Lester Kinsolving, a former Episcopal priest and member of the White House press corps, is known to his fellow journalists as the Mad Monk. Not too many newsmen like him; even fewer take him seriously. For eight years, he has bobbed around Washington like a peppercorn in the federal soup. At 53, his notoriety rests largely on the indigestible questions he has put to press secretaries and presidents in a round baritone voice, questions such as: What are the president's views on nude swimming in the White House pool? What does the president think about muskrat love?
Kinsolving has been called a horse's ass, a gorilla in a priest's suit, "the price we pay for democracy," and a dozen unprintable animadversions. Not long ago a reporter said to his wife, "You're a lovely person but your husband's a jerk." At a briefing once, former State Department spokesman Hodding Carter pitched a rubber chicken at him. Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes keeps a giant Texas flyswatter in case Kinsolving gets to pestering him.
The White House press corps, 1,700 strong, comprises characters of all kinds. The Mad Monk has never topped the gonzo of Hunter Thompson who once asked Ron Zeigler what drugs President Nixon was taking to keep from breaking down. But Kinsolving's sometimes quixotic queries were all the more startling because up until 1978 when he removed his collar they came from a man of the cloth. In the course of four administrations, his reputation has grown to where he is a part, often a painful part, of life in journalism's most rarefied circles.
As former president Carter's press secretary Jody Powell put it: "If you live in south Georgia, you got gnats. If you work in the White House press office, you got Lester."
In one sense, Kinsolving is that classic Washington character, the outsider in a city of insiders. Washington, after all, is a city where the mere investment of power can make a bore seem like a fascinating fellow and eccentricity of Kinsolving's kind is discouraged.
The broad-shouldered, black-haired priest with the owlish mien regards his life in Washington as a continuation of the Kinsolving family crusade against hypocrisy and arrogance, a crusade that he's pledged to by the family motto inscribed in Latin on his gold ring: "Humble to the Humble, Unflinching to the Arrogant."
Aiming at targets from ministers to journalists to politicians, Kinsolving preaches today from a pulpit of 53 Virginia radio stations, 15 newspapers from the Sacramento Union to the Manchester Union Leader, and two magazines, including the Washington Guide. He tends now to the ultraconservative after a liberal youth as a seminarian in California, but the vehemence with which he argues has not wavered. Kinsolving's years as a pariah and provocative figure seem only to have fortified his resolve to ask what he will, write what he thinks, and remain what he is.
"I realize being what I am makes me kind of a leper," Kinsolving says. "But journalism is my ministry. 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."
Occasionally correspondents find Kinsolving germane, and Ron Nessen, former president Ford's press secretary, says, "Lester, by his mannerisms, can be an irritant, but in my experience he often asked important questions on important issues long before other people realized they were important."
Reporters who work alongside Kinsolving are inclined to roll their eyes and drop their pencils in disgust when he has the floor, exasperated because he seems less interested in developing information than hawking a point of view -- a capital offense in the profession. His questions have premises, and his intent, in the course of the verbal fencing that invariably ensues, is to maneuver spokesmen into foolish positions.
Partly it's the rub of his style, his unmistakable voice; his delight in sexual insinuations; his volatile, sometimes vindictive temperament. Kinsolving shamelessly tells of the time he punched out a TV cameraman who'd clipped him with a camera during a press conference at Riverside Church in New York City. The Secret Service once questioned newsmen about another Kinsolving incident. While waiting for a briefing, James Deakin, a former reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, jokingly teased Kinsolving about some allegedly pilfered sandwiches. Kinsolving, looking dead-serious to Deakin, withdrew an Exacto knife from his briefcase and threatened to perform some surgery on the correspondent.
Kinsolving's longtime friend, Dorothy Faber, editor of the Christian Challenge magazine, says, "Lester is a very complex character. There are two distinct sides to him, the man who is sweet, kind, loving and adores his family, and the brash, outgoing reporter who asks loaded questions."
Kinsolving prides himself on his humor, emphasizing his affection for the amusing aspect of his misadventures, which are many. He seems to have been party to absent-minded mishaps and tragi-comic folly all his life. He has a knack for running out of gas. The first time he celebrated communion, the ventilation system switched on and blew the wafers all over the altar. Yellow jackets waylaid him at a recent bicentennial service at Yorktown. Once he carelessly exploded a packet of ketchup all over radio reporter Russ Ward's suit and deadline copy. More direly, Kinsolving's universalist views were so controversial in Pasco, Wash., 20 years ago that unknown arsonists burned his church out from under him.
An element of cruelty underlies some of the sport he has on his journalistic crusades. He officiated, for instance, at a service at Dyke Bridge sponsored by a right-wing group called the Mary Jo Kopechne Society.
The Rev. Spencer Rice, a friend since their days together as seminarians, says, "Lester is a living contradiction. He's loyal; he has a sense of honor and respect for the family and the church's traditions; he wants to do for other people, and on the other hand there is his thrashing at life with a rapier, a slashing out at people like they were mannequins. Perhaps the most thoughtful thing his detractors say is that he has made a living marketing the foibles of others."
Kinsolving has been raising his unpredictable brand of cain for most of his life. He was expelled from the association of State Department correspondents because he accepted $2,500 in stock payments from the South African government and then spoke out at shareholder meetings against groups critical of South African investments by American corporations. His paper, Washington Weekly, which folded in November 1980, was supported by right-wing publishers. He opposes busing and affirmative action. Yet Kinsolving favors liberalized abortion laws, marched in Selma for civil rights and is a militant foe of capital punishment.
Until this year, when he was disciplined by the Episcopal Church for joining the Anglican Church splinter group, he was an Episcopal priest, embodying a family tradition that stretches four generations back to Piedmont Virginia. The name Kinsolving is one of the foremost in the Episcopal Church; the family has sent forth more ministers than any other in the country.
In Lester, though, what the clan got was an irrepressible, self-promoting iconoclast. He was not thanked for the headline, "Episcopal Church Publishing House Says How to Enjoy Coitus with a Water Buffalo." Nor were many Kinsolvings enchanted with the widely publicized picture of Lester interviewing a naked hippie in San Francisco. Rice remembers hearing an elder Kinsolving relative mutter, "Oh, that boy should have been strangled in his crib."
The time for that would have had to have been 1927 in New York City. Lester was the first of three sons of Arthur B. Kinsolving and Edith Lester, loving but rather rigid parents. His father, a star high school and college athlete, rose to become the Episcopal Bishop of Arizona.
Kinsolving attended Episcopal High School in Alexandria starting when he was 12; the beatings he received at the strict school helped implant a lifelong aversion to authority. He chose the church eventually because he was looking for something worthwhile to devote his life to. In part, he was prompted by his father's example, but he had also been devastated by the death of his younger brother Arthur, who was planning to enter the ministry when, at 18, he was killed in a freak fall off a gazebo at a church picnic.
At the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, where Kinsolving attended seminary in 1952, he kept a picture of his brother by his bed. His education was guided by Bishop Carl Morgan Block and later by controversial liberal Bishop James Pike. Block, who had admitted Kinsolving without a college degree, looked after him but brooked no nonsense. Ever taking issue, the young Kinsolving told the bishop, "I stand on my rights as a seminarian!" only to have the bishop reply, "Seminarians, Mr. Kinsolving, have no rights."
It was not long after he graduated that he started a church bulletin called the Crucifer, and not long after that that the Crucifer was christened the Crucifier. It boasted paid circulation in 29 states. Wearing his collar, Kinsolving found his way deeper into journalism, first to the San Francisco Chronicle, where he stayed five years covering religion, then to the Examiner, where he stayed three. In 1973, he came to Washington, where he has settled in a four-bedroom, three-dog house in suburban Virginia with his wife Sylvia and three children.
Until it closed shop last fall, Kinsolving edited and published The Washington Weekly, largely a one-man show, featuring ultraconservative columnists and lots of unreconstructed Kinsolving. He would deliver the paper free to the White House press offices and then tiptoe about with a photographer trying to catch someone in the act of reading it.
The paper's principal income, Kinsolving says, came from fees paid by conservative publishers John McGoff and Richard Melon Scaife for rights to reprint the Weekly's columnists. He backed out of a deal with a group led by Accuracy in Media head Reed Irvine that would have kept the paper alive because he learned he would not have complete editorial control. The situation frustrated Kinsolving so much that he dreamed of Irvine one night and punched a hole in the sheet rock over his bed next to the portrait of Jesus. He considers it a measure of his independence that he "took death before dishonor" and folded Washington Weekly.
Each morning Kinsolving rises at 7:30. After a bowl of Wheat Chex, he sits down with a legal pad in the cluttered upstairs study hung with plaques and pictures of stories, including what he considers his journalistic triumph -- four investigative articles on the People's Temple in the San Francisco Examiner, six years in advance of the mass suicide in Guyana.
He doesn't just pencil out his questions ahead of time. "I hone them," he says. Then, climbing into a station wagon with Washington Guide decals on the doors, he heads for the fray. He is one of the few people who has made all three briefings at the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House. He tapes everything he asks for his own files, and in the Washington Guide often runs transcripts of his dialogues, which read like pages from an existential play.
"Just one more question," Kinsolving said at a recent briefing at the State Department, and from the back of the room a voice quipped, "Promise?"
On occasion Kinsolving gets a warmer reception. On his way home from Le Cheval Rouge in Vienna, where he often drops in, he stopped by the piano bar and, in the clerical collar he wears except when working as a journalist, gave a spirited rendition of "Mammy" and "Get Me to the Church on Time." The barflies, who were unfamiliar with the spectacle of a priest belting out show tunes like Wayne Newton, gaped in amazement.
"Who was that," said one woman as Kinsolving bounded off, waving jauntily, applause in his ears, a manic grin on his face.
"Lester Kinsolving," somebody said. "Who else?"