The Many Faces of Charlie Sykes
He’s spent his whole career changing his views. So which should we believe?
The Los Angeles Times is the latest to tell the story of the “new” Charlie Sykes. The paper’s politics writer, Mark Barabak simply couldn’t resist the juicy storyline of a conservative talk show host renouncing Donald Trump and blaming right wing radio for his rise.
“There’s a fortune to be made going out speaking to liberals and telling them how evil and awful conservatives are,” conservative talker Mark Belling told the LA Times. However heartfelt the change, Belling added, “It’s undeniable that it has opened doors for him that otherwise would not have existed.”
Of course, if the change is simply a calculated career move, then there is no story for the national media. Barabak writes the standard “balanced” daily newspaper article, but ends it with Sykes on his stationery bike fuming at Trump’s inauguration speech. It’s just too good a story not to tell, though we only have Sykes’ word for it.
Charlie saw first hand the dramatic impact of a renunciation of one’s political views when his father Jay Sykes engaged in this. Jay Sykes had run liberal Democratic presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy’s campaign in 1968 and served on the board of the state ACLU. But about five years later he wrote an over-the-top essay for the Milwaukee Journal Sunday magazine — “A Liberal Recants” — harshly condemning liberalism.
At age 13, Charlie had helped his dad, working on the campaign for “Clean Gene,” and called the Democrat “one of the noblest, most honorable men in American politics” in a 2000 Milwaukee Magazine feature by Kurt Chandler. (It’s the best story ever done on Charlie’s personal side, a sad portrait of an isolated man with no friends.)
Charlie talked politics a lot with his dad and seems to have made the same change in political views. “I sensed that liberalism, instead of this free spirit, was becoming this rigid and constant moral hectoring,” he told Chandler. Sykes had converted to Catholicism at age 18 and joined a pro-life group (Jay Sykes’s essay was particularly hard on liberals for countenancing abortion.)
Charlie also had a pro-life girlfriend who got pregnant. A tough issue: Some might have considered an abortion. Charlie got married at age 20. The marriage lasted less than three years.
After getting his degree from UW-Milwaukee, as he once disclosed to me, he did some work for the conservative (anti-abortion, anti-sex-education) Catholic League, and worked as a reporter for a suburban weekly where he did stories critical of a proposed suburban school integration plan. So this was clearly a pretty conservative guy.
Yet after becoming a reporter for the city’s liberal paper, the Milwaukee Journal, Sykes did his first chameleon act, deftly changing colors. He came to be seen as liberal, all the more so after his sympathetic coverage of Democratic legislator Dennis Conta’s challenge to incumbent Mayor Henry Maier in 1980.
This was a time when Democrats dominated in city, county and state politics. And Charlie was always attracted to power. After joining the staff of Milwaukee Magazine in the 1980s and rising to editor, Charlie gleefully attacked conservatives like Judge Christ Seraphim and championed liberal Democrats like Gov. Tony Earl. He was close to some Democratic politicians and did a feature story on the best and worst legislators where he savaged many Republicans. This was the liberal Charlie Sykes — except that he voted for Ronald Reagan, he once told me.
Yet by 1990, Sykes had become a huge fan of Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, the man Sykes had lampooned in the pages of Milwaukee Magazine. Wisconsin’s power structure was moving to the right, and Sykes moved right along with it. He dubbed himself a “recovered liberal,” getting lots of publicity for his dramatic transformation, and soon connected to Belling, who helped Sykes land a job as a talk show host on WISN.
In less than a year, in 1993, Sykes jumped ship to WTMJ, with a show that touted him as “Standing Up for What’s Right,” an obvious steal of former mentor Belling’s slogan, “Standing Up For Milwaukee.” Sykes would jab Belling as a “paleo-conservative,” while describing himself as a more high-toned neoconservative, but over time Sykes became more and more paleo. You have to keep throwing red meat to talk radio listeners and a neocon diet is more like veal cordon bleu.
I can only imagine how hard it must have been for someone like Charlie, always deeply cynical and Mencken-like about the intelligence level of the great unwashed masses, spending day after day — for 24 years — stoking the anger and wing-nut conspiracy theories of his listeners.
But the paychecks were great. Between his radio gig and right wing dollars for his books from conservative groups, Sykes did very well. And he had the power to help elect and defeat candidates, and make friendships with heavyweights like Gov. Scott Walker, House Speaker Paul Ryan and the conservative Bradley Foundation’s president Mike Grebe.
By 2016, however, Sykes must have gotten sick of it all. Sources tell me he applied for the position of president of the Bradley Foundation after Grebe announced his resignation, and Sykes was never seriously considered for the job. After all he had done for the right-wing cause. That had to be infuriating. (And yes, there has always been some anger fueling Charlie’s views.)
So Sykes fell back on his well-practiced turn as the enlightened political turncoat who has suddenly — and ruefully, wittily, quotably — seen the error of his former ways. Rather than become king of the nation’s biggest conservative foundation, Sykes maneuvered to become the titan of talk radio traitors, getting coverage in the Politico and National Public Radio, and winning a position as contributor to MSNBC.
And all the stories about him and all the op eds he writes come with a neat apologia for the wrong he once did.
If he contributed to racism in Milwaukee, if he failed to open his show to more divergent viewpoints, if he helped convince listeners to reject facts published by the mainstream press, Sykes confessed to Barabak, “I got to own up to that.”
These are fine and lofty phrases, but this is a man who was doing this for 24 years, and only now realizes the damage done? As former Wisconsin Democratic Chairman Mike Tate put it to Barabak, Sykes is like “a guy who slowly fed poison to his dog for 10 years then, when the dog dies of poisoning, throws up his hands and says, ‘My God, how did that happen?’”
It’s all just a little too easy. Saul became Paul on his way to Damascus, but Sykes has turned the road to conversion into fast-change freeway where he has a come-to-Jesus, struck-by-lightning transformation every decade or so. At some point you have to ask who is the real Charlie Sykes and why we should believe anything he says. No, I can’t see into Charlie’s heart (and I have doubts about his level of self-knowledge), but we can surely judge a man by his actions, and Charlie’s leave him with little credibility and lots of cynically-earned fame.
That makes him an expert, all right, and a particularly American one. F. Scott Fitzgerald said there were no second acts in American life, but Charlie Sykes could offer detailed lectures on how wrong the writer was. The more instructive American maxim about Sykes comes to us from the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact… print the legend.”
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