The Washington Post Sunday
Lester Kinsolving, once an Episcopal priest, became a conservative radio host and White House gadfly.
The Rev. Lester Kinsolving always knew how to attract attention. He began his career in advertising and public relations before turning to other forms of persuasion: He was, at various times, an Episcopal priest, an investigative reporter, a nationally syndicated religion columnist, a gadfly White House correspondent and a longtime conservative radio talk-show host.
Rev. Kinsolving, who was perhaps best known in Washington for his pesky, outlandish questions at White House news conferences and for voicing his ultraconservative views for 28 years on Baltimore’s WCBM-AM (680), died Dec. 4 at his home in Vienna, Va. He was 90.
He had heart ailments and complications from dementia, members of his family said.
Rev. Kinsolving was a pesky presence at the White House for 40 years, getting under the skin of press secretaries dating to the administration of President Richard M. Nixon. Before he was defrocked by the Episcopal Church, he wore a clerical collar to White House briefings and was dubbed the “Mad Monk.” He later switched to a red blazer, but in any outfit, he was loud, tall and persistent.
“If you live in south Georgia, you got gnats,” President Jimmy Carter’s press secretary Jody Powell once said. “If you work in the White House press office, you got Lester.”
Under the credentials of a variety of small news organizations — a group of newspapers in Idaho and Wyoming, obscure magazines, news syndicates, local radio stations — Rev. Kinsolving became one of the back-of-the-room regulars at White House briefings, along with Sarah McClendon, Connie Lawn and Naomi Nover. His questions were provocative, offbeat and vaguely suggestive.
“They are uniformly bizarre, wild, off-the-wall, and utterly entertaining,” Mike McCurry, White House press secretary under President Bill Clinton, once said.
“How does the president stand on polygamy?” Rev. Kinsolving shouted at Jay Carney, President Barack Obama’s press secretary.
Rev. Kinsolving’s questions were dodged by Republicans and Democrats alike, yet at times, he brought up issues ignored by others. He was no friend of the gay rights movement, but in 1982, he was the first journalist to ask how the Reagan White House planned to respond to the AIDS epidemic.
“Lester, by his mannerisms, can be an irritant,” Ron Nessen, President Gerald R. Ford’s press secretary, told The Washington Post in 1981, “but in my experience he often asked important questions on important issues long before other people realized they were important.”
At times, Rev. Kinsolving’s opinion columns were carried by as many as 200 newspapers and 50 magazines. He began to appear on talk radio in the 1970s, first on WAVA-AM in Arlington, Va., and he invariably described his freewheeling shows as “uninhibited radio.” (His vanity license plate read “UNINHIB.”)
“I love this so much,” he told The Post in 1986, “that I almost feel sinful for taking money for it.”
Rev. Kinsolving’s once-liberal views — he had marched in the South with Martin Luther King Jr. — hardened into knee-jerk conservatism, with a few notable exceptions: He opposed the death penalty and was a staunch supporter of abortion rights.
Talkers magazine, which covers the talk-radio business, once named Rev. Kinsolving one of the 100 “most important radio talk show hosts in America” — out of more than 4,000. He was a fixture on Baltimore’s WCBM from 1990 until he retired in April.
“You cannot survive two years or 10 years or 18 years, let alone 28 years, on a radio station if you are not attracting an audience,” Bob Newman, a public relations executive and longtime talk-radio observer, said in an interview. “In addition to being a journalist, he was one of the first who understood that talk radio was an entertainment medium.”
Rev. Kinsolving believed his questions at the White House, his opinions on the air — and his ever-present impertinence — served a higher purpose.
“Journalism is my ministry,” he told The Post in 1981. “I’m going to ask the questions I think are important and anybody who doesn’t like it can take a long walk off a short pier.”
Charles Lester Kinsolving was born Dec. 18, 1927, in New York City. His family was said to have produced more Episcopal clergymen than any other in the country. His father, a onetime chaplain at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., was later the Episcopal bishop of Arizona. His grandfather, a cousin and a greatuncle also were bishops.
Young Lester attended Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va., and joined the Army during World War II at age 17. He later worked in advertising and public relations and, despite lacking a college degree, graduated from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, Calif. He was ordained in 1955. One of his mentors was James Pike, a liberal bishop who was charged with heresy by the church.
Rev. Kinsolving served as chaplain at San Quentin Prison in California and at parishes in several states. In 1957, he delivered a sermon in which he called the concept of hell a “damnable doctrine — responsible for a large measure of the world’s hatred.”
He was denounced by Episcopal officials, and his church in Pasco, Wash., was torched. He soon grew disillusioned by a growing liberalism in society and the Episcopal Church and lost his priestly privileges after joining a breakaway conservative group.
In 1966, Rev. Kinsolving began writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, and his syndicated religion column reached 250 papers. At the San Francisco Examiner in 1972, he was among the first journalists to expose the Peoples Temple cult of Jim Jones, who died with more than 900 of his followers in a mass suicide in Guayana in 1978.
Rev. Kinsolving’s survivors include his wife of 64 years, Sylvia Crockett Kinsolving of Vienna; three children, Laura Abate of Santa Margarita, Calif., Tom Kinsolving of Vienna and Kathleen Kinsolving of Herndon, Va.; a brother; and three grandchildren.
In 2002, Rev. Kinsolving asked White House spokesman Ari Fleischer to comment on a website on which 18 women called themselves “Fleischer’s Floozies.”
“Surely you would not be so unchivalrous as to dismiss these adoring ladies with either a ‘no comment’ or an evasion, would you, Ari?” he said.
Fleischer replied, “All I can tell you, Les, is if it’s a website for 18 women, you should not be on it.”