Gretchen Carlson on Fox News, faith, and family
How a well-known journalist and mom learned how to seize the day
Gretchen Carlson developed her journalism skills as a reporter at local stations for more than a decade in places like Richmond, Va., Cleveland, Ohio, Dallas, and Cincinnati before getting called up to the networks by CBS News in 2000. She moved to Fox News in 2006. She has a new book called Getting Real, due out next month. Carlson was valedictorian of her high school class, is an accomplished violinist, holds a degree from Stanford University, and won the Miss America pageant in 1989. I had this conversation with her in the staff lunchroom at Fox News in New York City.
Your grandfather was a Lutheran pastor of a church that grew into one of the first megachurches in the country. He was a huge influence in my life. Not only did he teach me perseverance—because he grew up on a dirt floor in southern Minnesota—he was the only child of five to go past the seventh grade. He dedicated his life to Christ early on, and he made sure that he figured out a way to get to college and then to the seminary.
The way he got to college, I understand, was on a football scholarship. He had never even played football, but he was helping the janitor at the church and the football coach saw him, and he was a big, strapping young boy. He said, “Have you ever played football before?” My grandfather said, “No.” He probably didn’t even know what it was. The coach said, “Well, you’re going to play on the high school football team now.” … He was able to play in high school, got a college scholarship to a small private Swedish college in Minnesota named Gustavus Adolphus, and then he went to seminary.
When he started at the church in my hometown of Anoka, Minn., there were 800 members. He used to go and visit personally with every family that moved to town and sit down and have coffee with them. … He grew that church to 8,000 members. It was absolutely unbelievable.
You were raised in that church. Do you go to church today? I’m actually a Presbyterian now, but not because I changed my beliefs in any way. I wanted to find a church in the community in which I lived that afforded my family, including my kids, the same opportunities that I had in a big church. Lutheran churches on the East Coast are not necessarily big, so one of the reasons we chose to go to this Presbyterian church was because of the minister, but also because of the programs. I always say that I don’t think my grandfather is rolling over too much in his grave because I found out that Presbyterian was the next denomination to be formed after Martin Luther.
Do you mind saying which church you go to? I go to First Presbyterian Church of Greenwich. It’s actually where I’m having my book launched. My husband and I teach Sunday school there together. We’re extremely involved in the church. One year we teach for my younger son; the next year we teach for my older daughter. My husband has been a deacon, and I host many events for the church. My kids cook for the homeless there. I’m trying to give my kids what I had because, especially in 2015, I really believe that kids need to have that religious foundation to be able to tackle all the issues that we’re facing in the world today.
Fox News has a reputation of being faith-friendly. Have you found it tough to be both a committed Christian and a practicing journalist? Fox is the first place that I felt comfortable talking about my faith because we do tend to cover stories like that. The one story that really catapulted me into this environment of talking about my faith frequently was when people had petitioned to put up … a Festivus pole in the state of Washington during the Christmas season. First of all, Festivus is a made-up holiday on the sitcom Seinfeld, so it’s not even a real holiday.
I was on the set of Fox and Friends at the time with my co-hosts Brian [Kilmeade] and Steve [Doocy], whom I adore. But they thought it was extremely funny, and I actually was really offended by it. I said, “Look, if we’re going to grant a petition to somebody to put up a silly pole next to the crèche, first of all, that’s demeaning. Second of all, I don’t want our society to move in that direction where I have to take my kids around during the Christmas season to look at all the nativity scenes in town and say to them eventually, ‘Oh, look, kids. Baby Jesus is way back behind here, behind the Festivus pole and the atheist tree and everything else that’s in its way.’”
That really became my launching pad for speaking out a lot about my Christian values. I have to tell you that on the streets of New York City or anywhere else, if somebody happens to recognize me, nine times out of 10 they will say to me, “Thank you so much for speaking out about your religion and traditional values,” so I know that it’s important for me to continue.
On a personal level, do you engage in any regular spiritual disciplines like Bible study or prayer or any small-group accountability with others? You know what, I would love to have the time to do that. I don’t have the time to get together in the mornings when most of those sessions are happening because I am a working mom. I have my own personal religious rituals that I go through on a daily basis and I share those with my kids at night, as well. One of the things we do is that we have the Bible by their bedside. We have this game where we open the Bible in any place and they point, without looking, at a particular verse and then we read it and then we talk about it. Sometimes, of course, they’re difficult to understand and sometimes there’s a psalm so it makes total sense.
That’s the way in which I’m trying to keep the Bible alive with my kids on a daily basis and to let them know that they are loved not only by their parents but by God in heaven. … That’s very comforting to kids, especially when they’re going through difficult times.
For me personally, what I like to say is that religion is the one thing in my life that I have never questioned. I do find it interesting, because my job as a reporter is to be curious and to question everything else in life, but I find it very comforting for me to know that that’s the one thing that just is. I think that’s a blessing, actually, that no matter what happens, that is my foundation.
You won Miss America in 1989 partly on the strength of your musical talent. You played violin from an early age. Is it true you have perfect pitch? I do, yes. That was probably the original interest that I had in music. I would hear commercials on TV. According to my mom, I would go down to the piano and plunk out the tune. Then I asked to play piano, so we went up to the neighborhood piano teacher. She looked at my hands and she said, “Oh, she’ll never be any good. Her hands are just way too small.”
In a fluke, we went up to the local junior high. I remember seeing all the stringed instruments hanging on the wall, and, just by happenstance, I said, “That one looks good.” It was a violin, and it just clicked. It maybe could have been anything, and ironically, I do play the piano now, as well. It just happened so fast. Within a matter of months, my teacher at the time was saying, “Look, she outgrew me,” so I was going to somebody else.
I think it’s really important for any child to put time into something, whether it’s sports or school or music, because what you learn from an early age is when you put a small amount or a large amount of time into something, you get better, and that builds self-esteem and discipline. Even though I didn’t make the violin my career, the lessons that I learned from having to be so incredibly disciplined as a child have stayed with me every single day.
You studied under the legendary Juilliard School music teacher Dorothy DeLay. What was that experience like? It’s a complicated experience. I ended up with the best teacher in the Midwest at the time, and really my family and I had to grapple with the decision of whether or not they should send me away to New York City when I was 12 years old and just live here permanently to try and become a famous concert artist. Part of me wanted that, and part of me wanted to have a normal upbringing in Minnesota. The way in which we rectified that was for me to go to the Aspen Music Festival every summer from a young age so that I could study with Dorothy DeLay. … I started going when I was 10 years old. I basically gave up my entire summer and went out and did music at an intense level for those nine weeks and studied with Dorothy DeLay. …
In a way, it was a relief to me that my parents didn’t make that ultimate decision to bring me here because even though I had this unique gift, I also had an incredibly normal upbringing in the wonderful place of Minnesota. I think about that every single day. I saw a lot of musicians who weren’t exactly happy, and I think that was one of the reasons that I decided to ultimately not make it my career when I was 17 years old.
Did you ever wake up in the morning and say, “Oh, I just want to throw that violin in the fireplace?” I loved it up until about 13 or 14 because that’s when children in life start having a lot of distractions … and also a lot of interests. Fortunately, for me, I had a lot of other interests. I was interested in drama, in choir, in schoolwork, especially, in sports, and in boys. I realized eventually that for me to want to only do the violin, I was going to have to do that with tunnel vision and give up everything else in my life. I just couldn’t see myself doing that. It was a grueling decision, and that’s really how I got involved in the Miss America pageant, because I went away from it for a couple of years and my mom got a brochure in the mail and it said “50 percent talent.” She called me up. I happened to be studying at Oxford at the time. She said, “I found what you can do to make use of your talent.” I said, “What?” She said, “The Miss America pageant.” I said, “What the heck are you talking about? No way.” I grew up a chubby kid, slash fat. I had never been involved in pageants. I don’t even think I had watched them. I was more interested in watching football on Sundays, or golf. It took a lot of convincing from my mother for me to enter the first program.
But you ultimately did? Luckily, in the Miss America system, a huge chunk of it is also scholarship. In other words, any money that you accrue by participating has to be used for education, which was a big reason why I did it as well, but mainly because of my violin.
You have said you had another important mentor, your English teacher, Jack Nabedrick. Tell me about him. He was known as the toughest teacher in the entire high school. I was on track to try and become valedictorian, so that meant I had to get an A in his class. I was already nervous coming in. On my first paper that was on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, he didn’t put a grade at the bottom of it. He wrote two words in a language that I was not familiar with. It said, “C-A-R-P-E D-I-E-M.” I marched up to his desk, and I said, “What the heck does this mean?” He said, “Well, you’ll have to figure it out.” I said, “Well, where’s my grade?” He said, “I’m not going to put a grade on there. You have to figure it out.”
I went to the library and I figured out it was Latin and carpe diem means seize the day. I went back to him and I said, “Well, I know what it means now, so where’s my grade?” He said, “No, no, no.” He said, “You need to understand that that’s what I want you to do in life. I want you to take time, to sit back and stop worrying about being so perfect and worrying about all those As and seize the day.” I have to tell you, that motto, those two words have stuck with me my entire life, and I think about it almost every single day.
This is a little bit of a random topic, but you do mention it in the book. Former Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., was your babysitter. She was a great babysitter.
Was she really? She was so cool to me, so cool. I knew nothing about her life at the time. I didn’t know she had struggled with a single parent and didn’t have a lot of means. She went to the high school that I ended up going to. … I don’t ever remember talking about politics, because I was a little girl at the time. The best thing about Michele Bachmann was she let me drink grape soda when my mom said, no grape soda. … She helped my parents, along with other politicians in Minnesota, get their car dealership back when we went through that whole General Motors thing a couple of years ago.
General Motors was going to close your dad’s car dealership. Even though it was profitable and a private business, it was ultimately shuttered in the last slashes of dealerships that they took out. My mom at the time was running the business, and she said, “Over my dead body.” She went and became best friends with every politician. Of course, she already knew Michele. She went to Capitol Hill. She lobbied on dealerships’ behalf, and guess what? She got it back, and they have built a big new building now and she is still CEO at 74 years old. … My mom’s best quote ever was, “I never worked so hard to get back what I already owned.”
What do you want people to say about you whenever they’re standing over your grave?
I hope that I will have been inspirational to people. My greatest goal in life is to empower young people to believe in themselves and to be able to make the most of who they are. That’s why I believe so strongly in helping other people. My door is always open. I got help along the way, and I want to make sure that I do that for other people, as well. So, “inspirational,” I guess, is the word that I would use. Motivating. I hope I’m doing that with my kids, too. I think I am. I always say I work more for my son than for my daughter, because I face some struggles in the workplace in being a strong woman. I want him to respect me first and foremost, but then when he gets into the workforce, I want him to look at his other female colleagues and say, “Oh, yeah, my mom used to be like that,” and have the same amount of respect for them as he does for me. In a nutshell, inspirational, empowering.
Listen to Warren Cole Smith’s full interview with Gretchen Carlson on Listening In.
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