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.

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.”

The group that oversees what goes on our ballots approved language for three more potential ballot proposals for next year. There’s no guarantee that any or all of these will get enough signatures to be certified for the ballot, of course.


I spent some time yesterday in Mount Clemens talking with Mark Hackel, who four and a half years ago became the first executive Macomb County has ever had. You’d have a hard time finding anyone as enthusiastic about any county anywhere as Hackel is about Macomb.

Four years ago, Marian McClellan was a retired teacher who’d lived for the past quarter century in the small Detroit suburb of Oak Park, just north of the city.

Oak Park’s story was similar to that of many older, so-called inner ring suburbs. It was largely pastures and swamps before World War II. Then, as the freeways came, it exploded. Barely a thousand people lived there in 1945.


Norris Wong / Flickr

This Week in Michigan Politics, Michigan Radio’s senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry and Morning Edition host Christina Shockley discuss a land swap deal between Detroit and the owners of the Ambassador Bridge; the beginnings of a lawsuit over an Enbridge pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac; and how some residents in Hamtramck are getting so fed up with bad roads, they are filling in potholes on their streets themselves. 


For the past week or so, I’ve gotten emails and calls from people who want to know why I won’t help “expose” the evil being done by Planned Parenthood. They say that it has now been definitely proven that the non-profit family planning organization profits off the sale of fetal body parts, which they say Planned Parenthood deliberately harvests in brutal ways.

This has caused sort of a national “primal howl” by conservative and anti-abortion activists, who are demanding Planned Parenthood be defunded or even prosecuted.


Two weeks ago, I reported on a little-known trade conflict between the United States and Canada that could cost Michigan farmers nearly $700 million in retaliatory trade sanctions.

This involves a U.S. law known as COOL, for Country-of-Origin-Labeling. It took effect in 2008, and requires all meat to be labeled with its country of origin.

If you want a practical illustration of why term limits are a bad idea, here’s a good one. Yesterday, Senator Debbie Stabenow managed to engineer a deal to save perhaps $100 million in federal blight funds set aside to help Michigan cities tear down ruined buildings.

Here’s something that we seldom realize, but which incessantly fascinates me. You know that for some time, microbreweries have been all the rage. But in fact, we live in a world full of microcultures, which we like to think are more or less interwoven into whatever passes for mainstream culture.

Wayne County woes

Jul 22, 2015

If you’ve studied biology, you may know about a phenomenon called protective coloration. Snowshoe hares, for example, are brown in the fall and white in the winter, so they can blend into their surroundings and not be easily seen by predators.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

This week in Michigan Politics, political analyst Jack Lessenberry talks about Wayne County’s financial crisis and the plans to fix it, children in poverty, the roads stalemate, and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s trip to Japan. 

Money troubles for Wayne County

Wayne County, Michigan’s most populous county, is facing a financial crisis.

Sixty-one years ago, during the height of the Cold War, Americans were terrorized by a burly demagogue named Joe McCarthy, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin.

McCarthy specialized, as you probably remember, in recklessly labeling people Communists, and hauling suspects up before his infamous subcommittee. To be accused of being a Communist in 1954 was roughly equivalent to being identified as a member of ISIS today.

Walter Reuther, the United Auto Workers union’s greatest leader, has been dead for forty-five years now, killed in a plane crash outside Pellston, a few years before oil shocks and a flood of foreign imports began to drastically change the industry.

Several years ago, soon after the union agreed to accept a two-tier wage system in which new hires would be paid less, I asked Doug Fraser, perhaps the last of his successors to know Reuther well, what Walter would have thought about that? I expected he’d say Reuther would be rolling in his grave.

But instead, Fraser said it was impossible to know. We are living in a different world from the one Reuther helped build. And Walter Reuther was adept at adjusting to new realities. When the union agreed to accept a two-tier system eight years ago, they hoped it would create more jobs.

I am, perhaps unfortunately, old enough to remember life in Michigan half a century ago. The Detroit Tigers were a much more exciting team than the current lot, on their way up instead of down, a team whose members actually functioned and played as a team.

Their entire payroll, I believe, was about two percent of what it is today. There was also a statewide spirit of optimism and belief in a better future that is lacking today. Oh, in many ways life was worse then. Twice as many people smoked, and poisonous clouds of tobacco smoke were everywhere, from restaurants to airliners.

There’s now no real doubt that the new Gordie Howe International Bridge over the Detroit River will become reality. There are still a few parcels of land to be assembled on the Detroit side, and site preparation work needs to be done.

The Canadians tell me they still think the bridge will be open to the public five years from now. However, this has not stopped Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun from trying to twin or eventually replace his own bridge.

UPDATED AT 1:41 pm ON 7/15/15 

Here’s something President Barack Obama and Gov. Rick Snyder have in common: Both were born years after a pipeline to deliver oil was installed under the Straits of Mackinac.

That pipeline, more than four miles of which is actually at the bottom of the lakes, is now 61 years old. Enbridge, the Canadian firm that owns it, pumps as much as 540,000 gallons of oil and liquid natural gas through it every day.

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