Jack Lessenberry

Essay/Analysis: Political Commentator

A Detroit native, Jack recognized that he wanted to become a journalist during his graduate studies at the University of Michigan. (He had previously set out to be a historian.) Now, he boasts thirty years of eclectic journalism experience. 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, The Boston Globe, and The Oakland Press.

Currently, he is a professor of journalism at Wayne State University and a contributing editor and columnist for The Metro Times, The Traverse-City Record Eagle, and The Toledo Blade...in addition to his work at Michigan Radio.

Throughout his years of journalism experience, 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 stopped watching TV -- except for documentaries -- when Mr. Ed was canceled.

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Commentary
10:12 am
Fri July 29, 2011

What Are Michigan's Education Priorities?

These are tough times for teachers.

Actually, this is an even tougher time for education. Yet the  way in which all sides have been approaching this major and growing statewide crisis is, at the very least bizarre.

Take the Michigan Education Association, for example. It is by far the state’s largest teacher’s union, and has been around since before the Civil War. It proudly proclaims “the mission of the MEA is to ensure that the education of our students and the working environments of our members are of the highest quality.”

That sounds good. But if you watch what they do, rather than what they say, you might conclude their charter statement really says: “The MEA’s mission is to prevent our members’ salaries and benefits from being cut by any means necessary.”

That’s really what the union is about. I was reminded of this yesterday by the revelation that the MEA spent $25,000  dollars to try and get Paul Scott, a state representative from Grand Blanc, recalled. Why the union is doing this isn’t clear.

Except out of sheer vindictiveness. Scott, who chairs the House Education Committee, voted this year to slash elementary and high school funding by twice as much as was actually cut.

I wouldn’t expect the union to support him for reelection. But recalling him would in no way change the balance of power in Lansing. If you are a teacher in Holly, say, you might wonder,“Is that what I pay several hundred dollars in dues for?"

That doesn’t mean the education community should be pleased with government. Most members of the Republican majority in Lansing would enthusiastically agree  that this state needs a much better educated workforce. However, most are entirely capable of uttering in the next breath that we need to cut teacher salaries and, especially, benefits and pensions.

What is especially puzzling is that so few people see this as a contradiction. These days, Republicans control every branch of state government, and have been energetically cutting  spending on education, to give business large tax breaks instead.

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Detroit
11:11 am
Thu July 28, 2011

Detroit Works Project, Mayor Bing's Plan to improve the city

Nobody can dispute that Detroit doesn’t work very well anymore. There is vast poverty, unemployment, and blight. Plus a litany of other problems, most of which are well-known.

The question is, what do we do about them? What can anyone do about them? Within the last few years, the city has also been forced to face another unpleasant truth. There are too few people.

Too few, that is, for a city of Detroit’s physical size. You could tuck Manhattan and Boston within its borders and still have room left over. Once, Detroit was a bustling city of nearly two million people.

They weren’t packed together like sardines, but were spread out, largely in well-maintained single-family homes. That was sixty years ago, and pretty much everything is different now.

The census showed that there are barely seven hundred thousand people left. In some cases, one of two families remain on blocks otherwise filled with vacant or burned-down homes. There began to be talk about “shrinking” or “consolidating” the city.

People talked about ways to get people to move from the worst areas to more hopeful neighborhoods, to make it easier to provide city services. The mayor announced that his team would identify four to ten stable neighborhoods as part of a project he called “Detroit Works,” and then build up and further strengthen them.

This all made good, sound logical sense.

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Commentary
11:04 am
Wed July 27, 2011

State Employee Unions and Contract Negotiations

There are many fewer state employees now than there were thirty years ago, but the total is still nearly fifty thousand. Most of them are union members, and contract talks are now underway between their unions and the Snyder administration.

Negotiations aren’t likely to be easy. The governor wants a new contract that will save $265 million dollars, or about six thousand dollars per worker. The administration says we can’t afford to maintain the level of benefits they’ve been getting.

The unions sharply disagree. So -- who is right?

For many years, the great bargain has been that public sector workers traded high salaries for secure jobs with good benefits.  A few years ago, a former student of mine talked to me about her husband, who just then was getting an advanced degree in economics. He was a very intelligent and capable man.

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Commentary
10:49 am
Tue July 26, 2011

The UAW and the Changing Auto Industry

Most of us understand that the auto industry isn’t what it used to be. Especially, what we think of as the domestic auto industry. For one thing, it is much smaller, both in terms of market share and in number of people employed. Some time ago, the national media stopped using the term “the big three.“

Now, they mostly call them the “Detroit Three.” Technically, it would be more accurate to say, “the Detroit Two, and the Detroit-based subsidiary of an Italian firm.”  And one of the two, aka General Motors, sells more Buicks in China nowadays than in America.

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Commentary
11:00 am
Mon July 25, 2011

Michigan's Immigrant Problem

Over the past year, you’ve probably heard of the controversy in Arizona, where the legislature last year passed a tough law designed to identify, prosecute and deport illegal immigrants. This was followed by similar laws in other states, including Utah, Alabama, and closer to home, Indiana. Court battles are now going on over whether these laws are constitutional, since immigration policy is normally seen as the responsibility of the federal government.

Many who oppose these laws say they intimidate legal immigrants and even those whose ancestors may have been citizens for centuries, but may vaguely “look Mexican” or “look Arabic.”

Farmers and growers in a number of states have reported difficulties recruiting the migrant workers they depend on, precisely because of such laws. Nevertheless, a number of proposed Arizona-type laws are being talked about in the Michigan legislature.

Well, Michigan does have an immigrant problem, but not the one you might think. We need more immigrants - lots more. Throughout history, immigrants have been the most productive, most industrious and most job-creating members of American society.

Here in Michigan, and especially in Detroit, they are needed more than ever. In case you didn’t notice, we were the only state in the union to actually lose population over the last decade.

The population of Detroit is in virtual freefall, with now probably fewer than seven hundred thousand in a space meant for two million. The best thing for our dying central city would be a large infusion of talented, hard-working immigrants.

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Commentary
10:00 am
Fri July 22, 2011

Building the Future

I had dinner the other night with perhaps the most amazing man in Michigan, a man who has been hard at work creating the future for more than half a century .

I’m talking about the inventor Stanford Ovshinsky, a man whose life story is better than any novel, and who has more than four hundred patents to his name. If you have a laptop computer, you have him to thank for the nickel-metal-hydride battery that powers it.

His inventions include the processes that makes solar cells practical, and the first rewrittable CDs and DVDs. Five years ago, he left the company he had founded to do all these things -- Energy Conversion Devices -- and promptly started a new firm. Ovshinsky Innovation, LLC.  After all, he was then barely in his mid-80s.

Today, he and his wife Rosa, a Chinese-born physicist, are hard at work on photovoltaics, which means harnessing a form of solar energy for practical purposes.  Ovshinsky is convinced that he can bring down the cost of solar energy considerably below coal, and and that hydrogen is the automotive fuel of the future.

By the way, he has a long and distinguished track record of making predictions that those in the know laughed at -- and then proving them wrong. There are those in many countries who think he may be the greatest living scientist. What makes that especially amazing is that he never even graduated from high school.

He does, however, have at least seven honorary doctorates from distinguished schools including the University of Michigan.

Ovshinsky still works more than full-time; after all, he doesn’t turn 89 till November. He usually wears a three-piece suit, and is the most sartorially distinguished inventor I have ever met.

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Commentary
10:37 am
Thu July 21, 2011

Why Borders Mattered

I was in my early twenties before I discovered Borders’, which then had been open for two or three years. The sensation when I first walked in was what I felt when I first visited the Library of Congress.

Overwhelming excitement, and despair. How could I ever possibly read all the books worth reading? You would need lifetimes to do it. Yet, here, at least, I could visit a sort of cathedral of the mind.

I remember how excited I was in my early thirties when Border’s opened its second store a stone’s throw from my first house in the Detroit suburbs. Another Borders, right here!  I think I understood how people in Appalachia felt when the Tennessee Valley Authority brought them electricity, back in the nineteen-thirties.

I will soon be sixty, and before that, Borders will be gone. A last-ditch attempt to save the bookstores failed last week, when the creditors concluded they’d probably do better with just a straight liquidation than they might if the latest venture to save them failed.

There are all sorts of theories about why Borders couldn’t be saved. Some said e-readers, some said the Internet. Some say the stores expanded too fast and moved beyond their core competence of selling books. One man said he knew Borders would die the day he found himself buying skin moisturizer there.

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Commentary
10:51 am
Wed July 20, 2011

Election 2012: Hoekstra is in

Pete Hoekstra has decided to run for the U.S. Senate after all, and that’s good news for Michigan. That doesn’t mean I am endorsing Hoekstra, either in the Republican primary next August, or in the general election against Debbie Stabenow in November, 2012.

What I am saying is that he is a legitimate contender with the qualifications to be a member of the United States Senate.

In America, there’s always been a school of thought that says it is better to elect to high office men and women who have no experience whatsoever. The notion is that they will come in with fresh views, and are less likely to be co-opted by a corrupt system.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a fresh outlook. However, I really don’t want my house rewired by an amateur electrician who has never done it before, but may have some fresh ideas on how to connect things. And if I ever need a heart bypass operation, I’d rather not have a surgeon who has never operated before.

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Commentary
10:58 am
Tue July 19, 2011

Ohio bill poses threat to Lake Erie

We’ve had more than enough to worry about in Michigan this year -- and more than enough game-changing legislation to follow.

But perhaps as a result, most of us missed something that happened in Ohio that could have had a tremendous negative impact on us, and on everyone in the Great Lakes states.

And the threat isn’t over yet. Earlier this month the Ohio Assembly, which is their legislature, passed a bill that would have allowed businesses to withdraw as much as five million gallons of water a day from Lake Erie -- without even getting a state permit.

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Commentary
9:51 am
Mon July 18, 2011

Looking Back at Rep. Dale Kildee's Time in Office

The voters of Flint first sent Dale Kildee to Congress in the year our nation celebrated its bicentennial. He was in his mid-forties then.

Next year, he’ll turn eighty-three, and as last weekend started, he announced next year would be his last in Congress. He’s had a long and honorable career, in politics and beforehand.

Kildee started adult life as a high school teacher who had almost become a priest as a boy, and who, after ten years in the classroom, had gotten himself elected to the state legislature.

He spent a dozen years there, running shoe-leather campaigns during which someone calculated he had to have knocked on every door in Flint. When the seat in Congress opened up in 1976, he jumped into the primary, and won it and the general election easily.

Years ago, I heard Kildee say that he was embarrassed that he wound up spending more on that first campaign than he wanted to.

How much was that?  $48,000. In case you need reminding about how much things have changed, a Democratic candidate in another Michigan district spent $8 million trying to get elected last year, and by the way, he lost.

Kildee never lost an election. After that first election, the voters sent him back to Congress seventeen more times.

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Commentary
11:00 am
Fri July 15, 2011

Improving Train Travel

Here’s the problem with selling people on local mass transit: Everyone is in favor of it, and everyone thinks that everybody else should take it. Everybody, except for them, that is.

You understand, I really need to take my private car, because  uh, I might have an important stop to make. But when it comes to longer distances it’s different. People love trains.

Airline travel ceased being fun a long time ago, unless you like being groped by strangers before being packed in a sardine can. Driving gives you freedom, but not the freedom to read or surf the internet. Plus, it can be nerve-wracking and exhausting.

Compared to everything else, trains are relaxing and civilized. Yet for years, during the rise of the airliner and the expressway, we sort of forgot about train travel. Lines went out of service; some sections of track weren’t maintained.

Now, there’s a renewed interest in trains, so much so that the governor has made former Congressman Joe Schwarz his special advisor on rail, a job for which the emotional rewards are sometimes great and the salary is non-existent.

Michigan still has more than three thousand, five hundred miles of track. Schwarz told me that, by the way. Back when he was in the state senate, he was known for his expertise on higher education, but the insiders knew if you had a question about rail, Joe was the man.

Right now, Job One is improving the route from Detroit to Chicago.  Can you believe that six hundred thousand people may have traveled that route by rail in the last fiscal year?

If you’ve ever been hung up in a traffic jam on I-94 outside the city, you probably wished you were on a train instead.

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Commentary
10:13 am
Thu July 14, 2011

Limiting welfare... now what?

If you’ve been supporting your family on welfare since the Great Recession started three years ago, here’s news for you. You’ve got one more year left. And then your benefits will be cut off, forever.

What if you get a job after that, work hard for another ten years, and then become the victim of another recession? Sorry, you are out of luck, once your savings and unemployment run out.

What if you have kids? Well, you can still get food stamps.

Yesterday, the state Senate passed a bill which, once the governor signs it, will mean that you can be on welfare for a maximum of four years in your entire life.

Doesn’t matter what might happen to you, the nation or the economy. Four years, and that’s it. Doesn’t matter if you are supporting children. Oh -- if you are pregnant or have a new baby you might be able to stay on the rolls for another 60 or 90 days, but then that’s it. They did make one exemption:  those caring for a disabled child or spouse. But that’s all.

The sponsor of this legislation, State Rep. Ken Horn, a Republican from Frankenmuth, says putting this cap on welfare will make Michigan stronger. What I don’t understand is how.

Now, if you aren’t an expert on the system, you may think we are ending welfare for a bunch of lazy adults who would prefer lying around and watching TV to working. Well, guess what.

They were on a program called general assistance, and Gov. John Engler ended it 20 years ago. Welfare as we once knew it has been gradually reduced since the 1980s. Mainly, the only people still receiving payments are needy families.

Now, about 12,000 of those families, which include 25,000 children, will lose benefits forever. That might not be bad, if ending welfare meant the heads of those households would now go out and get good-paying jobs. But they won’t.

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Commentary
11:30 am
Wed July 13, 2011

Could there be an "Airport City" in Michigan's future?

What do you think of this idea for an economic engine to lead Michigan’s revival? A vast business center and international freight-moving operation springing up between two major airports - Detroit Metropolitan and Willow Run, a few miles to its west.

The idea is to bring together and coordinate air, road, rail and water transportation systems to move goods to and from the rest of the globe to the Midwest. Planners think that within a few years, this new commercial “Airport City” could handle freight faster, cheaper and more efficiently than anywhere else.

I have to confess that when I first heard of this, I thought it was one more pie-in-the sky dream, probably floated by somebody angling for tax credits.  But a lot of sober, sensible business types really believe that this is a dream that could come true.

Phil Power, the usually cautious founder of the non-partisan Center for Michigan, is an enthusiastic backer of this concept, which he believes could generate sixty-five thousand jobs and ten billion dollars in new economic activity over the next twenty years.

That would be huge, especially for a state struggling to reinvent its economy. And Power is not alone. Doug Rothwell, the head of Business Leaders for Michigan is an enthusiastic supporter.

So is Robert Ficano, the Wayne County Executive.  In fact, he has just chartered an incubator of sorts to help make it a reality, the Aerotropolis Development Corporation. There is a slight problem with what to call all this. Aerotropolis seems to be the most common term.

Phil Power calls it the “multi-modal logistical hub,” a name which I strongly predict will never catch on. My choice would have been Airport City, which is easy to pronounce.

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Commentary
10:12 am
Tue July 12, 2011

Can the UAW Survive?

Later this month, contact talks are set to begin between the United Auto Workers’ union and Ford, General Motors and Chrysler.

There’s a temptation to feel nostalgic about that. This has been a time-honored tradition in Detroit since the 1940s. Every three years, negotiations began, and the union selected a strike target.

That target could have been any one of what were then referred to as the Big Three. Negotiations followed a system called “pattern bargaining,” which meant the union and the selected company would battle things out to a settlement.

Sometimes a deal could be reached without a strike; sometimes not. Once a deal was reached, the other two automakers would settle with the union on essentially the same terms.

During the glorious fat years of postwar prosperity, the bargaining scenario also followed a predictable pattern.  When negotiations began, the company would offer the union the equivalent of a crust of bread. The union would demand the moon, plus a kitchen sink with gold-plated handles. Eventually, with or without a strike, they’d reach a deal where the union got the moon, but had to settle for a sink with plain old chromium handles.

Walter Reuther would then promise to get the gold-plated ones in the next contract, and he usually would. But everything is different now. Chrysler and GM went through a near-death experience two years ago. As part of the price for the federal government’s saving them, the UAW had to agree not to strike either company.

The only thing they can do in the case of a grievance is ask for binding arbitration. The union could theoretically strike Ford, but now that all automakers aren’t on an equal playing field that’s unlikely.

But the UAW does face two immense new challenges.

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Commentary
11:08 am
Mon July 11, 2011

The Importance of Betty Ford

They’re bringing Betty Ford back home this week, to be buried next to her husband, President Gerald Ford, at his presidential museum in Grand Rapids.

You knew by now that the former first lady died last Friday in California. But what you may not have known unless you are in your fifties, or older, is just how important she was.

They both were, really. President Ford’s story is better known, and best expressed by Jimmy Carter, who said when he took office: “I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.”

Elizabeth Bloomer Ford had a big role in that too, but she also did something else. She showed the nation that a first lady could also be a human being.

The Fords took office after the final convulsion of the Watergate scandal, and eleven of the worst years the United States has ever known. The public had learned that Richard Nixon had lied about virtually everything.

His predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, had dragged us into a war in Vietnam for reasons nobody understood, a war that went on for years and tore our nation apart. Before that, we’d been traumatized when the young president before him had his head blown off in broad daylight. The presidency and America had taken a beating.

Nor were any of the first ladies of the period women to whom most people could relate. We’d always been fascinated by the presidents’ wives. But they were sort of like royalty, fascinating, forbidden and distant. Betty Ford was a regular person. Just months before she moved in to the White House, she was the unknown wife of the house minority leader, looking forward to her husband’s retirement from Congress. Then, suddenly, she was first lady.

But she was still Betty Ford, the irrepressible mother of four kids, a woman who most of all, was real.

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Commentary
8:51 am
Fri July 8, 2011

GOP: Primary or Caucus in 2012?

If you are a normal person, you probably aren’t thinking a lot right now about how Michigan Republicans should pick their choice for presidential candidate next year.

Actually, you probably don’t even want to think about Labor Day being less than two months away, let alone voting next winter.

But politicians work on a different schedule than ordinary mortals, and in the next few weeks, Republicans in this state are going to decide how to pick their choice for next year’s nominee.

Now, in most states, this isn’t something you have to agonize over. If you live in Iowa, you know that your state will kick things off with a caucus in early January. If you live in New Hampshire, you know you get to vote in the nation’s first primary, a couple of weeks later. But if you live in Michigan.

All you can count on is that the politicians will do something different from last time, and that they will likely screw it up.

Over the last forty years, we’ve lurched back and forth from a primary to a closed caucus to a somewhat more open caucus back to a primary that was sorta kinda closed …

Sometimes our primaries and/or caucuses  have been held in May. Sometimes in March, or April, or February. Last time, both parties outdid themselves in a blaze of stupidity.

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Commentary
11:34 am
Thu July 7, 2011

Shenanigans in Michigan's 7th District

Most congressmen face a big struggle to first get elected, and then stay in their jobs for a considerable period of time. John Dingell, for example, holds the all-time record. He’ll have served fifty-six years before this year is over.

John Conyers has been there forty-six years.

Dale Kildee and Carl Levin have been in Washington more than thirty years. But on the other hand, the seventh district, which spans southeast Michigan’s border with Ohio, has been about the most volatile congressional district in the nation over the last decade.

Starting in two thousand and two, the seventh district has elected a different congressman in every election. Tim Walberg, who holds the job now, won in two thousand six; lost in two thousand eight, and won his old seat back in two thousand and ten.

Odds were that he would have faced another stiff challenge next year, possibly from one, or both, his two main rivals in the recent past. Fellow Republican Joe Schwarz beat Walberg in a primary in two thousand four, and then lost to him two years later.

Democrat Mark Schauer ousted Walberg from Congress in two thousand eight, and was ousted by him last year.

But this year is a redistricting year. Republicans control every branch of government, and one of their top priorities was to draw the lines so as to make re-election safer for their side’s incumbents.

In the case of the Seventh, they replaced Calhoun County, at the west end of the district, with Monroe County, at the eastern end. The counties are almost the same size, and both usually, but not always, vote slightly more Democratic than Republican.

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Commentary
11:23 am
Wed July 6, 2011

Casey Anthony Verdict: Rushing to Judgement

Last night I was filling up my car in western Wayne County, when a woman next to me, a perfect stranger, said “Isn’t it horrible?”  I thought she meant the price of gas.

But no. She meant the verdict in the Casey Anthony trial. “Can you believe it?"

I thought of sincerely telling her that I wasn’t surprised at all. Of telling her that what happens during a full-length trial in a courtroom is often far different than what you see on TV.

Additionally, our system - though not our media - still operate under something called the presumption of innocence. This means, in criminal trials, that your guilt has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and there seemed to be plenty of that here.

I also was tempted to suggest that she get a life, and become interested and involved in things that mattered to her family, community and state which she actually could do something about.

But of course I did none of that, mostly because I didn't want to get into a fight. So I merely mumbled that I hadn’t really followed the trial much, which also happens to be true.

I haven’t followed it, except to the extent that it was unavoidable. I usually watch CNN for a few minutes in the morning, a network which lately seems to be all Casey Anthony, all the time. If you are trying to discover proof that a large country named Russia actually still existed, you’d be out of luck here.

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Commentary
11:09 am
Tue July 5, 2011

Medical Marijuana

Three years ago, Michigan voters approved allowing marijuana to be used for medical purposes by a margin of almost two to one.

Social conservatives weren’t happy, and feared that this would lead to the back door legalization of marijuana for everyone. However, the public was overwhelmingly sympathetic to its use for medical reasons. That’s largely because there is considerable evidence that marijuana can relieve suffering from diseases including cancer, glaucoma, and a host of other ailments. Yet there were problems from the start with the medical marijuana law.

For one thing, it wasn’t passed by the legislature, as most laws are, but was placed on the ballot by citizens who collected enough signatures to put it there. Legalizing marijuana for medical patients required setting up a complex new system.

This had never been tried before in Michigan, and it’s evident that the framework needs to be tweaked.  For one thing, there are clearly a handful of unscrupulous doctors all too willing to certify people for medical marijuana use.

The Detroit Free Press reported that only fifty-five doctors have authorized medical marijuana for more than seventy percent of all those now eligible. Whatever your feelings about marijuana, the voters did not intend to effectively legalize its recreational use.

Nor could Michigan legally do that. Technically, any marijuana use is still against federal law, and Washington could, if it chose, move against any of the sixteen states that authorize medical marijuana. They haven’t, and even allowed a medical marijuana statute to be enacted in Washington, D.C.. But if Michigan or any other state were to openly act as if the legalization of medical marijuana meant we could establish a marijuana industry for all, the odds of federal intervention would become much greater.

On the other hand, it is clear that people do want marijuana to be available to those with legitimate medical conditions.

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Commentary
9:00 am
Mon July 4, 2011

The Glorious Fourth

Benjamin Franklin (left), John Adams (center) and Thomas Jefferson (right), meet to review a draft of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Jean Leon Gerome Ferris - Oil on canvas Library of Congress

Michigan was part of the nation’s outback during the War of Independence. And most of the inhabitants probably liked that just fine. Battlefields are nice places to study, but from what I have seen, no place you’d want to be close to at the time.

Today, there will be speeches urging us to remember that we are all Americans. Some will scold those who are making our government’s present policies, or those who attack them.

Others will say that Americans should be united, just as they were in the days of George Washington and Valley Forge.

But what most people don’t realize is that a substantial minority of Americans at the time – possibly as high as 40 percent -- didn’t want independence. They were called loyalists, or Tories, and a fair number left for Great Britain or Canada, after the other side won the war. Naturally, that left the patriots with no one to bicker with except themselves, which they soon began to do.

President Washington wanted to avoid having political parties. That lasted about five minutes.

Which brings me to my favorite Fourth of July story, one with a moral we can perhaps learn from. It began on the day the Declaration of Independence was signed, and ended exactly 185 years ago today. Two of the founding fathers were, of course, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. They were good buddies on July 4, 1776, when they signed the declaration. Later, however, they each became leaders of the first two political parties.

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