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Interview: Kennedy

The TV host and one-name celeb talks about cherry vodka, teenage rebellion, Frank Zappa, free-range parenting, and life as Fox's token libertarian.

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When Kurt Loder and Penn Jillette tell you you're a libertarian, you might be a libertarian.

Once upon a time, Kennedy was one of America's most famous Republicans. At the tender age of 20, Lisa Kennedy Montgomery became a breakout personality at MTV, combining coverage of alternative music with political news starting in 1992. Frizzy-haired, bespectacled, and Doc Martens–clad, Kennedy quickly came out as a Republican, bringing ideological diversity to cable long before Fox News was a twinkle in founder Roger Ailes' eye.

She rubbed shoulders with plenty of musicians and politicians at MTV, as well as in her later gigs as a radio personality and a game show host. She also picked up a degree in philosophy from the University of California, Los Angeles, in those years, along with professional snowboarding husband Dave Lee and a couple of kids.

These days, Kennedy calls herself a libertarian, thanks in part to prompting from some famous friends, and she's still an odd duck. At a network famous for smiling glossy blondes, Kennedy brings a sharp brunette sensibility to Fox's talent pool. She first appeared on The Independents, the show she co-hosted with FreeThink's Kmele Foster and Reason's Matt Welch. It was cancelled in 2015, but quickly replaced with Kennedy, an eponymous solo show that hearkens more explicitly back to her V.J. days. It airs at 8 p.m. most weeknights on Fox Business, and approaches the news of the day with a wink and nudge, smuggling serious monologues about government spending, regulatory overreach, and political malfeasance in between segments driven by cat videos and memes.

After a taping of the show in June, Reason's Katherine Mangu-Ward chatted with Kennedy in her office, a small space crammed with serious books, absurd shoes, and brightly colored dresses high in the towers of 21st Century Fox* headquarters in Manhattan.

Reason: How did you become a libertarian?

Kennedy: I think I was born that way. Or at least born into a set of circumstances and family members that naturally steered me toward a path of individualism and limited government. The news was always on very loud in my house and you could only get news a couple hours of the day. Because of that, when we ate dinner, my dad would insist that the evening news be turned up at full volume and then he would shush us if we started talking during something very important. So I tried to listen to the terms which he found most interesting. They didn't make sense to me for a long, long time.

What were your parents' political leanings?

Both my parents were Democrats. My dad was definitely more of a fiscally conservative traditional Democrat. My mom was more of a feminist Camelot Democrat. They definitely had an idealistic view of life as it should be in the United States. And they had a sense that government had to have some hand in making people's lives better. So for me libertarianism was the ultimate form of rebellion.

"I think being deeply suspicious of government and communists is implicit in a lot of first-generation immigrants, particularly from Eastern Europe. My mom came over from Romania when she was a kid and they fled the commies who took their family hemp farm."

We both come from good Democratic families with Romanian roots. Do you think the Romanian experience of being dominated by assorted autocratic regimes over its entire history has something to do with your parents' politics or yours?

I definitely think my ancestry has something to do with my politics. And I think being deeply suspicious of government and communists is implicit in a lot of first-generation immigrants, particularly from Eastern Europe. My mom came over from Romania when she was a kid and they fled the commies who took their family hemp farm.

I'm sorry—a hemp farm?!

Yeah, and my grandmother always hated the female plant. She told me that she would never smoke it. And I tried to get her to enjoy some medical marijuana when she was in her later years and she had a few ailments. She refused because she said that the female plant is a drug. [Ed.—This is a common misconception, but hemp is not the male cannabis plant, it's just a different variety. For more on hemp, turn to page 38.]

And she's not wrong. She was a wise woman.

No. She wasn't super happy, though. Made everyone drink cherry vodka, but God forbid someone brings a reefer brownie into the house.

This is a common experience among immigrants—but not a universal experience. It's not as if everyone of Romanian or Russian extraction shows up in the United States and is like, "Woo! Thank God we can get on with the great libertarian project." There clearly are some other contributing factors to your politics. What comes next?

I was born in Indiana and raised in Oregon and there's a strong sense of individualism, particularly in Oregon. And my mom is an artist, so there was always a lot of emphasis placed on expression. She never raised us to distrust government as a tool for suppressing free expression, but obviously, as an expressor, you run into problems when trying to carry out your craft.

When I came home my freshman year of college, I had this very serious talk with my parents where I said: "I want to tell you guys something: I'm a libertarian." My mom cried. She said, "I bet you don't even believe in seat belt laws anymore." And I said, "I don't!" because I was a horrible 18-year-old and I was apparently determined to drive the knife in as deeply as I could. You became a very public, prominent non-liberal very early in your life. How did your family feel about that?

My mom was very disappointed when I came out as a Republican in high school. And being a Republican in high school was really fun because all of my teachers were extremely liberal. Expressing anything that was counter to their deeply held beliefs was so easily unsettling that that form of contrarianism was very comfortable. It wasn't comfortable for my mom. One time I lied to her and went to a Republican conference in Oregon. I told her I was staying at a friend's house. She worked for the phone company. And when I called her collect, she checked on Monday to see where the call came from, and the fact that it came from the beach where they were having the Dorchester conference meant that I was not spending the night at a friend's house. And she grounded me for spring break.

A lot of people become a libertarian because they read a book—The Road to Serfdom or The Fountainhead sends them on their way. Despite your glasses, I don't get the vibe that there's a single text that you would point to.

No. I had a set of strongly held beliefs, but didn't have the right name for it for a long time. And then having met and worked closely with [MTV anchor and future Reason columnist] Kurt Loder—he was the first one that told me I wasn't Republican; I was in fact a libertarian. I had heard the phrase but I didn't know what it meant. He gave me a copy of Ayn Rand's Objectivist Epistemology. Then I interviewed [magician and showman] Penn Jillette for our Halloween show at MTV and he expressed the same thing, that I was in fact a libertarian, and that it was OK to despise liberals, but there were things that were despicable about the Republican Party too. I also met Frank Zappa, and he was a left-of-center libertarian, but I appreciated what he had to say about free speech and I felt that his points of view were very well thought out and interesting. I had already been involved in the political process and had read a lot about politics, and in high school interned for my state representative and worked on a bunch of political campaigns and did Girls State and Girls Nation and youth legislature and student council. [So] from that point on, discovering that I was a libertarian was more about reading things and my own personal journey into confirmation bias.

Kennedy. Photo by Julian Dufort.

Confirmation bias is the greatest drug. Second only to the female plant, maybe.

That's right.

When you think about what can actually change in our politics, in the near to mid-term future, what are you optimistic about? Not cultural stuff, broadly, but what could we fix that's busted right now with the correct application of libertarian elbow grease?

I'm really excited by people like [Michigan Rep.] Justin Amash and [Kentucky Rep.] Thomas Massie and even [Utah Sen.] Mike Lee in Congress. These limited-government constitutionalists who still have some sense of irreverence. And if that is the next phase of the Republican Party then I think the country will be better off. But what I'm most looking forward to is some of the [Food and Drug Administration] regulations being scaled back, particularly so people with terminal conditions have the opportunity to try some drugs and procedures and trials that they otherwise haven't been able to because the FDA is so incredibly oppressive.

Do you think House Speaker Paul Ryan is a cautionary tale about those guys? If you asked me a few years ago, "Is he going to be a force for good on the Hill?" I would have said yes. Then he got some power and his libertarianism wilted.

The thing that gives me hope is they don't see Paul Ryan as one of theirs, and they're very vocal in their opposition to that strain of "establishment Republicanism." When you are guided by the Constitution—and I've never considered Paul Ryan to be a strict constitutionalist—then you have a lot of people to answer to who take great joy in holding you accountable. Hopefully those guys, and ladies of course, will maintain that accountability and that authenticity.

What keeps you awake at night? Obviously you have a chance to talk about that on your Fox Business show every day, but the bad news of today doesn't necessarily reflect the kind of macro stuff that makes me either happy or unhappy about where we are in the world right now.

My thing is slow-burning statist mission creep and seeing all forms of government move at a glacial pace towards the full extinction of our rights and civil liberties.

When my youngest daughter was 6 months old, we went to dinner at a neighbor's house, and when we came back she was crying. She was with two good friends of ours who had a 5-month-old. One was a former cop and one was a former medic in the Army so we knew that the girls were well taken care of. But they had let her roll off the couch and she broke her clavicle. I didn't know that because they didn't tell me.

So I had to take her to the E.R. the next morning because she had been crying all night long. And the doctor looked at me with such disdain. He pinched her shoulder and realized that that's where her injury was and they X-rayed her and realized that it was broken. And the doctor told me that they were going to X-ray every bone in her body and if any other bones were broken they were going to call a social worker, and they were going to take her from us and that it would be at least a month before we got her back. Fortunately none of her other bones were broken, but I realized how quickly and how easily, even though I had done nothing wrong, the state would not allow me to establish my innocence to keep my child if something else had, God forbid, been wrong. This is a child who had only been breastfed up to that point. The thought of them taking her away from us was beyond comprehension.

They called a social worker down to meet with us and then we went home, and about an hour later, [the Los Angeles Police Department] showed up at our door and wanted to inspect our house to make sure that we weren't abusing our children. One of the worst feelings on Earth is being accused of something that you haven't done wrong. And that is such a common thing for parents nowadays. The inability to establish your innocence and the presumption of guilt, especially with parents, is so overwhelming and so terrifying and so pervasive, whether it's in the pediatrician's office or at school.

I think that's why free-range parenting resonates with me so much. Parenting styles for the last 15 to 20 years have really gravitated towards this hyper-controlling, authoritarian helicopter parenting which is doing such a great disservice, not only to families but to individualism as a whole in society. Some of the hardest things you can go through as a parent are interfacing with oppressive institutions, whether it's school or law enforcement or the medical community or cliquish parents.

"One of the worst feelings on Earth is being accused of something that you haven't done wrong. And that is such a common thing for parents nowadays."

I find people are very receptive to that message in theory, but there's always a but: "Sure, helicopter parenting is bad, but there are a lot of child molesters out there." How do you convert the general instinct that something is not right to addressing the macro question of whether the state is too big and too powerful?

I think it really helps to have examples, because you have to teach kids how to comport themselves. [When I got the show on Fox] we made a big transition, moving from the suburbs of Los Angeles to Manhattan. And our girls have to be able to walk from Point A to Point B and they have to know how to handle themselves and what to be aware of. That independence has been very beneficial for them, and all of their friends do the same thing.

That's why I think it is incumbent upon us to place so much importance on developing the individual and that independence. I see more of that in Los Angeles, where parents are terrified to let their kids walk anywhere. And then they go to college, where they expect that they're going to be insulated from any bad or scary thing. You just cannot live like that.

What do you make of the view that "the kids these days, they're a mess. They're never gonna be able to run the world"? What's your panic quotient about free speech and snowflake coddling on college campuses? Part of me thinks this is a major civilizational problem—we are reaping what we've sown and we're going to get screwed. And the other part of me is like, eh, people love to panic about the wayward youths.

People love to panic and I don't mind that, I just don't want to have to pay for it. If everyone starts defaulting on their student loans, I don't feel obligated to pay for that. I don't feel obligated to pay for someone being on their parents' insurance until they're 26 years old. In that sense, we have our priorities completely backward. But every other day there's a new story on a college campus where people have been appeased to the point where they have lost their minds. It's a normalization of that ultra-liberalism that destroys the concept of the individual and the notion of free speech and free thought. It's more sad than dangerous, because what good art comes out of that? If you're insulated from anything that you could react to, you become so hyper-reactive that it's actually boring.

Could you imagine Andy Kaufman getting through some sort of comedy set on a college campus? It's unbelievable when I think of some of the stuff that my brothers and I watched and listened to when we were kids.

Do you speak on college campuses, or would you be concerned about getting shouted down the way folks like Charles Murray and Milo Yiannopoulos have been?

I don't think there's anything that I could say that would be genuine that would create that much of a scene on a college campus. But if you are a conservative writer, the best way to make money now is to write something that is so incendiary that you're going to create that kind of reaction on a college campus. And then you try to go to the places that are soaked in kerosene and just toss a match. I think that's what Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos do—they're brilliant self-marketers, and they're just expanding their own brands by doing that. They do it under the cloak of First Amendment saviorhood, but in reality they're just selling stuff.

Your show has a little bit of a different flavor than the typical cable news hour. It's candy-colored. It's got a lot of pop culture references. You blow kisses at your viewers.

Well, they're very deserving of it.

Obviously it's a conscious decision. Why do you present yourself that way?

I grew up in a loud, very funny house where you had to compete to be heard. I worked at MTV, where the visual component and the aesthetic was very important and satisfying, because it was layered with music and meaning. Just as music was the common language at MTV, news is the common language here. But we consume it in a way that's much more comfortable, in a language that we understand. It's the kind of conversation that you have with your friends when you're having a great dinner. When you're out at a restaurant with different kinds of people and you challenge each other and you laugh, that's the ultimate vibe I want to create on the show, because those are some of the best nights and those are some of the best conversations. When you're talking about race and politics and freedom and government, but you're also talking about celebrities and parenting and things like that, having substantial conversations that make you laugh so hard you could pee your pants, that's the ultimate goal.

So what I'm hearing is pants wetting is going to be happening on an upcoming Kennedy episode?

Absolutely. Yeah, if we do it right.

When are you going to be replaced by a robot?

Sooner rather than later, sadly.

In fact, many of your colleagues have already been replaced by robots.

Yeah, the DobbsBot 4000 is a pretty convincing facsimile. But, you know, if you squirt water on him, he does short out.

Last question: When you're at a party with your kids' friends and somebody says, "What is a libertarian, anyway?" what do you say?

Someone who catalogs and stacks books.

This interview has been edited for length, clarity, and style.

*CORRECTION: The article originally referred to News Corporation. It is actually 21st Century Fox, which was spun off of News Corporation in 2013.