If you want to get to know the Most Interesting Man in the White House Press World, then we have just the thing for you, my thirsty friends: the fascinating life and times of Les Kinsolving, as told through never-before-seen interview footage.
Many people don't know the name Les Kinsolving, and many of those who do only know him as that Birther from WorldNetDaily who once got Jake Tapper to say "bestiality" at a White House briefing, but there is much more to Les than meets the eye. Faithful Daily Banter readers will also recall that the White House correspondent from the ultra-conservative website is also an eloquent opponent of the death penalty, and a believer in a woman's right to choose abortion. That's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the conundrum that is Les Kinsolving, a man who has written himself in as a character in some of recent history's most compelling dramas. There are White House reporters who are more skilled, perhaps more respected, and certainly more well-known, but none who are nearly as interesting.
For the past few years, Les has become known for his frequently-hollered, frequently loaded questions at White House press briefings, and is generally regarded as just another colorful character in the Brady Briefing Room, but he has had a long, strange career. He was first to report on Jim Jones’ People’s Temple in 1972, long before that cult’s tragic end. Like a modern day Cassandra, Les tried to warn the world about Jones' cult, but was powerless to get anyone to listen. In our interview, Les talks about the haunting aftermath of the Jonestown massacre, an event which I believe solidified Kinsolving's certainty about his own contrary nature.
He ran into trouble in 1977 when it was reported that he received stock payments from the South African government while advocating against the anti-apartheid movement. The incident resulted in sanctions against Kinsolving, some of which he successfully appealed. Les doesn’t deny accepting payments, but maintains that his opposition to the anti-apartheid movement was rooted in their failure to seek sanctions against Idi Amin. That opposition, though, was marshaled by corporations who invited Les to speak at shareholders' meetings, in order to persuade them not to divest. On the other hand, as part of that effort, Les also managed to out a Nazi war criminal.
He’s also a staunch opponent of gay rights, a fact that I learned one day as I was leaving the White House with another reporter, The Advocate’s Kerry Eleveld. Les was leaving at the same time, and he asked us if we thought that marriage rights ought to be extended to polygamists and inter-species couples. In her book about her father, Kathleen Kinsolving traces Les’ antipathy toward gay people to an incident wherein “Grandpa Walton” actor Will Geer made a pass at a young Les while at a summer stock acting camp. In our second interview, Les talked about that encounter, as well as his skepticism about another famous birth. Although a longtime Episcopal minister, Les doesn't believe in the virgin birth of Jesus, and no long-form birth certificate is about to convince him.
Given his famously anti-gay views, it’s ironic that Les was a pioneer in AIDS awareness. Although it might not have been his intention, he exposed the Reagan administration’s ignorance of the disease early on with this 1982 exchange with Press Secretary Larry Speakes:
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.
That exchange came to characterize the Reagan White House's deadly reaction to the AIDS crisis, although Les himself was an advocate of quarantining AIDS patients.
Les has always been a fierce advocate for equal access for the press, and once even persuaded Ronald Reagan to select questioners for a presidential news conference via a lottery. When Les was selected, he put Reagan on the spot by equating abortion rights with contraception. No more lottery.
It was that advocacy, though, which led to my favorite Les Kinsolving moment of all time, what I like to think of as Les' "Rudy" moment. When Robert Gibbs was still press secretary, he was famous for spending about 90% of his briefings having a long, leisurely conversation with the front row, and basically ignoring everyone else. Les complained about this a lot, but one day, Gibbs thought he would toy with Les a little bit, and actually succeeded in annoying the man whose biography is a synonym for annoyance. The result, though, was triumphant applause for Les, and a near-revolt from reporters against Gibbs. In classic Les fashion, though, he completely erased the awesomeness of his first question with his second:
That exchange was something of a victory for Les, because Gibbs' successor, Jay Carney, was considerably more equitable with the distribution of questions, which would eventually lead Jake Tapper to bitterly grouse about bestiality at a Carney briefing.
Then, there's my second-favorite Les Kinsolving moment of all time, in which I uncharitably razzed him about President Obama's long-form birth certificate, and Les kind of surprised me with his response (special guest appearance by liberal radio icon Bill Press):
Kinsolving has lived several Forrest Gumps worth of history, and he isn't done yet. He hasn't been around the White House lately, a result of time catching up to him, but he's still going strong at WorldNetDaily.
For the first time ever, here are the full, unedited versions of my two full-length interviews with Les Kinsolving. Despite all of the fascinating details of his life, and his strong, eloquently-spoken opinions, the highlight of these interviews, for me, are the closing seconds of our first conversation. It's sad and fitting that a man who stands so firmly opposed to the marriages of so many others speaks so evocatively and mellifluously about the love of his own life, Sylvia:
February 26, 2010
June 9, 2010