Jack Lessenberry

Essay/Analysis: Political Commentator

A Detroit native, Jack originally intended to become a historian, but recognized that he wanted to become a journalist during his graduate studies at the University of Michigan.  Since then, he has accumulated nearly forty years of journalism experience in every medium from newspapers to the internet. Jack has worked as a foreign correspondent and executive national editor of The Detroit News, and he has written for many national and regional publications, including Vanity Fair, Esquire, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe.

Currently, in addition to his work at Michigan Radio, he is head of journalism at Wayne State University and a contributing editor and columnist for The Metro Times, Dome Magazine, The Traverse-City Record Eagle, and The Toledo Blade, where he also serves as ombudsman, and hosts the weekly public affairs program "Deadline Now"  on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

Among his favorite memories are of interviewing Gerald Ford about Watergate in 1995 and winning a national Emmy for a documentary about Jack Kevorkian in 1994.

On a personal note, Jack mostly stopped watching TV -- except for documentaries -- when Mr. Ed was canceled, though he admits to a fondness for the crusty old butler on Downton Abbey.

According to Nolan Finley, the editorial page editor of the Detroit News, the legislature is actually close to a bipartisan deal to finally fix the roads.

Finley is close to the Republican leadership, and the News is essentially a Republican newspaper, so it makes sense that they would use his column as a sounding board.

As you might expect, I spend a good deal of time talking to people about politics, at least if I can manage to get them not to run away.

And I’ve noticed something remarkable this year. If I can badly abuse William Butler Yeats, the worst may be filled with passionate intensity, but the best are largely frustrated and bored out of their skulls. Here’s something to think about.

(Editor's note: Due to technical difficulties we were unable to record audio for Jack's segment today. No worries, you'll be able to hear him again tomorrow.)

A few weeks ago I was asked about a pledge three Michigan counties and the city of Detroit had made to completely end all veteran and chronic homelessness by the end of next year.

I was, frankly, skeptical. There are far too many homeless in this country. From talking to members of Detroit’s Vietnam Veterans of America chapter, I know that veteran homelessness is a major problem. But I think sometimes setting impossible goals can backfire.

Some days I find myself wishing President Obama would make a speech honoring motherhood and propose a program to honor mothers.

If he did that, it’s very clear most Republicans would refuse to support honoring mothers.


This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry and Christina Shockley talk about the other issues involving Todd Courser, R-Lapeer, and Cindy Gamrat, R-Plainwell; more problems with water in Flint; and Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette's opposition to President Obama's new rules to reduce greenhouse gases.

Well, as anyone who cares now knows, the official report on the “alleged misconduct” by Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat was released yesterday.

And it makes it clear that there is no longer anything “alleged” about their misconduct. What’s most shocking to me is that they both didn’t resign long ago in order to prevent a report like this from being made public.

Well, this is the day everyone in Lansing has been waiting for. Unfortunately, if you think I’m talking about fixing the roads, you’re wrong.

No, this is the day the Michigan House of Representatives is due to release its report on the Todd Courser-Cindy Gamrat scandal. We already know they found evidence of misconduct and misuse of taxpayer resources.

Dave Mesrey needs a root canal and possibly shoulder surgery and can’t afford either one, on his very part-time job doing editing work for an alternative newspaper.

He doesn’t much care about that. His car broke down years ago and he can’t afford to fix it, but he doesn’t dwell much on that, either. What he cares about is a nine and a half acre field of dreams to which he’s devoted himself for the last five years.

Earlier this year I talked about Southfield, which I think is one of the more intriguing communities in Michigan.

Southfield, which has between 70,000 and 75,000 people, basically was born, like so many other places, with the great suburban sprawl that began in the early 1950s, with the coming of the freeways and the malls.

There’s a big issue simmering beneath the surface that you will hear a lot more about after mid-October.

The government of Canada wants to bury low and intermediate level nuclear waste in a repository in Ontario, less than a mile from Lake Huron. The proposed repository is approximately across Lake Huron from the tip of Michigan’s Thumb.

Not surprisingly, this has environmental groups in both the United States and Canada up in arms.

 Years and years ago, I worked for a crusty old publisher who would not report the results of opinion polling in his newspaper. I thought he was a horribly backward troglodyte.

Today, I’m not so sure. In fact, I have come to think that most so-called election polling is somewhere between silly and stupid and harmful to the democratic process.

I try not to write about sex for one reason. Not because I am squeamish. It’s just that sex is so powerful that whenever it’s injected into public life, it too often overshadows everything else.

The nation was obsessed with Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky for a good two years in the nineties, years in which many other national priorities didn’t get enough attention.

As you probably know, the latest effort to reach a compromise to fix Michigan’s roads collapsed this week, as have all the others. 

Yesterday I suggested one possible solution: Forget talking about taxes. Instead, raise the price of gasoline 30 cents a gallon and call that “user fee,” and use the money to fix the roads.

Contrary to what you might think, it is not true that our government in Lansing can’t do anything. Why, just yesterday, the governor reappointed four members to the Michigan Carrot Commission. 

And the state House of Representatives unanimously voted to retroactively recognize last Sunday as Airborne Day, whatever that means.

I’ve been studying presidential elections for a long time, and can tell you that this has been the most anti-immigrant campaign since the Know-Nothing Party of the early 1850s.

Ironically, many of those bashing immigrants today are descended from people who the early immigrant-bashers hated: Germans, Irish and Catholics.

But I’m not sure that even the Know-Nothings ever descended to the levels we’ve seen this year, with the leading Republican presidential candidate saying he’d build a wall across our southern border and force Mexico to pay for it. Nor did they ever call for repealing the part of the Constitution that says children born here are automatically citizens.

Michigan drivers have become all too familiar with the dreaded pothole.
flickr user Michael Gil / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

This Week in Michigan Politics, Michigan Radio’s senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry and Morning Edition host Christina Shockley discuss another road funding plan, proposed changes for medical marijuana cardholders, and body cameras.

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Mary Beth Kelly unexpectedly announced yesterday that she was leaving the court in six weeks to return to private practice, where she will presumably make more money. 

She was first elected to the court less than five years ago, but is bailing out only about halfway through her term, saying she had accomplished what she set out to do.

I may be the only person who felt this way, but when I was watching Cindy Gamrat’s sad little press conference Friday, the first person I thought of was Oliver Cromwell.

I’m not sure that even Ms. Gamrat or Todd Courser or State Senator Virgil Smith ever heard of the 17th century British statesman. 

Seventy years ago today, the people of Japan heard their emperor’s voice on the radio for the first time. In perhaps history’s best example of euphemism, he told them, “Circumstances in the world conflict have proceeded in a manner not necessarily to our advantage.”

World War II, the greatest war in history, was over. Sixteen million Americans had served, hundreds of thousands from Michigan. Nearly thirteen thousand Michiganders died. I was born less than seven years after it ended, and growing up, most kids’ daddies had been in the war. They had souvenir Lugers and helmets and battle flags.

Everyone knows that the city of Flint has seen better days. Its population is half what it was in 1970; the city has barely one-eighth the General Motors jobs that once existed.

“I’ve been an eyewitness to the biggest change any community can imagine,” Congressman Dan Kildee told me yesterday in his office in downtown Flint.

Kildee is a famous name in Flint; his uncle Dale was congressman there for thirty-six years; his nephew won reelection to his seat when he retired five years ago.

Breaking the ice

Aug 12, 2015

Nobody is thinking about frozen lakes this time of year, but we will be soon enough. We’ve just had two of the harshest and coldest winters in decades.

Two years ago, at one point 93 percent of the Great Lakes’ surface was covered with ice.

Last year was almost as bad. The lakes are, as U.S. Sen. Gary Peters reminded me this week, a major American commercial highway, with freighters carrying billions of dollars worth of iron ore and other materials moving across their many hundreds of miles.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

This Week in Michigan Politics, Michigan Radio’s senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry and Morning Edition host Christina Shockley discuss Donald Trump's latest trip to Michigan, a sex scandal, and a plan to end homelessness.

Last month the state approved petition language for three more ballot proposals – but the organizers of one isn’t satisfied. She's not dissatisfied with what the state did, but with the language her group submitted. They want to make sure they get it as close to right as possible.

They’ve talked to lawyers, revised the wording, and plan to ask the state to allow them to substitute the new text. After that, they have to try and get 315,654 valid signatures.

Hillsdale County is, in many ways, a flashback to the America that used to be, a place of rolling hills and pleasant little towns and farms and orchards along the Ohio border.

It was settled by New Englanders, and to this day, most of its forty-six thousand people are of either English or German descent. People born there tend to spend their lives there.

Republicans around this state woke up this morning to a double-barreled nightmare. The biggest is national. Last night, Donald Trump stood on a stage in Cleveland and essentially threatened to run a third-party campaign if he doesn’t get the presidential nomination.

If he does that, whomever the Democrats nominate is almost certain to win. The first George Bush would have been reelected in 1992 if it wasn’t for Ross Perot splitting the Republican Party, just as Al Gore would have won eight years later without Ralph Nader.

A Trump candidacy could be far worse, so much so that you might well have the official Republican candidate finishing third.

I was intrigued to learn that a Traverse City bookstore was offering refunds to people who had ordered “Go Set a Watchman,” the long-awaited publishing sensation of the summer. The critics are in near-universal agreement that the book, by the author of the American classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, isn’t very good.

When the news broke yesterday that Detroit Tigers General Manager Dave Dombrowski had been fired, I was sitting in a TV studio with Amy Peterson, one of the baseball team’s lawyers.

I didn’t know about Dombrowski, and I wasn’t talking to her about baseball, but about a unique business she’s started that is using art to give disadvantaged women new lives.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

This Week in Michigan Politics, Michigan Radio’s senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry and Morning Edition host Christina Shockley discuss the first female mayor of Grand Rapids, this week's elections,  accusations of racism against Gov. Snyder and Detroit emergency managers, the number of college degrees among Michigan lawmakers.

Years ago, a professor who had contempt for politics asked me if I knew what the difference was between Pavlov’s dogs and most politicians. His answer was: Sometimes when the great Russian behaviorist rang his bell, the dogs failed to salivate.

Being a journalist was in many ways harder when I was working for newspapers in the 1970s and 80s. There was no Google, no World Wide Web, no search engines of any kind.

  We relied on land-line telephones, books, and old newspaper clippings kept in what we called the “morgue.”