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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.

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When I finally went to bed, what popped into my head was something the great cynical journalist H.L. Mencken used to say. “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want – and deserve to get it, good and hard.”

They will now get change, though what form that will take, nobody can say. What’s clear is that they wanted something different, and that the scope and the depths of their discontent was something that none of the experts grasped.


Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

America has a new president-elect this morning, but the jury is still out when it comes to which candidate will carry Michigan.

On this Week in Michigan Politics Doug Tribou and Jack Lessenberry talk about how Donald Trump could become the first Republican to carry the state since 1988. They also discuss Republican victories in the 1st and 7th Congressional Districts, and the Republican's sustained control of  the state House and Supreme Court.


The late Theodore H. White, the prose poet of our national elections, wrote what remains the most lyrical and magical evocation of the meaning of this day.

“It was invisible, as always. They had begun to vote in the villages of New Hampshire at midnight, as they always do … all of this is invisible, for it is the essence of the act that as it happens, it is a mystery in which millions of people each fit one fragment of a total secret together, without knowing the shape of the whole.

Suddenly, something nobody expected has happened.

Michigan seems to have become the key state in tomorrow’s presidential election.

Hillary Clinton is coming here today. So is Donald Trump. So is President Obama. Bill Clinton was here yesterday -- two of the last three presidents of the United States, plus the next one, regardless of who wins.

The reason is simple.

Trump has surged nationally, but he has to win either Michigan or Pennsylvania to have any chance of winning the election – and Pennsylvania isn’t looking so good for him, so that leaves Michigan.

It’s third down and six or seven yards.


Sign directing voters to polling place
Steven Depolo / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0 cropped

After a grueling, seemingly endless campaign season, it looks like we might actually make it to the other side of Election Day 2016. This Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and I round-up some races to watch in Michigan. We also discuss whether there's potential for trouble at the polls and the slew of presidential candidates and surrogates who visited the state this week.


In the past three days, I have talked about the campaign with people in all walks of life, from a state Supreme Court justice to a functionally illiterate janitor.

Their first words were all virtually the same. They can’t wait for it to be over. Unexpectedly, in the final weeks Michigan has become a key state for the first time in years.


To say that many voters are disenchanted with both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would be an understatement. For a while, I thought this might be a big breakthrough year for the Libertarian or the Green Parties.

However, that doesn’t seem likely.

Support for Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson dwindled after he seemed utterly ignorant of foreign affairs. Too many liberals are still too traumatized by memories of Ralph Nader costing Al Gore the presidency to consider Stein.

So what about writing in somebody?

Moments after the news came last Friday that the FBI had apparently discovered new Hillary Clinton e-mails, my phone rang.

A reporter for the Benzinga news service wanted to know if there was any precedent for a last-minute October surprise affecting the outcome of a presidential election.


Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

Election Day is less than a week away, and one of the most competitive races in the nation is right here in Michigan.

For our segment This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry and Doug Tribou talk about Democrat Gretchen Driskell's bid to win the state's 7th Congressional District over incumbent Republican Tim Walberg.

They also talk about the race in the 1st Congressional District that could be important on a national level and whether third-party candidates stand a chance in Michigan.


A few hours before Donald Trump spoke in Warren yesterday, I spoke with a handful of people who he probably knows nothing about, but who may be the most truly American of all.

They were all residents of something called Freedom House, in a century-old, red brick former convent, just a stone’s throw from the Ambassador Bridge.


Last week we saw two contradictory federal court rulings on Michigan’s law outlawing taking selfies of your ballot in the voting booth. For now, it is still illegal. 

Michigan Radio Senior News Analyst Jack Lessenberry is trying to sort this out.

Here's what he said:

Yes, this indeed has been the weirdest presidential election of our lives, even counting the year Ross Perot charged that President George Bush the first’s reelection campaign was scheming to destroy his daughter’s wedding by spreading the rumor that she was a lesbian.

Last Sunday, a warm and witty elderly gentleman I knew named Lloyd Strausz was in the process of planning his 99th birthday party, and decided to take a nap.

Unfortunately, he never woke up. Later, at the Shiva celebration of his life in his daughter’s home, I said I thought it was too bad that Lloyd, who had cast his first presidential vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt, had missed one final election.

But he did vote, I was told. He had sent in his absentee ballot days before. He is now that stuff of legends – an actual dead voter, though in this case, a legitimate one.

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

Update:  A federal judge's order that would have prevented Michigan from enforcing a state law to keep voters from taking photos of their ballot in the Nov. 8 election has been overturned. So for now, no ballot selfies on election day.

This Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and I talk about the state's push to try and re-instate a ban on voters taking “selfies” with their ballots. We also discuss Gov. Rick Snyder's veto of legislation to overhaul Medicaid and the legacy of Tom Hayden in today's tumultuous political climate.


Let’s say you were a candidate for the Michigan Legislature, and you got to run against a guy who has been convicted of eight felonies and is now being charged with three more.

Your opponent, the incumbent, has also been evicted from his home in the past for non-payment of rent.

Additionally, the state has had to pay more than $85,000 in legal fees to attempt to defend your opponent from a sexual harassment charge from a man who worked for him.

You might think the challenger would win by a landslide.

But in fact, William Broman is a huge underdog.

Frank Szymanski likes to startle audiences by asking, “Have you ever seen a naked trial judge?” after which he takes off his suit coat and flings it on a chair.

“Don’t worry, I’m going to stop there,” he tells them.

“But if you don’t educate yourselves before you go into that voting booth, if you don’t know who I and Judge Deborah Thomas are, we might as well be naked. You need to know that we are both circuit court judges, we care about kids, that we care about justice for everyone, and that we were nominated by the Democratic Party for the Michigan Supreme Court.”


Gretchen Driskell got into politics by accident twenty-some years ago, when she was home with a toddler and a neighbor knocked on her door.

He was running for city council and wanted her support; she was an accountant and an MBA who had taken a few years off to raise her three kids, and was happy to talk to another adult.

There was a great fascination with Tom Hayden when I was in high school in the Detroit suburbs in the mid-1960s. Mostly on the part of the teachers, that is.

They regarded him as a boy gone wrong who had grown up in what was then sleepy, suburban Royal Oak and then become a radical enemy of America. Some of them knew his mother, who was a film librarian for the public schools.


Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

The last presidential debate is over, and a light is starting to appear at the end of the election season tunnel. This Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and I talk about whether we'll see much more campaign action in Michigan before voters cast their ballots. We also discuss the ousting of the state Republican Party's grassroots chair over her refusal to back Donald Trump, and a big step toward financial health in Wayne County.


For almost eight months, the bipartisan Joint Select Committee on the Flint Water Crisis has been meeting, taking testimony, and struggling to find solutions.

Two days ago, they released a major report aimed at preventing further disasters. Unfortunately, they did this the day of the final presidential debate, which meant it got less than full attention. 


Forty years ago, Gerald Ford, the only man from Michigan ever to reach the White House, went to bed in the wee hours of Election Night not knowing whether he had won or lost.

For Ford, the very closeness of the election was a sort of vindication. He started the campaign terribly unpopular. Inflation was high, and he was the man who pardoned our one clearly criminal president, Richard Nixon.


Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

After a long, grueling campaign season, Election Day is only 20 days away. This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry and Doug Tribou look at ballot battles in southeast Michigan, including an unusual situation in Macomb County, where a Clinton Township Trustee who's running for supervisor is facing bribery charges.

They also discuss L. Brooks Patterson's bid for a seventh term as Oakland County Executive and a mass transit millage proposal in metro Detroit.

For the last several weeks or months I’ve been spending a lot of time talking about politicians, usually people who want you to think they have accomplished more than they have, and are now promising to do more than they can possibly do.

As long as you vote for them, that is. Well, two people died in the last few days who spent their lives doing more than most people realized, and who weren’t very well known.


Last weekend I was invited to a birthday party with a 1980s theme in which guests were supposed to dress accordingly. Well, I don’t have any mustard-colored sports coats of the sort President Reagan sometimes wore.

So, as the guest of honor was a Democrat, I wore political buttons honoring that party’s three great losers of that decade – Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis.


Someone asked me, what if Donald Trump loses the presidential election and refuses to concede defeat?

Well, legally, it doesn’t make any difference whatsoever.

From time to time, we’ve had Michigan candidates who didn’t have the grace to face their supporters and congratulate their opponents.

Geoffrey Fieger never formally conceded his race for governor. Neither did Terri Lynn Land when she was defeated by Gary Peters for the U.S. Senate two years ago. But both lost badly, the state certified the results, and that was that.

Flint river
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Lawsuits keep piling up in the wake of the Flint water crisis. This Week in Review, Jack Lessenberry and I talk about a new complaint that calls for a grand jury criminal investigation into Gov. Rick Snyder's legal fees. We also talk about another challenge to Michigan's 180-day time limit on collecting petition signatures and upcoming visits from vice-presidential candidates Tim Kaine and Mike Pence.


According to the Special Theory of Relativity, time slows down as you approach the speed of light. I think that’s also true for political campaigns, especially this one.

Every day seems longer and more interminable as we get closer to the actual election, and more and more weird and fantastic stuff seems to be happening.


I’ve been fascinated by politics my entire life, and have usually regarded election night the same way football fans regard the Super Bowl.

Whether the candidates I supported won or lost, I felt sort of a letdown after it was over; I’d have to wait another four years before a new presidential contest.


Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton told a crowd in Detroit Monday that we can expect "a positive message" during the last month of her campaign.

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry and Doug Tribou discuss whether that will resonate with Michigan voters. Lessenberry and Tribou also look at a Detroit Free Press investigation that finds the state may have overpaid for supplies it bought in response to the Flint water crisis, and the teacher shortage that continues to plague Detroit Public Schools.


David MacNaughton, Canada’s relatively new ambassador to the United States, came to Detroit yesterday, to speak to an important but too-little known group, CUSBA, or the Canada-United States Business Association. Our relationship with Canada is, by far, the most important one there is for both countries.

Canadians always know that; Americans tend to forget.

Detroit-Windsor is also easily both countries’ most economically important border crossing. The Canadian consulate graciously invited me to lunch with the ambassador, a witty and urbane man who isn’t a typical career diplomat. After serving his nation briefly as a young man, he went on to build his own political PR firm, sold it, and went on to run two more. .

Type some words like “will the Republican Party survive this election” into any search engine, and you’ll find stories predicting its coming collapse.

Without any doubt, the GOP is now being torn by an internal civil war, and most of its key figures privately or publicly have written off Donald Trump’s chances.


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