Les Is More
The Long, Strange, and Maybe Even Meaningful Career of a Right-Wing Media Gadfly
White House press briefing, July 26, 2005
Les Kinsolving: Scott, when the Rev. Jesse Jackson admitted that he fathered a child out of wedlock, the president, as you remember, telephoned him after this admission. And since Karin Stanford, the mother in this case, has just stated, “I was attacked by friends, strangers in the black press, without mercy, and labeled by them a political stalker, gold digger, and opportunist,” will the president now telephone Jesse’s victim, as he did Jesse?
White House spokesman Scott McClellan: I appreciate your question, Les, and I don’t have—
Kinsolving: You appreciate the question?
Kinsolving: Do you think I could appreciate an answer?
McClellan: Les, I don’t think it’s worthy of an answer. (to another reporter) Go ahead.
Other Reporter: Thank you.
Kinsolving: You don’t think it’s worthy of an answer?
McClellan: Because your characterization is not accurate. (to another reporter) Go ahead.
Kinsolving: It’s not? How is it inaccurate?
McClellan: (to another reporter) Go ahead.
The Yale University Precision marching band takes the field. So does Les Kinsolving. He aims his microphone into the mouth of the nearest trumpet, determined to capture the opening bars of “Boola, Boola,” the New Haven, Conn., school’s fight song. As the music strikes up, there’s no visible reaction from the small crowd of Yale football supporters huddled deep in the visitors’ bleachers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field. Nor are there many jeers from the assembled Quakers in the bleachers opposite. The steady, cold rain falling over Philadelphia appears to have dampened spirits—and minimized attendance—at the 73rd meeting of this once venerable Ivy League contest.
The weather has no effect on Kinsolving’s spirits, however. When the Yale band fans out in formation across the Astroturf, the 77-year-old Baltimore talk radio host races after them, jumping from horn to tuba to snare drum, all the while cradling the portable tape recorder slung round his neck. He conducts the same fleet-footed recording of the opening set of the Penn marching band.
“He must be somebody important,” Mike Shute observes from the sidelines. A huge black umbrella protects Shute, time-out coordinator for a local cable TV network broadcasting today’s game; the remainder of his crew is safely ensconced in the press box jutting out 100 feet above the gridiron. As a soaked Kinsolving marches off the field moments later, he gives his sheltered colleagues in the air a withering glare.
“They don’t care,” he says. “They don’t give a damn about the abundant color!”
He scurries aside as a group of red-and-blue clad girls jog onto the warning track. “We’re being overwhelmed by cheerleaders,” he cries joyously. Then he assembles his face back into stern-reporter mode. “OK, let’s go.”
Only halfway up the dozens of steep, slippery steps to the press box does Kinsolving make any concession to the heart attack and triple-bypass open-heart surgery he survived in January. He halts midascent, hand over heart, and pays his respects to the national anthem while catching his breath.
Kinsolving spends the rest of the game in a corner of the dingy press area, noting significant plays on a legal pad and occasionally whooping with delight whenever Penn makes a big play. Two days later, he will open another week of his nightly two-hour Uninhibited Radio talk show on WCBM (680 AM) with a four-minute report of this game, one of six Ivy League and service-academy football games Kinsolving covers every year. “Wow! Wow! This is going to be a slaughter!” he shouts after the Quakers score the second of their three touchdowns in the first quarter. Not that Kinsolving is rooting for his alma mater, mind you.
“I am impartial,” he says.
Lester Kinsolving, impartial? The notorious right-wing gadfly of the White House press corps, who has badgered every president and press secretary since Richard Nixon with nakedly biased and sometime bizarre queries (“What does the president think about muskrat love?”), and whose interrogatory style CNN’s Wolf Blitzer recently described as “a lengthy statement, usually designed to score a political point, packaged as a question”?
Indeed, the claim of journalistic neutrality does not withstand scrutiny. “Oh, I have to admit,” Kinsolving sighs seconds later, “there’s an edge toward Penn. But I do like Yale, they’re very colorful.” (Penn will win today, but Yale leads the series 43-28-1.)
Kinsolving may decry his journalist colleagues’ disinterest in the abundant color of quaint Ivy League athletics, but no one will accuse the media of ignoring the color Kinsolving has injected into White House press briefings during the last 30 years. The Baltimore host is practically a Washington institution (or at least a permanent sideshow), profiled over the years in dozens of newspaper and magazine articles. His White House questions have been featured as comic relief on MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, and Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. And it’s safe to say that after the names of most of his mainstream media colleagues are forgotten, Kinsolving’s will be remembered—for the priest’s collar he wore to press conferences in the 1970s and the trademark red coat that replaced it in the 1980s; for the wacky questions he’s hurled at beleaguered press secretaries and the rubber chicken famously lobbed back at him in 1978 by State Department spokesman Hodding Carter, who cried out in exasperation, “You have plucked me enough!”
What may well get lost amid the clippings are Kinsolving’s more meaningful contributions to journalism. As a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner in the early 1970s, the former Episcopal priest and current Anglican minister was the first to investigate and call attention to the Rev. Jim Jones and the People’s Temple cult, five years before more than 900 People’s Temple followers died in the 1978 Jonestown massacre in Guyana. His 1982 demands for a White House response to an emerging “gay plague” first revealed the extent of the Reagan administration’s dismissive reaction to—and apparent ignorance of—the AIDS epidemic. This exchange, between Kinsolving and Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, Larry Speakes, was unearthed at the Reagan Presidential Library and published by science writer Jon Cohen in his 2001 book, Shots in the Dark: The Wayward Search for an AIDS Vaccine:
Les Kinsolving: Larry, does the president have any reaction to the announcement—the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?
Larry Speakes: What’s AIDS?
Kinsolving: Over a third of [the victims] have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” (laughter) No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the president is aware of it?
Speakes: I don’t have it. Do you? (laughter)
Kinsolving: No, I don’t.
Speakes: You didn’t answer my question.
Kinsolving: Well, I just wondered, does the president—
Speakes: How do you know? (laughter)
Kinsolving: In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?
Speakes: No, I don’t know anything about it, Lester.
Kinsolving: Does the president, does anybody in the White House know about this epidemic, Larry?
Speakes: I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s been any—
Kinsolving: Nobody knows?
Speakes: There has been no personal experience here, Lester.
Kinsolving: No, I mean, I thought you were keeping—
Speakes: I checked thoroughly with [Reagan’s personal physician] Dr. Ruge this morning, and he’s had no—(laughter)—no patients suffering from AIDS or whatever it is.
Though Kinsolving was at least in part motivated in his questions by his unabashed disgust for homosexuality—attacking the civil-rights claims of “the sodomy lobby” remains a favorite theme of his White House questions—Cohen believes the talk-show host deserves credit for his inquisition of Speakes.
“Lester Kinsolving was right—he was exactly right to raise the issue, and the White House’s behavior was appalling,” Cohen says. “It was shockingly crass, and really let the mask fall down and show how little both Reagan and his staff cared about this. . . . I think [Kinsolving] was rightfully proud of it. He was ahead of the pack. And I think his dogged questions are exactly what somebody had to do.”
After four decades of such White House interrogations, Kinsolving openly wonders whether time has finally mellowed him. His health is still robust, but his memory is starting to fade, and with it some of his lust for political blood. “I think I have less of a yearning to fight with people,” he said recently before going on the air at WCBM’s Pikesville studios. But Kinsolving’s most important fight—for his journalistic legacy—may still be ahead of him. It is already being waged on his behalf by two of his children, Tom and Kathleen, who want their father to be remembered not for his color, but for his courage.
“I don’t agree with a lot of things that he’s done, but I can’t tell you how proud I am of him of standing up to Jim Jones,” says self-identified liberal Kathleen Kinsolving, 45, by phone from Novato, Calif., where she is an elementary-school teacher. “I’m so proud I want to weep. And he did it really by himself. That makes up for anything that I’ve disagreed with him on.”
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Kinsolving was a prominent member of the mainstream media in one of its most left-leaning markets. His Examiner column, “Inside Religion”—begun in 1966 at the competing San Francisco Chronicle—was syndicated in newspapers across the country. “Yes, I was part of the liberal media,” he sighs.
His liberal credentials were sterling, in fact. While attending the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, Calif., he had been a prison chaplain at San Quentin Prison and an opponent of capital punishment. In the early 1960s he devoted himself to various progressive and church causes, including a stint with the California Committee for Therapeutic Abortion, a campaign agitating for the liberalization of abortion laws. In 1965 he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., carrying the California flag. (He is still anti-death penalty and pro-choice, as well as in favor of doctor-assisted suicide.)
But by 1972, Kinsolving had already lost his passion for the radical liberalism of Berkeley, where he was raising his family. A mandatory busing program designed to promote racial integration meant that his children were ordered to attend ill-managed schools in poor black neighborhoods. “It was an experiment that failed miserably,” recalls son Tom Kinsolving, 48, who was in elementary school at the time. “I was abused because I was white. There was all this reverse racism.”
In September of that year, the Examiner published the first four stories of an eight-part Kinsolving investigation into a charismatic preacher in the Northern California town of Ukiah who claimed he could raise the dead, and whose devoted followers believed he was God. Kinsolving’s fourth story about Jim Jones, headlined “Probe Asked of People’s Temple,” raised questions about a suspicious suicide by Temple member Maxine Harpe. The morning that article was published, the Examiner’s downtown offices were picketed by 150 People’s Temple members.
According to an account of the demonstration written in 1998 by Tom and Kathleen—and confirmed by their father—Kinsolving watched the picketers from inside the Examiner newsroom. At the suggestion of his editor, Tom Eastham, Kinsolving then went downstairs to confront his accusers, who were carrying signs that read this paper has lied and this is invasion of privacy of religious services. But rather than interview the protesters, Kinsolving borrowed a hat from a police officer and took up a mock collection. “We’re passing the hat, ladies and gentlemen,” the reporter called out, “an opportunity for sweet charity to come out from amongst you.”
Kinsolving’s performance was captured by cameras from KRON-TV, a station owned by the San Francisco Chronicle. KRON’s coverage of the controversy put Kinsolving’s theatrics at the center of the story on that evening’s broadcast. “The news editors took footage of Kinsolving commenting on Jones’ hypocrisy, enlarging the reporter’s face and freeze-framing it as the volume of his voice was turned into a high-pitched shriek,” the Kinsolving children write in their account. “The special effects then dissolved into Jim Jones quietly seated in a chair [in the television studio], answering questions with angelic aplomb.”
The next day, Kinsolving received a note from Examiner publisher Charles Gould chastising the reporter: “You did not show charity, compassion, or consideration when you harangued the peaceful, picketing parishioners seeking a collection. You seemed to be playing the role of bully and bigot.” The Examiner, also facing a lawsuit threat from the People’s Temple, killed the rest of Kinsolving’s stories and ran a more flattering portrayal of Jones four days later.
Kinsolving makes no apologies for his behavior that day. “I thought they should be made fun of,” he says, bristling at the suggestion that his antics were inappropriate for a journalist, or may have impugned the credibility of his reporting. “I thought they were an incredible cult. I think they deserved mocking!” He believes, as do his children, that his newspaper bowed to legal threats and political correctness, and that the price for such journalistic pusillanimity was the lives of more than 900 people murdered in Guyana in 1978. Nowhere in its lengthy 1998 coverage of the 20-year anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre did the Examiner mention its former reporter’s foresighted investigation into Jim Jones.
Kinsolving didn’t climb the journalistic ladder through the conventional steps of rising from smaller papers to a big-city daily and, therefore, had not been indoctrinated into newsroom ethics of impartiality. Before being hired by the Chronicle in 1966, the priest’s only significant media experience was a stint as assistant editor of The Pacific Churchman, the monthly newspaper of the Episcopal Diocese of California. But he says he so enjoyed the prospect of a “secular ministry” that he pitched a religion column to the Chronicle’s managing editor, Gordon Pates, offering to submit several sample entries as a “tryout.” Impressed by Kinsolving’s pluck and the priestly imprimatur of the would-be journalist, Pates accepted the trial offer. Thirteen weeks later, Kinsolving was hired as both columnist and reporter on the religion beat.
A meticulous scrapbooker, Kinsolving has saved all his clippings and correspondence in bulging leather volumes, which he stores at his Vienna, Va., home. Among the articles he produced for the Chronicle in 1966 were columns about the abortion debate, the ethics of cryogenic freezing, tax exemption for churches, a unionization drive among Episcopal clergy, pornography, and racial prejudice in the Mormon faith. Despite the controversial nature of his subjects, Kinsolving’s early columns are largely circumspect in tone, rarely betraying the author’s own position. (He did lash out against the dangers of an “ultraconservative coup” in the Episcopal Church in a lengthy 1967 essay in the leftist Nation magazine.)
By 1972, however, the column had become increasingly tendentious in tone, and reflected Kinsolving’s own rightward shift in opposition to religious reformist movements that were agitating for ordination of women and for gay rights. He says the People’s Temple episode of that year left him permanently embittered by the “liberal media,” and a year later he left the Examiner to take a less prestigious assignment as Washington correspondent for a quartet of papers in Wyoming and Idaho. Shortly after arriving in Washington in 1973, Kinsolving was hired by WAVA-FM and continued a radio career begun at San Francisco’s KCBS-FM from 1968 to 1971. He quickly acquired a reputation around D.C. for asking the White House questions his more circumspect colleagues wouldn’t touch.
Former Richard Nixon aide and conservative politician/pundit Pat Buchanan recently told MSNBC’s Hardball host, Chris Matthews, that Kinsolving was one of the Nixon administration’s harshest interrogators in press briefings, despite Kinsolving’s having voted for Nixon in 1972. “He was tremendously tough on Nixon during Watergate,” Buchanan said, “and tough on all of those guys, asking some of the hardest questions.”
Kinsolving was at least as interested in moral corruption as in the political kind, demanding press secretary Ron Ziegler explain why Nixon had discontinued White House worship services and stopped attending church, and later asking Jimmy Carter what the president’s policies were toward staffers who “were promiscuously with other women.” (Carter smiled and assured Kinsolving that the president would pray for anyone who had “slipped from grace.”)
“Usually, in briefings, reporters aren’t working on what their own issues are,” says Towson University political science professor Martha Joynt Kumar, whose research focuses on relations between the White House and the press. “What they’re dealing with is news, so I guess you have a different kind of motivation for [Kinsolving]. His news interests are his personal interests. His personal interests shape his news interests.”
Because one of Kinsolving’s pet causes has long been support for abortion, he has asked presidents since Nixon whether life begins at conception. It’s a commonplace question now, given the centrality of abortion in the country’s culture wars, but Kinsolving broached the subject when it was still considered an indelicate inquiry.
Kumar believes that Kinsolving’s reputation as an eccentric may have actually allowed Ford’s press secretary to sidestep the abortion question. “I think he was one of the only ones asking it,” she says. “And partially because he had kind of taken that area, other [reporters] didn’t go into it, I think that let . . . press secretary [Ron Nessen] off for a while.”
“I thought the usual questions were as dull as dead ditch water,” Kinsolving says of the days when he still wore his priest’s collar to press briefings and was nicknamed the “Mad Monk” by fellow reporters. His questions may have made him a “leper” among his colleagues, as he told The Washington Post in 1980, but they also made him a hit with radio listeners in the days before shock jocks were commonplace. In the early 1980s, Kinsolving’s radio commentaries were heard throughout Virginia, and in Philadelphia and New York.
He never gave up on print, however, continuing until 1986 the syndicated religion column that reflected his transformation from “low church” populism to his current preference for “high church” traditionalism. (In 1978 he left the mainline Episcopal church and joined a breakaway Anglican denomination.) From 1976 to 1980 Kinsolving also edited the right-leaning weekly tabloid Washington Weekly. He still writes several columns a week for WorldNetDaily, a conservative web site.
But whatever claim to mainstream respectability he acquired during his newspaper days was lost when in 1977 the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus reported that Kinsolving had accepted in the previous two years $2,500 worth of corporate stocks from a lobbyist hired by the South African government to bolster the public image of the apartheid regime. The stock payments—Kinsolving calls them “lecture fees”—enabled the journalist/clergyman to defend public corporations doing business in South Africa at shareholder meetings where anti-apartheid church groups were likely to demonstrate. Pincus also reported that in 1975 Kinsolving had traveled to South Africa on a press junket paid for by the South African government (travel payments Kinsolving had earlier disclosed when writing about the trip).
These revelations led to Kinsolving’s press credentials being revoked in 1977 by the State Department Correspondents Association, gatekeeper to department news briefings, and to a rare reprimand from the Standing Committee of Correspondents, a journalist-managed body that administers the congressional press galleries. (According to committee rules, members of the gallery “must not be engaged in any lobbying or paid advocacy, advertising, publicity, or promotion work for any individual, political party, corporation, organization, or agency of the U.S. government.”) The Standing Committee also voted to deny Kinsolving’s application for reaccreditation.
Kinsolving has never denied accepting the stock payments, but says he was never told by the lobbyist what to say, and was therefore not engaged in “paid advocacy.” His defense of South Africa was not in support of the racially discriminatory policy of apartheid, he argues, but against what he believed was the hypocrisy of the anti-apartheid movement, which lobbied for U.S. sanctions against the white South African government, but not against black Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, who was at the same time slaughtering thousands of his own black citizens.
Kinsolving appealed the decision of the Standing Committee to the Senate Rules Committee. The dispute finally ended in 1978 when Kinsolving was reaccredited for admission to the congressional press galleries after agreeing to abide by gallery rules and accept no further payments from lobby groups or foreign governments. Kinsolving never admitted any wrongdoing and he characterizes his readmission as a “win.”
His cause was supported by a few of his media peers—notably CBS diplomatic correspondent Marvin Kalb, who resigned from the State Department press group in protest—but by then the damage had been done. News of the dispute was covered nationally, and Kinsolving was branded as a defender of apartheid, a racist policy he says he has always opposed. In 1977, he was derisively described in the Post, in an unrelated story, as a “part-time journalist, part-time priest, and part-time South Africa apologist.”
“I felt very lonely, I really felt very awful,” Kinsolving’s wife, Sylvia, says of the period, recalling being shunned by friends and neighbors. “I think that was the worst time. It’s just very isolating when he gets criticized like that.”
Abandoned by most of his colleagues in the mainstream media, Kinsolving also isolated himself, lashing out at the press as often as he did politicians with whom he disagreed. He used his ownership of a handful of shares of the Washington Post Co. to gain access to shareholder meetings, where he would berate publisher Katharine Graham with criticisms of its “left-wing” editorial policies—and force the Post to cover him doing so.
Kinsolving maintains he has no regrets about his alienation from the mainstream. Indeed, his transformation from liberal newspaperman to conservative radio prankster was also, in many ways, a return to his roots. And judging by his longevity on the air, it’s a milieu in which he’s far more comfortable.
Humilis humilibus/ Inflectens Arrogantibus—“Humble to the Humble/ Inflexible to the Arrogant.”
Kinsolving ends each of his nightly broadcasts with this, the Kinsolving family motto. Then comes a flourish of his left hand—bearing a gold ring inscribed with the Kinsolving crest—which signals producer Marc Quist to fade into the final measures of the West Point graduation march, which includes the tune to “Auld Lang Syne.”
Kinsolving is as reverential before the memory of his storied Virginia family as he is irreverent at the White House. He traces his line to an indentured servant with the surname “Kinvig,” who settled in the Virginia Colony around 1620. The first Charles in the line, Charles Consolver of Charlottesville, was killed in action under George Washington at the 1781 Battle of Cowpens. Thereafter followed a family tradition of announcing their patriotism in their Christian names. George Washington Kinsolving, Lester’s great-great-grandfather, was the sheriff of Virginia’s Albemarle County and noted FOJ (Friend of Jefferson). His son, Ovid Americus Kinsolving, named his six daughters so that when abbreviated their names would pay tribute to the state that had played host to the family’s peculiarly American rise from indentured servitude to slave-owning tobacco farmers. (The girls were christened Virginia, Virtruria, Virbilina, Vienna, Vespucia, and Volusia.) Ovid Americus was also the first of 12 Kinsolving Episcopalian clergy.
Charles Lester Kinsolving belongs to the last generation of Kinsolving clergyman, and is the last Charles in his immediate family. He was born in 1927 in Manhattan where he was trouble right from the start. “I was a very large baby,” he says, nearly 10 pounds. His first five years were spent at West Point, where his father was chaplain to the Corps of Cadets. In 1933, the family moved to Long Island when his father was appointed dean of the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City. Theirs was a politically progressive home in a Republican stronghold; Kinsolving’s father was one of a dozen New York clergy to come out in favor of legalization of contraceptives, and his mother worked at birth-control clinics in New York established by Margaret Sanger.
At age 12, Kinsolving was dispatched to Episcopal High School, a private boarding school in Alexandria, Va., where he quickly developed a reputation as a troublemaker. “I got an awful lot of demerits,” he says, which he would work off in study hall by writing four columns of 40 four-syllable words. (“That’s where I learned to write so fast.”) It was also at Episcopal that Kinsolving got his first taste of gadfly journalism, when he penned the gossip column for the student Monthly Chronicle. “Almost everything I wrote caused a stir, because I dealt in controversy,” he recalls. “Controversy, you see,” he adds, “is something that means a great deal to a lot of people.”
Kinsolving was neither studious nor politically active at Episcopal and joined the Army after high school. The Second World War ended months after Kinsolving enlisted in the field artillery branch, and he was honorably discharged. At the University of Pennsylvania he returned to his hell-raising ways.
“This guy stole the goat from Navy,” exclaimed Penn ’51 classmate Bernie Lemonick while introducing Kinsolving to a luncheon reunion of football players from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s before the recent Penn-Yale game. “This guy stole the lion from Columbia! And this guy took from Princeton their tiger!”
Actually, he didn’t steal the Princeton tiger, just defaced it. But it was that last escapade that finally got Kinsolving suspended from the football team, where he had served as a “meatball,” or human punching bag, on the practice squad. Kinsolving dropped out of college two years before graduation, stopping on his way to California for two years in Phoenix, where his father was now the Episcopal bishop. There, Kinsolving played one last secular prank before embarking on the family career as clergyman.
“He was doing some advertising work in Phoenix, where they had a rodeo parade,” recalls younger brother William “[Lester] had a client, a local Chevrolet dealer, and he thought, How can I get attention paid to this guy, this Chevrolet dealer? And so in this rodeo parade, which was mainly about Indians and cowboys, Lester trucked in an elephant and had some very pretty girl get on the elephant and ride this thing with a sign about Chevrolets. That kind of thing impresses a young, impressionable brother.”
It is this combination of nostalgia for tradition and delight in rebellion that may best explain Kinsolving’s enduring appeal. His on-air “special reports” often attend to the prurient interests of his listeners, but they are delivered in the stentorian boom of a latter-day Walter Winchell. Kinsolving is a thorn in the side of the White House (or “gnat,” as Jimmy Carter’s press secretary Jody Powell put it), but he is disarmingly gracious both on-air and off-, referring even to callers who excoriate him as “dear friend,” and urging them to call back and fight with him again. At an especially contentious recent White House briefing, in which Scott McClellan was repeatedly berated by reporters for being evasive and unhelpful, Kinsolving called out “We love you, Scott!” at the end—even though McClellan had earlier refused to “dignify” Kinsolving’s questions (about the “homosexual lobby,” naturally) with an answer.
When asked if it has been hard to be married to “Loopy” Les Kinsolving (as Sun columnist Dan Rodricks sometimes refers to him), wife Sylvia says she feels lucky to have made such a match. “He can be very sweet and demonstrative with words,” says the Berkeley Democrat, as Kinsolving refers to his liberal wife when they have their semifrequent on-air debates. “He tells me he loves me and that I’m beautiful. I don’t think I am really anymore, if I was once. A lot of spouses don’t have that, and I’m very grateful for that. I’m grateful for his brilliance, and I’m proud of it. I’m proud to be out with him.” She pauses. “Except when he gets on the gay issues. I tell him not to talk about that.”
Kinsolving laughs moments later when told that his wife would prefer he refrain from referring to homosexuals as “sodomists.” “I will not,” he thunders. “It’s a long-established word, and I think probably ‘sodomy’ is a little bit easier to use with a wide audience than the word ‘buggery.’” He raises one eyebrow. “Don’t you?”
Fifteen years ago, Washington City Paper ran a profile of Kinsolving titled “Lester’s Last Mission,” at a time when it appeared that the then-62-year-old journalist’s peripatetic career had arrived at a dead end. His last employer, a regional radio network called Maryland State Network, was being prosecuted by the state for securities fraud, prompting Kinsolving to resign on the air and distance himself from the scandal. He had jumped to Maryland State Network in 1988 after three years at Glen Burnie-based WFBR-AM, when that station dropped its talk format. For the first time in six presidential administrations, Kinsolving was without a microphone.
After several months without a job, Kinsolving agreed to work as a part-time commentator with WPGC-AM, a low-power, daytime-only business news station in Lanham. The future did not look bright.
True to form, shortly after the Washington City Paper story was published, Kinsolving turned up on the radio again, at Pikesville’s WCBM (local home to conservative radio powerhouse Sean Hannity), where he bounced around the schedule for several years before settling into the 8-10 p.m. slot two years ago.
When he hears that Kinsolving is still going strong in Baltimore, the author of the 1990 profile laughs. “He’s like a bad penny,” says Randall Bloomquist, now the program director of a talk radio station in Atlanta. “He keeps turning up.”
Talk radio has boomed over the past 20 years, especially combative right-wing talk. While Kinsolving may not break any new journalistic ground or command many listeners at the relatively small WCBM, he may have found an ideal fit for what he does. Uninhibited Radio mixes Kinsolving’s White House questions (he still attends every single noon press briefing when the president is in Washington), his “special report” commentaries, and rambling conversations with callers, many of whom are longtime regulars. Though Kinsolving broadcasts four nights a week from a small studio in his Virginia home and hasn’t lived in Maryland for 50 years, he always incorporates plenty of local material into his program. William Donald Schaefer, Kurt Schmoke, and Martin O’Malley have all fielded Kinsolving questions at press conferences; senators Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski are fondly nicknamed by him, respectively, “St. Paul the Appalling” and “Baby Bella Abzug.”
He rolls out much of the same conservative invective as more widely heard talkers—he often rails against obscenity and preaches family values, and he heaped scorn on the recent Millions More March, going so far as to imitate Louis Farrakhan reading his keynote speech. Like other conservative talk hosts, Kinsolving filters everything from the Harriet Miers Supreme Court nomination (he was opposed, owing to Miers’ suspected anti-abortion leanings) to laws designed to limit pit bull terrier ownership and breeding in Prince George’s County (he was in favor) through his idiosyncratic lens. But his show nonetheless stands out in one key way. “Les is very kind to his audience,” WCBM general manager Bob Pettit says. “He doesn’t insult them and he lets them speak and he almost always thanks them for calling.”
Pettit says about 15,000 people tune during each two-hour Uninhibited Radio show, or about 3 percent of the households listening to radio in WCBM’s broadcast area. By comparison, fellow WCBM talker Tom Marr has a smaller share of his 9 a.m. to noon time slot but nearly triple Kinsolving’s listeners. But Kinsolving broadcasts at an hour that engenders audience loyalty, Pettit says: “At night, particularly when people are alone, they’re looking to Les for companionship.”
Companionship is also Kinsolving’s gift from his listeners. “I get a great deal of companionship from my listeners, and many of them go back a number of years,” he says. “I really cherish these listeners. I’m very deeply devoted to them, even the ones that chew me up.”
Kinsolving says he has no intention to retire anytime soon. The January heart attack forced him to examine his mortality, but he says he was happy to discover as he was going into surgery that he had no personal fear of dying. And when death should come, Kinsolving says, he’d like to meet his maker at 9:59 p.m. on a weeknight, immediately after reciting the Kinsolving motto to his listeners.
“If I had a choice in the matter, I really would like to finish it with the ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ Yes, that’s a very dramatic thing,” he acknowledges with a smile. “But I like dramatics.”
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