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Jack Lessenberry

Essay/Analysis: Political Commentator

*Subscribe to a podcast of Jack's essays here.

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.

Ways to Connect

Chinese Chrysler?

Aug 15, 2017
user fiatontheweb / creative commons

Yesterday morning I heard someone on an AM radio station say he had heard a crazy notion that Chrysler might be sold to the Chinese.

It was clear from his tone that he believed this was never going to happen.

Now, after a lifetime of covering the news, here’s something I’ve learned about business and politics. Whenever the movers and shakers start saying something can’t possibly happen, that usually means it most certainly could. Often it means that it is inevitable.

And sometimes, it even means that it’s happened already.

statue of Robert E. Lee atop a horse
Public Domain

Seventy-two years ago today, for the first time ever, the Emperor of Japan spoke to his subjects on nationwide radio.  “Circumstances in the world conflict have proceeded in a manner not necessarily to our advantage,” he said. 

That was perhaps the greatest example of euphemism and circumlocution in history. What the emperor was really saying was “we have lost World War II, and we have no choice except to surrender.” I thought of this in the aftermath of the terrible events in Virginia, where a messed-up character obsessed with Nazis apparently drove his car into a group of people, killing one young woman and injuring many more people.

asbestos warning sign
ktorbeck / Wikimedia Commons

A new audit this week says Michigan needs more inspectors and more money when it comes to asbestos remediation. According to the report, there are only four inspectors in the entire state to respond to complaints, issue violations and inspect landfills. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about why the program is falling behind. 

John Conyers file photo.
Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

The world was a far different place half a century ago, when Detroit was reeling after the nation’s most devastating urban riots. Michigan was a far richer state than it is now. It usually wasn’t hard to get a job on the line, assembling Pontiacs or Oldsmobiles.

Virtually nobody drove Hondas or Datsuns, which is what Nissans were then called. Mitt Romney’s father was governor, though Mitt himself was too young to vote. Michigan had more clout in Washington, and five more members of Congress than it does now.

Enbridge Energy's Line 5 oil and liquid natural gas pipelines run under Lake Michigan at the Straits of Mackinac.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

I've been up north, as we say in this state, for the last week, on Lake Michigan about fifty miles from the Straits of Mackinac. Fifty miles, that is, from Line 5, the oil pipeline – actually, twin pipelines -- under the straits. There has been a lot of concern about Line 5 in recent years.

People have suddenly discovered the existence of the line, which can carry as much as 540,000 barrels of light crude oil and liquid natural gas a day, pumped at high pressure under the lakes.

A "vote here" sign
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

You may not have noticed, but we had primary elections throughout Michigan yesterday. In many places, however, there was no election at all. This is what politicians call an off-off-year.

There are no races for attention-grabbing offices like governor, senator, or president. What people voted on yesterday was a collection of mostly small millage requests, plus a few primary elections for mayor and council seats in places like Detroit and Flint.

sign that says "vote here"
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Michigan Radio Morning Edition Host Doug Tribou and Senior News Analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss the results of yesterday's primary elections in Detroit, Flint and Pontiac. 

Asian carp leaping out of a river.
Great Lakes Fishery Commission

When scientists were working on the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb, there was a brief moment when some thought there was a small chance it might ignite the entire atmosphere.

Which would have meant good-bye life on earth. Enrico Fermi, who had a puckish sense of humor, took bets on whether the test of the bomb would destroy the world, or only New Mexico.

money
user penywise / morgueFile

If you follow state politics, you know that a number of candidates have been running for governor for months.

Gretchen Whitmer and Abdul El-Sayed have each raised more than $1 million. Shri Thanedar, a previously unknown businessman, has dumped more than $3 million into his campaign for the Democratic nomination.

Workers are voting today at a Nissan vehicle assembly plant in Canton, Mississippi whether to join the United Auto Workers union. That might not seem like a huge deal either way.

After all, it’s just one plant. But it is a big one, with more than six thousand workers, about three-fifths of whom are African-American. If the UAW wins, it will be the dwindling union’s first victory ever in a major foreign-owned “transplant” factory.

The Statue of Liberty
Celso Flores / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

You never know, but if President Trump’s sweeping new immigration policy proposals had always been in place, I probably wouldn’t be here. Most likely, you wouldn’t either.

My paternal ancestors supposedly came from Great Britain centuries ago, but my maternal ones came from Bavaria to Michigan in the 1880s. They didn’t speak English and had no special skills, so that would have been that.

aerial shot of buildings, soccer stadium
Rossetti

Wayne County is a step closer to letting its unfinished jail in Detroit become a $1 billion development that would include a pro soccer stadium. The county is working to finalize details with businessman Dan Gilbert. In exchange for the jail site, Gilbert would construct a new criminal justice center near I-75 in the city.

Morning Edition host Doug Tribou and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss the deal and whether major league soccer would be successful in Detroit. 

On the surface, yesterday was a pretty good day for Michigan. The state announced that the cities of Pontiac and Lincoln Park were both being released from receivership.

The treasurer’s office said both of these aging cities had made considerable strides toward getting their acts and their finances in order. I think that is true, but I also think the state would like to get them off the books. Ever since the mess in Flint, the whole idea of having the state take over and run cities has lost a lot of appeal.

When I was a child, there were kids whose parents told their children never to have anything to do with government or politics. They said it was a dirty and corrupt business.

Well, I grew up believing that was wrong-headed, that while politics was a bruising contact sport, it was a life, in the words of reporter and novelist Allen Drury, capable of honor. That was easier to believe when the memories of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman were still fresh and Profiles in Courage was a best-seller.

YouTube

I haven’t seen the new movie Detroit yet. I think I’m like my African-American teaching colleague Alicia Nails, who told me that after weeks of non-stop coverage, she was starting to feel a little “rioted out.” What I have heard from friends who have seen the movie is that it is powerful but lacks nuance, and leaves the impression that the Detroit in that film is still the Detroit of today.

But there was one nuance I didn’t miss. This was in an interview in the Boston Globe with Kathryn Bigelow, the film’s director. The interviewer asked why the movie wasn’t filmed where it happened.

“We originally located it in Detroit but the tax-credit program had just been disbanded, so we went to … Boston, and shot the movie there,” Bigelow said.

money
khrawlings / creative commons http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Gov. Rick Snyder this week signed off on a set of bills he hopes will help lure some big employers to Michigan. The new law lets employers that meet certain criteria keep some or all of their employees' state income tax.

President William McKinley had a wife to whom he was extremely devoted, but who had a nervous condition that caused her to suffer from frequent seizures, sometimes at state dinners. When this happened, his solution was to throw a napkin over her face, carry on as though everything was normal, and then remove it when the seizure was past.

Forty years ago, I was in a special, high-pressure graduate program at the University of Michigan designed to make trained journalists out of otherwise hapless intellectuals like myself in a year and a half. It was an amazingly successful program.

Many of my classmates went on to jobs in senior management in places like both the New York and Los Angeles Times and the former International Herald Tribune.

Shri Thanedar
shri2018.com

Imagine you suddenly came into $3.3 million dollars, and your instructions from the universe were to spend it to make life better for the people of Michigan.

My guess is that your first idea would not be to spend it to try to win the Democratic nomination for governor next year. But that’s what Shri Thanedar is doing.

Black and white shot of destroyed buildings in Detroit in 1967.
The Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

As part of our series, "Summer of Rebellion," Michigan Radio Senior News Analyst Jack Lessenberry shares his memories of the unrest in Detroit in July 1967 with Morning Edition host Doug Tribou. They also discuss the role that week's events played in Detroit's larger decline.

President Donald Trump has just nominated former Congressman Pete Hoekstra to be ambassador to the Netherlands. The appointment should be speedily confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Hoekstra, who came to this country as a baby, was born in Holland and speaks fluent Dutch.

He’s a former chair of the House Intelligence Committee, and in every respect is as fully qualified for this job as any political appointee could be.

Ambassadors fall into two categories. Those who have come up through the ranks of the Foreign Service, and are state department experts in their field. They tend to be ambassadors in places like Paraguay. Former politicians or well-heeled campaign contributors tend to get ambassadorial appointments in more glamorous countries.

The fires of the Detroit riot began blazing exactly fifty years ago today. Years later, in an odd case of serendipity, I got to know Ray Good, the first police lieutenant on the scene, in the course of profiling his wife Janet for Esquire Magazine.

That was in the 1990s, when she had her moment of fame as Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s partner in evaluating who he would help die.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement - or ICE - agents
U.S. Air Force / Creative Commons

The Ingham County Sheriff's Office announced this week it will no longer detain people at the request of immigration, without a judge's order. It says immigration violations are "civil, not criminal, in nature, and are between the individual and the U-S Government." The Wayne County Sheriff's Office has a similar policy in place. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about whether other counties will follow suit.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

You might think of Heidi Washington as the chief of 40,000 people scattered across the state in 30 different camps. Except she has much more power over them than any political leader in this nation has over their constituents.

And her job is not only to take care of her people, but to keep us safe from them. She’s the director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, which is anything but an easy job.

President Donald Trump
Gage Skidmore / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Hard to imagine, but man first walked on the moon exactly 48 years ago today. I think most of us thought we’d have had colonies there by now, but of course we don’t.

That was a long time ago, but here’s something you may find even harder to believe. Six months ago, we woke up in a nation where Barack Obama was still president.

state capitol
Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

When I heard that Mark Bernstein wasn’t running for governor, what instantly popped into my head was a line from Macbeth: "Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it."

In other words, the best part of his campaign was his decision not to wage one. The immediate beneficiary is Gretchen Whitmer, whom Bernstein then endorsed.

Capitol Building in Lansing, MI
Matthileo / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

A group called Voters Not Politicians is trying to get a question about gerrymandering on the 2018 statewide ballot. Gerrymandering refers to the process of drawing voting districts to favor certain politicians or populations. Their plan would create a 13-member citizens panel to oversee redistricting. It would be made up of five independent voters, four Democrats, and four Republicans. 

Senior political analyst Jack Lessenberry talks to Morning Edition host Doug Tribou about how this ballot initiative could change current voting districts.

Michigan's current congressional districts.
Department of the Interior

The founders of our system attempted to give this country, and later this state, something called representative democracy.

That’s supposed to mean electing people we trust to represent our best interests to make laws for the state and nation. That generally worked pretty well. Not that it was perfect, and for a long time some of us were shut out of participating. But eventually that got fixed.

Handguns
user Joshuashearn / wikimedia commons

Whatever else you can say about us, this much is clear. No other so-called advanced, or civilized, or industrial nation has anything like the deaths from firearms we do.

Yes, there will be murders committed with guns in Japan this year. Based on recent statistics, there will probably be 12 or 13 of them. Japan has about 127 million people.

Michigan has less than 10 million, so if our culture was anything like Japan’s you might expect we’d have perhaps one murder committed with a firearm this year.

teacher with student
BES Photos / creative commons http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Governor Rick Snyder signed a handful of bills this week, including one that will change the retirement system for new teachers starting in 2018. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about the implications when it comes to attracting new teachers to Michigan.

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