Walker, Sykes and Belling
The New Republic feature story on Scott Walker and talk radio is juicy stuff. But is it true?
The feature begins with conservative talker Mark Belling ridiculing Congresswoman Gwen Moore, in a snippet that captures all the ugliness of what has long been one of the city’s most popular radio shows:
“Gwen Moore simply occupies a seat. A very large seat. … The woman is so fat and out of shape, she literally can’t get to the floor to vote anymore. … It’s time to vote and here’s Gwen: ‘I’m out of breath! Blew-ee, blew-ee!’ ” (Here Belling affected the exertions of an overweight black woman.) Or, he continued, perhaps there was another possibility: “What do you think the chances are she was sitting on the toilet? … Maybe Gwen was sitting there on the crapper and this was one that was not working out too well for her or something. ‘Blew-ee!’ ‘Congresswoman, you’ve got to vote.’ ‘I am sittin’ on de toilet!’”
New Republic magazine’s senior editor Alec MacGillis goes on to note other mean-spirited, racially-charged statements made in the past by Belling, and we are soon rolling along on his juicy tour of the racial politics of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.A.
No, it is not a pretty portrait, and it is getting national discussion, while leaving Belling, Charlie Sykes and many Republicans in an uproar. I think critics have a point about its portrayal of Scott Walker; some of MacGillis’ conclusions are dead wrong and the story’s headline, “The Unelectable Whiteness of Scott Walker,” is as misleading as it is grabby. But any Milwaukeean who reads this knows immediately that MacGillis has captured some very uncomfortable truths about Milwaukee’s racial divide and the role of talk radio. And because he is a very good writer, he offers deft portraits of Sykes, Belling and Walker.
MacGillis was able to convince Walker’s mother and others to discuss the governor’s upbringing and it’s gripping stuff:
“His father, Llewellyn, was a Baptist minister, and before Scott could even read, he was summoned to the front of church to offer prayers. At age seven, in tiny Plainfield, Iowa, where Reverend Walker served on the town council, Scott founded the ‘Jesus USA Club’ and would hop up on an improvised soapbox to raise money for a state flag outside the village hall…Walker went door to door to campaign for a classmate’s father who was running for local office. Walker’s parents told me that his teacher asked him why he was doing that. ‘Because he’s a good man,’ he informed her.
“…Walker was the prototypical preacher’s kid, acutely aware of the need to present a genial face to the world. ‘When you’re a ‘P.K.,’ you live in a fishbowl and are trained to be careful so that you don’t do anything that embarrasses your parents,’ says his mother, Patricia.
“’Sometimes, in high school,’ Patricia recalls, ‘he’d stay awake thinking of all the things in the world he could do something about.’”
“…His friends would apologize if they swore in his presence, and he wasn’t much for chasing girls. ‘He was a very nice-looking young man, always very neat in appearance,’ says Neill Flood, the town’s fire chief, whose daughter was a year ahead of Walker in school. ‘He was the kind of guy who liked everyone, and everyone liked him. There was never any physical attraction for Scott, girls being all over him.’ On Scott’s prom night, his mother recalls, he, his date, and some friends stayed up very late talking politics.”
That’s a great narrative, and one I suspect Walker will love. But conservative blogger Ann Althouse, whose lazy, narcissistic blog is for some reason a big hit nationally, concludes that MacGillis actually has a secret agenda here: to suggest that Walker is gay!
MacGillis’s grabby narrative next brings us to Walker’s student years at Marquette University, where “He would literally say, . . . ‘God has told me I’m chosen to cut taxes and stop killing babies,’ even in casual conversation,” recalled Glen Barry, a classmate of Walker’s. “On occasion, Walker would compare himself to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., noting that they were both the sons of Baptist ministers.”
In Walker’s freshman year, he was put in charge of an investigation into a lavish homecoming dinner that had been charged to student government accounts, and the future governor decided he wanted to impeach the students. It’s an absurd scene, with Walker questioning people as to how their corsage was paid for and ending with all the defendants being acquitted. Walker soon earned the nickname of “Neidermeyer,” after the authoritarian frat-house enforcer in Animal House.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Christian Schneider, the long-time Republican aide who nowadays spends much of his time defending Walker in his columns, offers a tone-deaf take on MacGillis that complains about his portrayal of Walker in his early days as a legislator. “Colleagues from both parties recall him as an amiable backbencher” MacGillis writes, who “seemed most intent on cultivating a constituency via the airwaves.”
Exactly. Walker was far more interested in building his name than passing legislation and was not a party insider or loyal follower of Gov. Tommy Thompson. MacGillis and Schnieder are actually saying the same thing, but Schneider can’t recognize it because he’s never been a reporter and has spent his life doing public relations.
MacGillis goes on to nail Walker’s great talent, which even then was clear to the savvy Republican Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, who “started sending Walker on television and the radio talk shows when he couldn’t make it and quickly realized that his colleague had an unerring ability to stay on message. ‘He’s the kind of guy you can wake up at three a.m. and ask him a question, and he’ll have a nice sound bite for you,’ says Jensen.”
Belling and Sykes became essential to Walker’s rise: the little-known assemblyman was frequently featured on the Sunday morning TV shows of both radio talkers (Belling no longer has the show), they tirelessly promoted him in his run for Milwaukee County Executive, and helped him defeat Mark Neumann in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary.
“No other midsize city has this kind of sustained and energized conservative forum for discussion of local politics,” MacGillis writes. I suspect few mid-sized cities have two conservative talk shows ranking near the top of radio ratings, though I would have liked to see some documentation.
MacGillis instead, offers us anecdotal takes: “’The listenership is just so much higher here,’ says Scott Jensen… ‘And the ability to get people to march in step when [the shows] are all hammering the same themes is extraordinary.’ Dale Schultz, a moderate Republican state senator in southwestern Wisconsin who is retiring this year, is blunter. ‘Talk radio gets going and some of my colleagues end up wetting themselves,’ he says. ‘It’s appalling.’”
MacGillis offers a deft take on the radio squawkers: “Sykes is a thrice-married man-about-town with a smooth on-air manner and modish eyeglasses who has built himself into a multimedia brand, with a Sunday TV show on the NBC affiliate, books subsidized by conservative funders (his latest: A Nation of Moochers), and a subscription-based website, “Right Wisconsin” (which sometimes refers to Michelle Obama as “Mooch”). Belling is introverted and brooding—he zips in and out from the station’s suburban studio in his Jaguar, interacting with co-workers no more than necessary.”
Sykes clearly cooperated with MacGillis and does his best to charm the writer. He jokes about how often Walker would send him email messages. (Sykes, and to a lesser extent, Belling have since complained that MacGillis was off on some details here but Sykes makes clear Walker’s intimate ties with the two: “He keeps in very close touch with us…I don’t make any secret we’re close to Scott.”) Both radio hosts have long jumped to do anything to support Walker, and have bragged about their impact.
Sykes tells MacGillis he grew disillusioned with liberalism while covering City Hall for the Milwaukee Journal in the late ‘70s and seeing the failure of urban programs. “I thought: This thing doesn’t work as planned,” Sykes says.
The only problem with that story is that Sykes was still liberal (though hawkish on national defense) in the mid-1980s as Milwaukee Magazine’s editor; I worked under him and he was a huge fan then, ironically enough, of the New Republic, which he probably told MacGillis. Sykes went to serve (in the late 1980s) as an aide of liberal Milwaukee County Executive Dave Schulz, who was known to offer rhapsodic speeches about the dignity of welfare recipients.
MacGillis is clearly fascinated — and amused — by the endless contradictions of Sykes. He includes a great scene of his tagging along with Sykes at the state Republican convention, where the a session called “Media panel,” they are informed, “is closed to media.”
“To Sykes’s irritation, the GOP bouncer failed to recognize him and wouldn’t let him in. ‘To hell with these guys,’ Sykes muttered and retired with three associates to the bar area, where I joined them for drinks. Moments later, a young woman materialized to apologize profusely for the mix-up and to assure Sykes that he was welcome upstairs. Playing hard to get, he told her he might make an appearance later.”
It’s quite a moment, Sykes not being allowed inside the castle after all of his endless shilling for Republicans.
“Over Sykes’s second glass of wine,” MacGills recounts, “we got onto ‘The Wire,’ which Sykes loves, a fact that, along with his cerebral manner, was making it hard for me to reconcile him with his abrasive on-air persona. I asked whether his rhetoric was contributing to Milwaukee’s polarization. ‘I don’t think radio shows change people’s perceptions, because people’s perceptions are based on people’s own experience,’ he said.” In short the ugly rhetoric of Belling and more coded statements of Sykes don’t help inflame racism in metro Milwaukee; they have no impact. Yet Sykes eagerly claims credit for Walker’s defeat of Neumann, and constantly touts his impact on elections.
The reality is that Sykes and Belling make much of their living by savaging the city of Milwaukee for residents of surrounding counties. Sykes actually tells MacGillis about the moment when, based on his listeners’ reactions to an education issue, “I realized we weren’t a Milwaukee station anymore.”
“Today, less than 2 percent of the WOW counties’ population (in Waukesha, Washington and Ozaukee counties) is African American and less than 5 percent is Hispanic. According to studies by the Brookings Institution and Brown University, the Milwaukee metro area is one of the top two most racially segregated regions in the country,” MacGillis writes. “During a break in the (GOP state convention) proceedings, Jeff Johns, the genial chairman of the Ozaukee County Republican Party, warned me about Fond du Lac Avenue, which bisects the black swath of northwest Milwaukee. ‘You don’t want to travel that at night,’ he says. ‘You’re basically traveling the colored section.’ He also voiced suspicions about Democratic turnout operations in Milwaukee, with campaigns ‘picking people up for their votes’ and rewarding them with ‘free meals and benefits.’”
MacGillis is so struck by the racial divisions in metro Milwaukee that he makes the mistake of overstating its state-wide impact. The reality is the the huge Republican turnout of the WOW counties is neutralized the huge Democratic turnout of Milwaukee County, which means Walker has to win the rest of the state. While he certainly ran against Milwaukee in the 2012 recall election, and hasn’t been very helpful to the city as a governor, he won because independents and even some Democrats in this state didn’t think a governor should be recalled for passing a piece of legislation, no matter how some people hated it.
As for MacGillis’ central conclusion, that Walker has inflamed partisan and racial divisions in this state and is therefore not a viable Republican candidate for president, he couldn’t be more wrong. His hard-edged conservatism is just what red meat Republican primary voters want in a candidate.
And should Walker win the GOP nomination, his emphasis on cutting benefits for government workers has been proven to have appeal for a thin majority in a state that has supported the Democratic candidate for president in seven straight elections. Yes, Walker has polarized Wisconsin, but he is very good at running campaigns based on cutting taxes and deemphasizing his unpopular stands on social issues like same sex marriage. Walker won’t be seen as a racist candidate for president because he has never made the sort of statements his buddies Belling and Sykes use to “entertain” their listeners. He has simply benefited from them.
Sykes’ column complaining about MacGillis is nothing but nitpicking and far below of the quality of the writing Sykes did back when he was a real journalist, but if you’re curious and want to pay to read it, here is the link.