When used to describe a person, the term “gadfly” is usually considered an insult, as it refers to a type of fly that can be seen hovering around cattle pens, acting as quite an annoyance to the livestock. A “social gadfly” is even worse, as it is a person who upsets the status quo. Normally, one would not want to be called this, but it is a nickname that White House Press Correspondent and political talk radio show host Les Kinsolving has earned over his many years of service, and one that he relishes, so much so, that his biography is even titled as such, and it was written by his own daughter Kathleen, the subject of this next interview. I had the honor and privilege of interviewing Les last year in regards to his work in the films Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, as he portrayed Confederate General William Barksdale (he is also a distant cousin of his as well), but as I did more research on his background, I realized he built up quite an esteemed career in the White House press room, always asking the tough questions and keeping establishment leaders uneasy. We met briefly at the Extended Director’s Cut World Premiere last July in Manassas, and once again, I was honored. Our political beliefs may be very different—he’s more of a conservative (though not completely, as I was reminded) and I’m a liberal—but as I told Kathleen Kinsolving when we were first in contact, “…I have never listened to his show, but I hear he takes shots at anyone and everyone who he does not approve with, which I think is a very admirable quality”, to which she responded with that little word, “Yes, he’s quite the Gadfly—very fearless and provocative!”
With Les now getting up there in age (he turns 85 this December) and showing no signs of slowing down, it was about time someone authored a biography of him, and who better to write it than his daughter? In May of 2010, Gadfly: The Life and Times of Les Kinsolving, White House Watchdog was published, and has since garnered rave reviews. Her latest book, which is coming out this next November, is titled Dogs of War, and is about the lives of some of the smallest combatants of World War II: the dogs belonging to President Roosevelt, and Generals Patton and Eisenhower. Her earliest work was as a researcher for a documentary made in 1992 called Feed, which was about the New Hampshire primaries, and took more of a humorous, behind-the-scenes look. I had a chance to ask Kathleen, who is also a high school English and journalism teacher, a few questions about her work, her father, and also, her family heritage which dates back to the Civil War, and much more, in our interview below:
GC: What inspired you to write Gadfly, a biography of your father Les?
KK: Over the years, many of Dad’s listeners have encouraged him to pen his life story—since he is in his 80s, a full-time radio talk show host and White House press correspondent, Dad just doesn’t have the time (nor energy) to research his many files and scrapbooks and spend probably a year writing his book, so I went ahead and took up the task—after I wrote the screenplay Madman in Our Midst in 2002, which delves into Dad’s 1972 investigation into Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, I thought writing his biography would be a worthwhile impetus into getting the film made.
GC: Behind the scenes, what was it like growing up with a White House press correspondent as your father?
KK: Dad worked an awful lot—most of the time I found him in his study, firing off yet another commentary on what happened at the White House press briefing that day. Sometimes I’d accompany him to these briefings—I’d watch him in action with other reporters vying to ask the press secretary a pertinent question—most of the time Dad’s were considered controversial, causing his colleagues to laugh, moan and groan—however, he taped Sam Donaldson defending him once, who stated, “These are perfectly legitimate questions!” Of which Dad loudly replied, “Thanks Sam!” It was also fun watching the presidential news conferences on TV—I always wondered if Dad was going to be able to ask one of his infamous questions—once, when President Reagan was pointing to a reporter, I heard Dad’s booming voice—Reagan shook his head, saying, “No, no!’ He once quipped, “My finger must be crooked, every time I point at someone, Les Kinsolving starts to ask a question!'”
GC: What is something about Les that many of his followers would find surprising?
KK: Many of Dad’s followers are very conservative, and they’d probably be surprised that Dad was very liberal when he was a younger man—he risked his life by marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1964, and his church was burned down three years earlier in a small, conservative town (Pasco, WA where I was born) because of his controversially liberal sermons (i.e. “The Damnable Doctrine of Damnation”).
GC: How would you describe your father’s political beliefs? Do you share the same ones as him?
KK: They’ve called him the “unlabeled” talk show host—he’s still liberal on two issues: abortion and the death penalty, but conservative on most others—Dad’s been known to say, “I call them as I see them,” making him a “mixed bag” and unwilling to take sides. I must admit this attitude has been a big influence on my political beliefs; it’s wise to keep an open mind and not be intimidated into political partisanship.
GC: Your family can trace its heritage back to Confederate General William Barksdale. How important is that to you and your family?
KK: Very important—we’re quite proud of our Civil War legacy! Not only of General Barksdale, but Ovid Americus Kinsolving, who was a rector of three churches in Virginia, and also served as a spy for the Confederacy, most notably John Mosby. He was later arrested for reciting prayers for the Confederacy and sent to Fort Delaware for the duration of the war. We’re also proud of the Kinsolving Family contributing more clergymen (bishops and ministers) to the Episcopal Church than any other in the U.S..
GC: You recently had a book published titled Dogs of War. What can you tell us about it, and why did you write it?
KK: It’s all about the three most famous American dogs during the World War II era: FDR’s Fala, General Patton’s Willie, and Eisenhower’s Telek (two Scottish Terriers and a Bull Terrier (Willie)). I was inspired to write the book twelve years ago, when I was helping my husband Kevin’s friend James move into a new house. As we were taking books out of the moving van, I came across Patton: A Genius for War, by Carlo D’Este. Inside was the infamous photo of Patton’s dog Willie, laying next to the general’s foot lockers and briefcase after Patton died. I was entranced by this heartbreaking image, and immediately thought, “I need to share this with the world and write a book about this glorious dog!” It occurred to me that this might be a very short book, so I decided to add Fala, President Roosevelt’s dog. I wrote the book in the next six months, sent it to some agents, but it didn’t go anywhere. After Gadfly was published in 2010 by WND Books, I pitched the Fala and Willie story to them, and they were very interested; however, they suggested I add a third dog, which I felt was a wise suggestion. I immediately thought of Telek, General Eisenhower’s dog, who was a Scottie like Fala. I didn’t think I’d find much on him, but I certainly did, when I called the Eisenhower Library, and they asked, “Have you read Kay Summersby’s memoirs?” There I found a wonderful story of a dog bringing two people together in a very special wartime relationship. It certainly added an exciting element to the book!
I would like to thank Kathleen for taking the time to take part in this very informative interview! You can visit her official website by clicking here.