When the legendary Wall Street Journal editorial page editor, the late Robert Bartley, materialized at Kimberley Strassel’s cubicle one day in 2001, he was waving an article she’d done. It was Strassel’s knowledge of life outside Washington that had gotten the editor’s attention.
Strassel had taken note of the gussied up, black tie western music that was all the rage in conservative circles during the festivities surrounding the inauguration of George W. Bush. Strassel’s column was a lament that country music was becoming captive to liberal politics. She had written:
Left behind are fans of “old country,” the twangy, hay-munching crowd that took a week off to mourn Tammy Wynette’s death and will slap you silly if you talk bad about either of the Hank Williamses. Born out of Mr. Brooks’ successes is “new country,” a slicker, electric-guitar crowd, known for women sporting more attitude and less clothes and men whose chart success tracks rather disconcertingly with how good they look in a pair of tight jeans.
“You need to write more about this stuff,” said Bartley.
Why had a column about Tammy Wynette and Hank Williams made an impression on the famous editor? “I think it was Bob recognizing that there was a writer on a staff who’d come from a blue-collar country music world that didn’t always make an appearance on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal,” Strassel suggested.
If you are one of those who flip first thing Friday morning to Kimberley Strassel’s “Potomac Watch” column in the Wall Street Journal for insider insights and analysis of the byzantine goings-on of Washington, D.C., it may come as a surprise to learn that Strassel covers her beat not just from the banks of the Potomac, but also from Alaska, in closer proximity to the Yukon River.
But “Yukon Watch” doesn’t quite do the trick, unless perhaps Strassel switched her focus to salmon fishing, which would trigger rebellion among Strassel’s loyal readership. Strassel found a home in Alaska when she remarried four years ago. Her husband has lived there most of his life, and has an established business in the state.
But that isn’t the only reason. “I just wanted to be here,” Strassel explains.” Alaska is an amazing place to raise kids. It’s actually a state that still really is about freedom. You can still do things here that you can’t do in so many places in ‘America’—as Alaskans like to call it.” Strassel has three children, a son, 16, and two daughters, 13 and 9, from a previous marriage.
Although Strassel writes one of the preeminent columns in the U.S. and is one of the nation’s most sought-after speakers, that ability to see beyond the incestuous Washington establishment comes from her roots.
Strassel ordinarily divides her time between Washington and her home outside of Anchorage. “It’s been a little bit different under lockdown because I did have to choose a place to be,” Strassel tells IWF. “My kids are here, and my husband is here, so I picked Alaska. I’m up in Alaska at the moment. I’ve been here a lot more than in Washington just this past year, but I will soon be back to my usual schedule. It’s usually a really nice split. I can go down, stay a time in D.C., visit with the people I need to see. But there is a real benefit to leaving that, too—getting outside of the Beltway group-think. So, it’s turned out to be a wonderful balance. And—as we have all learned this past year—you can do a lot of what you need to do over the telephone.”
She works on East Coast time. “I get up around 4:30 every day. The good news is I get done around 2:30 every afternoon. So, I have more time to spend with my kids when they get home from school. It does, however, make for early, early bedtimes.” Just for the record, Anchorage is actually nearly 500 miles from the Yukon River, but it’s about 4,300 miles from the Potomac.
Strassel, 48, joined the Wall Street Journal right out of Princeton. She started as a lowly news assistant for the Journal’s European edition, which took her to Brussels. She moved to the London bureau where she was a reporter specializing in technology before moving to New York, where she covered real estate and ultimately found a perch as an editorial writer and member of the Journal’s esteemed Editorial Board.
As a member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, Strassel writes unsigned editorials and often appears on the star-studded panel for “Journal Editorial Report” on Fox on Saturdays, hosted by Editorial Page Editor Paul Gigot. She was awarded the prestigious Bradley Award in a Kennedy Center ceremony in 2014, and is author of three books, the most recent being Resistance (At All Costs): How Trump Haters Are Breaking America, which Publishers Weekly called “a bracing challenge to mainstream narratives.”
Although Strassel writes one of the preeminent columns in the U.S. and is one of the nation’s most sought-after speakers, that ability to see beyond the incestuous Washington establishment comes from her roots. Strassel grew up in Buxton, Oregon, a descendant of a family that acquired land through the Homestead Act. Starting with the first in 1862, there were several Homestead Acts, which granted acreage to Western settlers willing to reside on and improve the land.
“It was a great-great grandmother who staked the claim,” Strassel says. “I have a blown-up reproduction of the actual grant of land given to her back during the Homestead Act. She went to Oregon on her own. The original homestead is still in the wider family, and my family lives on property adjacent to it. So my relatives have been living in that area for generations. It’s a logging and farming community in the coast range of Oregon. Family members went on to do all kinds of things; my own father became an auto mechanic.”
So, for instance, one great story: my dad, as I told you, was a mechanic, and he told me I couldn’t have a car until I’d taken one apart and put it back together.
Strassel is the oldest of four girls. “We were all brought up as tomboys,” Kim says. “I think my parents kept trying for a boy and never had one, and they finally gave up after four girls. I was always given a lot of responsibility and they had a lot of faith in us learning to be self-made people. So, for instance, one great story: my dad, as I told you, was a mechanic, and he told me I couldn’t have a car until I’d taken one apart and put it back together.
“While a lot of my friends were getting ready to drive, having their parents buy cars for them, I was going down to my dad’s shop every day after school, and we were restoring a 1965 Buick Riviera together. He made it fun, and I still have that car. I grew up with chainsaws, grew up riding three-wheelers and four-wheelers, hunting and fishing. I also did drag racing. My mom and dad had a drag car. We would go out to Portland International Raceway and drag race. It was really fun. A lot of good times.”
Unlike many conservative writers, Strassel isn’t a former liberal who had an epiphany. “People talk about when they had their moment,” she tells IWF, “they talk about a moment of conversion. A conservative viewpoint was always just part of my life. And I think entirely a consequence of watching my family, who lived ideals that were very conservative. It wasn’t that we talked about conservative ideas or that they tried to drill them into me. It was more the way we lived. My dad was a blue-collar worker, but he had started his own small business. He owned his own auto repair shop and my mom, while a stay-at-home mom, was also always there working, and doing the books for the business.
“And these were two people who got up at the crack of dawn, they worked really hard. They loved the notion that they could be entrepreneurs and make their own way in the world. They generally wanted to be able to get on with things without the government telling them what to do. They paid their bills on time. We went to church on Sundays. It was a classic American, small “c” conservative upbringing.”
What inspired Strassel to attend Princeton? At least some of the credit goes to F. Scott Fitzgerald, who romanticized the place in his novels. “I’d always done well in school,” she explains. “I was a big reader, even when I was a kid, and read a lot of books about East Coast schools and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I thought: I have the grades, it would be an experience, I guess I’ll try. I applied to pretty much every Ivy League school—and several others to boot because I didn’t expect to get in. So I was surprised when I got into quite a few and I had my pick. But Princeton had always been the one I was most interested in. I liked the idea that it was set in a smaller town, not in the middle of a big city, which has never appealed to me. It doesn’t even now. It seemed like the perfect place and I loved my time there.”
Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Strassel did indeed find enchantment at the hallowed university. She recalls, “I loved the notion of being on this campus with these old stone buildings—it was mesmerizing to me and I never got over that the whole time I was there. I loved the history of it and the reality that so many generations of kids had walked through those halls and I was simply the latest.”
She graduated with a BA in 1994. “I am going to state this loudly and proudly,” she says with gusto. “I have a degree from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Princeton recently decided to drop the Woodrow Wilson part. It’s now just called the School of Public and International Affairs. But I refuse to call it that. I have a degree from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.”
While at Princeton, Strassel worked for a couple, helping to mind their children. They were Peter Kann, former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, and Karen Elliott House, who served as a senior vice president at Dow Jones. The couple discouraged Kimberley’s plan to go to law school immediately after Princeton. “They said if I wanted to go to law school in the future, fine, but take a year, go do something in the real world before signing up. Especially because they knew I was only thinking of law school because I wasn’t sure what else to do. So, I became I news assistant in Brussels. And I fell in love with journalism and this newspaper. I’ve never left the Wall Street Journal.”
When Strassel applied to move from news to the editorial page of the Journal, she was interviewed for the position by Bob Bartley. “One of the things about Bob was how he interviewed people,” she recalls. “He would ask a question, and you would answer, and then he wouldn’t say anything. And you would just sit there in silence. And I’m not sure if that was just Bob, or if it was a test, or what—to see whether you could keep your mouth shut, or did you jabber away. In any event, I was terrified enough that I apparently didn’t say anything more than I should have. ”
Strassel has been writing “Potomac Watch” since 2007. It may be the most plugged-in Washington column going (wherever she happens to be). It can be argued that being away from Washington actually sharpens Strassel’s insights. “She’s always been a terrific reporter and opinion writer, but I think she got better after she moved to Alaska. I believe she does get to DC fairly often, but then goes home to that touch of real-world perspective, a bit removed from the fever swamps,” says IWF’s Claudia Rosett, herself a former member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board.
Strassel has been writing “Potomac Watch” since 2007. It may be the most plugged-in Washington column going (wherever she happens to be).
Strassel doesn’t mince words about the opening months of the Biden administration. “The one thing that has been surprising to me is the number of—in my mind—political mistakes the Biden administration has made out of the box,” she explains. “They took from the Obama administration all the wrong lessons. Rational people would have looked at Obama’s first year and said the reason that Democrats suffered a crushing defeat in 2010 is because they overreached. Biden had a bunch of people—and I don’t know what they were thinking—who advised him that the actual problem was that they didn’t reach large enough or go big enough. All Biden had to do was come in, distribute vaccines, and watch the economy soar. Right?
“Instead, we have this raft of headlines that are a direct consequence of the mismanagement so far,” Strassel observes. “We’ve got inflation creeping back. We obviously have the border crisis, which is a direct consequence of their decision to change policies that were working in terms of border security. We’ve got people struggling with higher gas prices, and while that may have something to do with this particular ransomware on this pipeline, it has also been an eye-opener to Americans about the reality of Biden’s energy proposals, which are a recipe for more of this, not less. And so, he’s got a big problem and he’s what, four months in?”
She continues, “I have no doubt that there are smart, savvy political people in the Biden White House who understand the problem they have. I also have no doubt that it doesn’t matter because this is not a Biden administration, it’s a Bernie Sanders administration. One of the biggest jokes was that final debate between Trump and Biden and Biden insisted: ‘I am the Democratic Party right now.’ This is baloney. He’s being run by the Progressive Left, by the Bernie Sanders crew, and they don’t care about politics. They see this as a once in a generation opportunity to get through as much of their agenda as they can. They don’t seem to care about the political consequences.
“And that’s worrisome, and not just from a policy perspective. I don’t think Biden and his team understand the potential political peril. Because you can spin all you want that there is no problem at the border. You can spin all you want that these gas prices will be temporary. But Americans are smart, and they are beginning to cotton on to the real-world consequences of these proposals.”
“I would be more optimistic if conservatives would stop fighting over the 2020 election,” she adds. “This is not a productive way of going forward. The Liz Cheney headlines, the former president going after members of his own party because he’s angry about November. This is not productive, especially in the face of what is arguably one of the more radical agendas since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. They are talking about creating an entirely new childcare entitlement, entirely new family leave entitlements, entirely new community college entitlements. I mean, these are things that Democrats understand that once they are on the books, they never go away. Name a program we’ve successfully gotten rid of. So, it is imperative that Republicans stop having these internal arguments and start explaining to everybody about the Biden agenda.”
Let’s hope that conservative leaders are listening to Strassel’s counsel—as those of us who madly flip to Strassel’s “Potomac Watch” first thing Friday morning, before the first cup of coffee, know that it’s the right place to get this inside dope on Washington.