, senior editor at The New Republic. "But it works on television. . . . He makes the show go."
And, indeed, the "Group" is one of the highest rated public affairs talk shows. Broadcast on commercial networks in Washington, New York and Los Angeles and on 285 PBS stations, the show is so popular it's made celebrities out of its journalist panelists.
Mr. Barnes says his phone calls are returned regularly now. Ms. Clift says strangers frequently recognize her, or at least think they know her from somewhere. Evening Sun columnist Jack Germond can command thousands more for his lecture fees.
But if Mr. McLaughlin, or Dr. McLaughlin as he prefers to be called by his staff, has taken on the largest mantle of fame, it's been a controversial and not entirely viewer-friendly aura he's created.
In August 1988, he was sued for sexual harassment by Linda Dean, a former executive assistant at his Oliver Productions -- which produces "One on One" and the cable show "McLaughlin," as well as "The McLaughlin Group." She asked for $4 million; the suit was settled out of court later that year for an undisclosed amount.
Ms. Dean accused Mr. McLaughlin of telling her he "needed a lot of sex" and "needed a mistress," making physical advances toward her, and finally firing her because of her protests of sex discrimination and harassment.
Mr. McLaughlin, who has been married since 1975 to former Labor Secretary Ann Dore McLaughlin, has denied what he termed "bizarre and outrageous allegations." Asked about the suit and settlement, he stares in silence at a questioner for what feels like the length of a commercial break and then states, "I think that matter was the price of doing business."
Less disputed are tales of his authoritarian, some have said tyrannical, treatment of his staff -- everything from hurled insults to hurled ashtrays, says one former employee.
"He's a huge megalomaniac," says a former researcher. "A fascinating guy, but a horrible person to work for."
Admitting that in the past he has "erred" by bringing in young, inexperienced staffers, Mr. McLaughlin says, "The standards we have in the shop are very high. If you're going to maintain those standards, it requires a lot of effort. If a researcher gives me erroneous information and I utter it on the air, then that's serious -- and that has happened."
But underlings aren't the only ones who've had run-ins with Mr. McLaughlin, who's considered more show-biz personality than journalist by colleagues, even though he wrote a column for the conservative National Review for six years.
Mr. Germond, believing the host was receiving about three times as much as he and other panelists for out-of-town engagements, said he would no longer participate unless informed of the gross fee and how it was divided. He hasn't gone on a "Group" road show for several years.