Katherine Kersten: The One-Woman Solution

When the tinny tinkle of “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come” begins playing on the cell phone, everyone in range in the Star Tribune newsroom knows who’s getting a call. It is Katherine Kersten, the paper’s unapologetically religious and fiercely conservative metro columnist.

Since May 2005, the Star Tribune has been engaged in what its top editor freely describes as “an experiment.” The test has Katherine Kersten, a fifty-five-year-old former banker, lawyer, and think-tank denizen, now an opinion writer, playing the role of an alien element injected into a tradition-bound newspaper culture.

Long battered by conservative critics as the “Red Star” for its alleged knee-jerk liberalism—particularly over the past decade, as conservatives were rallied by the echo chambers of talk radio and right-wing blogs—the Star Tribune decided it had to answer. So, for the last twenty months, Kersten has been a one-woman solution, applying a decidedly different, and perhaps revolutionary, face to the role of big-city reporter and metro columnist.
Directed by editor Anders Gyllenhaal, a man with only two years of Minnesota experience under his belt at the time, the paper consciously sought an unequivocal political and social conservative—not a classic Minnesota moderate Republican, but rather, someone whose voice and point of view could have been lifted off the pages of the Weekly Standard (for which Kersten has written), or the Sean Hannity Show. Moreover, Gyllenhaal declined to put her column on the editorial pages, where Kersten used to write when she worked for The Center of the American Experiment, and where no one would have blinked had she appeared again. Instead, he put her on the metro pages, where consistently overt, unvarying partisan ideology has historically been discouraged.
Kersten seized the opportunity and has delivered a steady drumbeat of unvarnished socially conservative thinking, railing steadily against gay marriage—and the slippery slope from there to polygamy, public schools, the legitimacy of Keith Ellison’s congressional candidacy, the cynical stagecraft of the so-called “Flying Imams,” and, in a near-camp classic, the Rolling Stones’ lack of family values.
The primary response has been a chorus of infuriated liberals. But the unvarying perspective and tone of her writing has also called into question several long-accepted tenets of traditional newspapering, among them the unwritten code that says columnists should avoid easy labeling and present an image of editorial independence, an image that at no time suggests they are in league with unknown forces.
A year and a half later, Gyllenhaal’s ‘experiment’ is neither the ‘tremendous success’ he and local conservatives describe it as, nor the ‘sick joke’ outraged liberals and a small minority of Kersten’s Star Tribune colleagues have called it. Both Gyllenhaal (who is leaving the Star Tribune this month to take over editorship of the Miami Herald) and Kersten claim to be buoyed by a steady flow of correspondence praising her work. Nevertheless, her harshest critics continue to see her as a painfully unpolished reporter serving mainly as obvious sop to barking-dog conservatives, a crowd that wouldn’t respect the Star Tribune if it ran neo-con valentines on the front page.
At the same time, several of the paper’s more prominent writers wonder if Gyllenhaal’s choice of a bona fide member of the intellectual elite is really serving the optimal conservative constituency. In other words, is she effectively solving the paper’s “conservative problem”? There is also a concern with Kersten’s near-lockstep choice of topics and point of view with influential conservative bloggers—chief among them Scott Johnson, one of the three primary authors at Powerlineblog.com and her friend of twenty years.
In person, Kersten comes off as a classic Edina working mother of four, albeit one with a monochromatic wardrobe favoring shades of black. (On a personal level, her Strib colleagues seem to like her; some say they’ve even encouraged her to “soften” her look in her column mug shots—it has changed four times, by one count.) Her vocal inflection is earnest and precise, her thoughts organized. She doesn’t fumble for words. Without question, she is well read, open, self-effacing, and even eager for a civil clash of opinions. She shows no hint of defensiveness or the knuckleheaded combativeness of talk radio. Nor does she stoop to the kind of contrived venom and cynical mangling of facts made famous by Ann Coulter.
In fact, unlike so many commercially successful bloviators, Kersten gives the impression that truth actually matters to her. Her conversation, which does have a tendency to drift into think-tank policy-speak, is peppered with references to “ideas,” “issues,” and “vision.” Yet during a conversation, you can’t help but be puzzled by the contradictions she doesn’t see, and wonder if she isn’t another example of a person whose facile intellect and desire to differentiate herself have impelled her to a rarefied stratum of thought.
Over coffee at an Edina Starbucks, Kersten describes her family in Fort Dodge, Iowa, as “Republican, but not terribly political,” and recalls, with amused irony, marching in anti-Vietnam War protests as a Carleton College freshman in 1969-70.
“You can imagine what Carleton was like at that time,” she says. “It was certainly a political hotbed. There was a moratorium, as you might remember, which was observed across the country when the Kent State and Cambodia-related issues kind of came to the fore in the spring semester. There was a great length of period when there were no classes at all. Classes were just suspended, and people met to talk politics on [the Carleton commons].
“Paul Wellstone was a relatively new faculty member. But he of course was very, very prominent in all this.”
Being an eighteen-year-old at this point, she says, she wasn’t thinking of herself as deeply political, and certainly not as the free-market capitalist and purveyor of conservative social nostrums she would eventually become.
“Oh no. In fact, I remember writing home from Carleton,” she says, “asking that my parents send up some of my hard-earned waitress dollars so I could put it into an account for people who might need to raise bail after civil-disobedience actions. And I remember marching by the governor’s mansion.
“I actually wrote a letter to my hometown paper about the war, and my uncle wrote a counterpoint.”
Hers was anti-war?
“Yeah, anti-Vietnam policy, I guess you could say. But all along, I was pretty much aware my information was spotty, and that I didn’t have the big picture,” she says.
As uncertain about her future as any eighteen-year-old, Kersten says, she tried to balance her love of great books with a major in chemistry, but very soon shucked all thought of Petri dishes and Bunsen burners.
After one year she shucked Carleton, too, in favor of the then-all-female St. Mary’s, across the highway from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. She entered “a general program of liberal studies” and “a great books program,” which, she declares, was “the best thing that ever happened to me.”
After she finished her undergrad work, she went off to Yale University, intending to work toward a doctorate in philosophy, but her capitalist instincts quickly deflected her from that track. She signed up for a master’s program with an “organizational, management-type focus.” Two years later, she was headed for a job at Northern Trust Bank in Chicago.
“I wanted to work with a big company that would essentially teach me what I needed to know,” she says. “And of course at that time banks were kind of the premier place to start.”
Two years with the bank was enough for Kersten to decide the pin-striped life “was also not [her] passion.” But now—maybe, possibly—the academic life was. Seventy letters to various institutions of higher learning netted her a job with the University of Wisconsin as a liaison between the administration and the extension university.
But the need to score a doctorate (a requirement if one is to stay viable in university administration) was, again, not something she felt passionate about. A business contact in North Carolina convinced her that a law degree was a much better real-world commodity than a Ph.D. She soon became the fourth lawyer in her family.
Kersten met her husband Mark Johnson, who is now an attorney in a private practice, in law school. She then married and found herself, three years later, out of school, buying a house, and about to have her second child (she eventually had four in five years). She was also thinking, “I can’t do all of this.” So, “I quit my job [with the University of Wisconsin],” she says. “And really, that begat my first experience with writing.”
After that, Kersten says, a grad school friend contacted her wondering if she’d be interested in taking over an assignment from the conservative Hoover Institution’s Policy Review journal to “write a kind of conservative feminist manifesto.”
Though that idea conjures visions of braless Lynne Cheneys and Liddy Doles cracking heads in an eighty-fourth-floor executive suite, Kersten explains that the editors were curious as to whether she—a thirty-five-year-old, very-well-educated stay-at-home mom—detected any overlap between what, at first glance, appeared to be repellent poles of the cultural globe.
At this point, though, she still had not sworn a blood oath to conservatism.
“My real interest is ideas,” she insists, “not politics,” and goes on a bit about how she developed an appreciation for the positive influences of Western culture while studying at St. Mary’s. “The way [Western culture] has produced modernity; the way it has produced the scientific world view; the way it has produced the notion of individual liberties and individual rights.”
Kersten was becoming enamored with this view at a time—1970—when many of her college peers and faculty members were expressing passionate dismay at the Vietnam War, seeing it as yet another catastrophic episode of Western hypocrisy, another tragic example of the Western ethos carpet-bombing not-quite-our-kind-of-“modern” individuals and individual liberties “back to the Stone Age” (to quote then-Air Force General Curtis LeMay).
So did she feel she ever had a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment—an experience that shifted her lust for ideas permanently away from the conventionally liberal attitudes of most college campuses, and into the bosom of conservatism?
“Well,” she says, grasping the question, “in terms of my interest in current events and how current events are shaped by these ideas, it really was my decision to stay at home as a mother, and to then begin spending more time looking at issues, and in particular my experience with Central America.”
In the mid-’80s, “Central America” was shorthand for the turmoil of socialist/populist revolutions against long-entrenched dictatorial governments, most of which had cozy, supportive relations with large American and European corporations. In Nicaragua, the Sandinistas had finally grabbed control after a twenty-year struggle against the American-backed Somoza family. The Reagan administration responded by funneling military aid to right-wing rebels seeking to undercut the Sandinistas.
Meanwhile in Minneapolis, stay-at-home-mom Katherine Kersten was attending parties at the well-appointed Lake of the Isles home of a former law-firm colleague.
“We were invited, regularly, to Sandinista events. Events where there’d be a Sandinista priest or a Sandinista politician speaking. And often these events were held at these lovely homes, where there would be bread-and-soup suppers, and people would come in proper revolutionary dress, with the right head scarf and the right peasant skirt.
“I had really known very little about [this kind of culture], and I got pretty interested— especially because I’d raise my hand at the end of one of these speeches by these Sandinista apologists, and I’d ask a skeptical question. And there’d be this shudder that would go around the room. People would whisper, ‘You can’t say that,’ ‘How can you say that?’
“I realized pretty quickly there was something else going on here. There was a deeply emotional need being met.”
Her voice registers excitement as she recalls Minnesota college campuses shipping faculty members and students off to Nicaragua on field trips where “they were all filled with this righteous indignation. And often these people were accountants: they were lawyers. They were kind of in their mid-forties. They had gone to college in the ’60s, and, I don’t know, maybe thought they’d sold out. But now they were pretty well heeled. But to them, there was nothing more exciting than to see [Sandinista leader] Daniel Ortega in his bandolier and his camouflage. To them, he was, you know, an authentic revolutionary. A reeeal man.
“And I had seen this over and over at these Lake of the Isles parties.”
It was at this point, Kersten says, that she refashioned herself as a lonely champion for rectitude—a mom-style Joan of Arc, leading an often-solitary crusade for clarity in true democratic principles. Like so many conservatives, she asserted that “there was literally no one out there” countering the argument of Sandinista sympathizers. (No one, of course, other than the Reagan administration.)
Borrowing a page from the Republican handbook of “issue framing”, Kersten formed The Midwest Coalition for Democracy in Central America. Soon, her notoriety and singularity as a countering argument to liberal orthodoxy began earning her an audience every time a school or radio program needed to “balance” a forum.
Tireless and reliably on point, her newspaper op-ed pieces caught the attention of Mitch Pearlstein, who at the time was handling reader mail for the St. Paul Pioneer Press’s editorial page. Pearlstein encouraged her to write more, and soon, after he founded the conservative Center of the American Experiment think tank in the early ’90s, Kersten was brought on as a fellow.
By the mid-’90s, she was well enough established as a go-to conservative thinker to become a regular presence from 1995 to 2003 on the Star Tribune’s editorial page, where she began serving up regular assaults on precious liberal sensibilities. “It was not a particularly comfortable fit for me,” she says. “The editorial page has a very decided slant.”
Some see Kersten’s unvarying perspective as her primary weakness. “Maybe the biggest struggle in being a columnist is trying to avoid being labeled,” said Star Tribune columnist Nick Coleman one late fall afternoon, as he carved his way through lunch at Kramarczuk’s Deli. “A big part of the game is surprising the reader from time to time, showing some latitude in your thinking and staying out of the box people try to put you in.”
Coleman (full disclosure: he is a longtime friend of mine) has been a Twin Cities columnist for more than thirty years. He, and nearly all of the other Star Tribune staffers with whom I spoke, have no objection to adding new voices to the paper—even an unabashed conservative voice. His problem is placing Kersten on the metro pages in an attempt to create a “balance” and respond to the regular accusations of liberal bias hurled at him and fellow columnist Doug Grow. “You find the last time some Democratic politician or liberal blogger referred to me as, ‘our good friend, Nick Coleman.’ It’s never happened. They all hate my guts, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
In fact, there is no end of Star Tribune readers who agree with the description of Grow and Coleman as “liberals.” And there’s a long history of big-city newspaper columnists with “liberal” sensibilities. You think of writers like Mike Royko, Pete Hamill, Jimmy Breslin, and so on—journalists who built legendary careers, and a large readership, by covering the stories of underdogs bucking city hall and big business. Columnists like these savored an emotional kinship with a hard-living underclass—people with little more to offer the community at large than their colorful and amusing stories. But today’s hyper-cautious newspaper managers, more peripatetic bureaucrats than journalists, consign that kind of novelistic storytelling to the trash heap of journalistic days gone by.
Coleman and a number of other Star Tribune reporters (who preferred not to go on record) see the Kersten “experiment” as essentially this: In hopes of appeasing a rancorous minority, the paper has taken a straightforward, arch-conservative opinion-page writer with no traditional newspaper reporting experience—no time spent covering society’s random violence and injustice and the street-level impact of “big ideas”—and allowed her to do on-the-job training as a metro columnist.
There is something to the complaint. While even her critics concede Kersten “is getting better,” her columns, particularly those on her signature topics of gay marriage, schools, and Keith Ellison, read more like guest editorials with quotes than traditional metro columns.
For his part, Doug Grow thinks Gyllenhaal may have missed the true reason for reader alienation from the Star Tribune. “When a newspaper starts chasing specific demographic groups, I think you’re asking for trouble. Once you start tailoring yourself to appeal to narrow demographic targets, you risk becoming as irrelevant [journalistically] as the ten o’clock news.
“But our reputation out in Anoka County and other exurbs is not good,” adds Grow, an entirely affable guy who says he genuinely likes Kersten (and whom Kersten, in turn, thanks for being “so gracious and welcoming”).
“People out [in the northern suburbs] rightly perceive that we don’t talk to them,” Grow says. “So my sense was that what we really needed was a columnist who actually lived in the exurbs. You know? Someone who rides ATVs on the weekend and goes deer hunting.
“Personally, I didn’t think an ideologue was the answer, but rather someone who lived that kind of red-state lifestyle.”
In response to the idea of a blaze-orange, locked-and-loaded, ATV-revving columnist at the Star Tribune, Kersten replies, “But those people can’t write [newspaper columns],” which may—or may not be—true. But it is obvious the paper didn’t look beyond politically active conservatives when considering how best to address its “balance problem.” When there was a choice between a moderate and a hard-liner, it took the latter.
In a notoriously gossipy industry, in which news of anyone under consideration for a plum job is traded like a hot stock tip, only two names ever emerged from the Star Tribune’s so-called “nationwide search.” Kersten and Republican lobbyist Sarah Janecek were the putative finalists. Both live in the paper’s backyard, and neither boasts about her skill field-gutting a twelve-point buck. Janecek is regularly derided by militant bloggers as a RINO (Republican in Name Only), while Kersten appeals to the most socially conservative wing.
Few individuals embody the conservative siege engine trained on the Star Tribune better than the three attorneys who operate Powerlineblog.com, the renowned website that Time magazine called “Blog of the Year” for 2004. Power Line has been catapulting vats of molten lead at the Star Tribune ever since it went live in 2002.
“The [Star Tribune] is a paragon of political correctness and a national laughingstock,” says Scott Johnson, one of the trio. “That paper is a lost cause, and I say that looking at it through the job they did on the Fifth [Congressional] District race” between Alan Fine and Keith Ellison. During that race, Power Line and Kersten engaged in a symbiotic dance of predation, attacking DFL nominee Keith Ellison for everything short of selling crack to preschoolers. Follow Power Line regularly and you can’t help but be struck by how often Johnson plugs the next day’s Kersten column, usually as soon as it appears on the Star Tribune website. Johnson and Kersten have been friends for twenty years, and he usually refers to her as “Kathy” or “our good friend, Kathy.” Nor can you miss how often Kersten’s column echoes something recently posted on Power Line.
Conservative “pillow talk” is rampant. By my unofficial count as of early December 2006, Kersten had written approximately 135 columns and Power Line had lauded seventy-five of them. There has been no criticism. This coziness of both choice of topic and point of view lends itself to suspicion of a kind of mentor-pupil relationship—a notion that prompts a playful question from Johnson: “And so, which is which?” He goes on to say that “it is true that Kathy has written a number of columns off things she has read on Power Line. But no, there is no ‘mentor-pupil’ relationship. I don’t direct her. I mention her column as often as I do only because I believe what she has written is of interest to a national audience.”
All Fall, Power Line and Kersten pressed their assault on Keith Ellison and “The Flying Imams” (referring to the nationally-reported story of six Muslim clerics being taken off a USAir flight from Minneapolis), hammering, one after another, like the two blacksmiths on the same Scandinavian weather vane.
Not that Johnson is pleased with the result of his effort. “I never worked harder to less effect,” he says, “in trying to embarrass the Star Tribune to do its job in [the Ellison] race.”
Gyllenhaal dismisses Johnson and Power Line as “a group that has been virulently critical of the paper,” adding with a tone of exasperation, “The criticisms they made, on the Ellison coverage, were just totally without merit.” He declines comment on any symbiosis between Power Line and Kersten, claiming to be unaware of any similarities.
The Kersten column, as Gyllenhaal explains it, is not a matter of blowing up the old paradigms of journalism. Rather, it is simply an acknowledgement that the world has changed, and that readers look to newspapers for a wider variety of voices, not all of which have been nurtured for years in a newsroom environment. And he concedes the paper did not adequately serve the Twin Cities’ “conservative audience.”
Gyllenhaal sees Kersten as far less predictable than her critics claim, and says he’s entirely pleased with both the “stories” she’s telling and the craft with which she tells them.
There was only a tip-toe mention of conservatism in the original description of the job Kersten won. “As with all columnists,” said the job description, “the emphasis would be on deeply reported columns, story telling off the news, pieces that can best be told with a columnist’s leeway. This columnist would have the added goal of bringing a conservative perspective to the paper in story topics, circles traveled and views explored.” Introducing her May 22, 2005, in a fifteen-paragraph editor’s column touting her career, but making no direct reference to her signature political ideology, Gyllenhaal mentioned, far down in the column, that, “As the staff looks ahead to the future of newspapers, we think it’s vital to expand the reach of the paper for a wide base of readers, young and old, urban and suburban, conservative, liberal and independent.”
So during the hiring process, was it ever explicitly put to Kersten that the paper wanted a conservative voice? After a pause, she says, “I’m trying to think how that was put. I don’t recall that that word was used. It was pretty clear what they wanted, though. They wanted somebody who would balance the generally liberal perspective of the editorial page and the columnists who are there, which would be a conservative.
“But, of course,” she adds, “you could describe ‘conservative’ in a number of ways.”






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