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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

Thousands of students in Michigan walked out of their classrooms last week to protest gun violence. They don’t want guns in schools, and they especially want assault rifles banned.

Personally, I would probably go even farther. I don’t think anyone should be allowed to own an assault rifle, except if it were kept under lock and key at a shooting range.

But the tragedy of the student protests is this:

Nobody wants to say this, but they aren’t going to go anywhere. The lobbyists of the NRA can count votes. They are mostly silent now, except for the stupidest among them.

Former Governor John Engler
WikiCommons

Michigan State University interim president John Engler accused state lawmakers of interfering with negotiations to settle out of court with victims of former sports doctor Larry Nassar. Engler's comments came in response to a set of bills adopted by the senate this week that give victims more time to file lawsuits. The former governor also said the bills could subject universities to more lawsuits and drive up tuition.

This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about Engler's reaction to the legislation.


 

Albert Einstein was born on this day in 1879. He died, after a lifetime of discoveries that transformed the world, in 1955.  National Public Radio wasn’t around in his lifetime, but I have to believe he would have loved it. After all, he spent his later years searching vainly for a “Grand Unified Theory” that explains everything.

Michigan Radio, with support from its national partner, does indeed try to explain everything, or at least everything we can, to our listeners.  

Twenty years ago, John Engler was by far, the biggest figure in Lansing, and perhaps the most powerful governor Michigan has ever had. He understood the legislature better than anyone, largely because he had been in it for twenty years before becoming governor.

He was both respected and feared, and lawmakers in both parties thought twice before taking him on. Times have changed, however, and yesterday Engler, now interim president of Michigan State University, found himself testifying before a skeptical senate subcommittee.

FOIA
Vincent Duffy / Michigan Radio

There’s nothing wrong with having principles. Not everyone does; back in the bad old days, there was a U.S. Senator from the South who supposedly used to tell audiences, “Well, them there’s my positions, and if you don’t like ‘em – well, I can change ‘em.”

Gratiot construction site
Tony Brown / Michigan Radio

It looks like Wayne County may finally have a solution for its long-stalled jail project. The county has reached a tentative agreement with Dan Gilbert's Rock Ventures. Gilbert's company will construct a brand new $533 million "criminal justice center," pending approval from the county commission and building authority.

This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about the plan and what it could mean for Wayne County.


David Bonior at podium
John Edwards / Flickr - http://bit.ly/1xMszCg

You don’t have to be that much of an old-timer to remember that August night 20 years ago this summer when President Bill Clinton addressed the nation and admitted that he had engaged in behavior with Monica Lewinsky that was “not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong.”

Congressman David Bonior, then the House minority whip, had just loaded up his Chrysler van back in Macomb County and was starting to drive back to Washington when his primitive, clunky car phone rang. A labor leader told him the news, and also that at least one top member of the House Democratic leadership was suggesting they abandon the President.

Repair trucks on a Michigan road.
Michigan Municipal League / Flickr - http://bit.ly/1xMszCg

I’ve always been leery of people obsessed with a single issue, who see the world entirely through some narrow prism. Marxists tend to be like that, if there are any left.

Single-issue people tend to be terribly boring. But I find that I too am becoming more and more obsessed with a single issue, and I think you should be too. I’m not talking about the coming workers’ revolution, however, but something else: Michigan’s infrastructure. 

mike duggan shaking a woman's hand
dugganfordetroit.com

We’ve had such a dearth of leadership in Michigan for so long that it seems amazing when you actually do see it. This is a state, after all, where nobody can seem to come up with a way to fix the roads, despite overwhelming public demand that they do so.

Photograph of Downtown Detroit
Ifmuth / FLICKR - HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan delivered his annual State of the City address last night. He talked about ways to improve the city's public schools, and the city's demolition program.

Michigan Radio's senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry joined Morning Edition host Doug Tribou to discuss the speech.

Our legislators in Lansing have just enacted a tax cut that will be relatively meaningless for most, great for the rich, but which will leave our cash-strapped state with less revenue.

That wasn’t much of a concern for our lawmakers, all of whom will be gone within a few years, thanks to term limits. It ought to be more of a concern for citizens who have to worry about their kids’ educations, or dodge potholes the size of Lake St. Clair. We also know that our neglected infrastructure is fast falling apart, something we try hard to ignore.

Rashida Tlaib
Rashida Tlaib for Congress / via Facebook

Nobody gave Rashida Tlaib much of a chance when she decided to run for the legislature ten years ago. She was a Muslim whose mother had been born in Palestine.

Most of the voters were Black or Hispanic. Very few were Arab or Muslim. The outgoing state representative had been Jewish. But Tlaib worked hard, knocking on doors, sometimes with her toddler in tow. She won a solid victory in the Democratic primary.

But not a majority -- and that bothered her.

Someone shooting a gun at a gun range.
Peretz Partensky / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Democrats in Lansing want a state law that requires background checks for all firearm purchases. This is one of a number of ideas lawmakers have floated since the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. But the House Republican leader says he’s focused on improving mental health services, while other Republicans have proposed allowing certain teachers to carry weapons.

This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about the divide in the Capitol over how to keep kids safe from gun violence.


A pothole in downtown Flint.
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller almost always calls it as she sees it. She’s deeply conservative, but mostly doesn’t let ideology get in the way of common sense.

So I wasn’t surprised yesterday by how she summed up the $175 million road funding bill just passed by both houses of the state Legislature.

The bill, she said, is “just a drop in the pothole.” 

As far as I know, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan isn’t a gambler, but if he were, you probably wouldn’t want to bet against a horse he was backing. Yesterday, when he endorsed Gretchen Whitmer at her headquarters in his city, it was a clear indication that the Democratic nomination for governor is now hers, unless she makes some kind of cataclysmic mistake.

Though the primary is still five months away, Duggan, to an extent, was ratifying the obvious. Whitmer, a former minority leader in the state senate, has been the front-runner ever since she announced she was running 14 months ago. 

U.S. Marine Corps. / FLICKR - http://bit.ly/1f2P1w6

Governor Rick Snyder said something remarkably sane earlier this week. Actually, the fact that people noticed it is a sad indication of how sick our society is.

“I don’t think having more guns is a good thing,” he said, meaning guns in schools. This remark ought to be in a class with “the sky is blue.” Or, “if you are caught in a thunderstorm, you may get wet.” Guns in schools are a bad idea, period.

Last weekend, Ohio Governor John Kasich became the latest to say it: “We may be beginning to see the end of a two-party system,” he said on an ABC public affairs program, adding

“I’m starting to wonder if we are going to see a multi-party system at some point … because I don’t think either party is answering people’s deepest concerns and needs.”

Those remarks might have been self-serving. Kasich, who two decades ago was seen as just another conservative congressman, has become the symbol of a supposed moderate Republican Party, or at least a rational and sane alternative to what we have now.

Some time ago, a candidate running for a nomination for a statewide office called and asked for my advice. Not political advice, not policy advice, but pronunciation advice.

They were headed to the Upper Peninsula and wanted to know how to pronounce a few names. Was it Gogebic or Go-jeb-ick? Was it Luce County or Lucy County?

Former Michigan Gov. John Engler speaks at Hillsdale College on on January 25, 2009.
Chuck Grimmett / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Former Governor John Engler will donate his salary while serving as Michigan State University's interim president. Engler took over the role after Lou Anna Simon resigned amid criticism over MSU's handling of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal.

Engler's appointment has drawn both praise and criticism. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about how he's doing so far. 


Michigan State University sign
Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio

Back in the late 1850s, a handful of farm boys were taken to the woods outside Lansing and told to cut down some trees and build themselves classrooms and a dorm.

That was the beginning of what became Michigan State University. Last month may have been the worst in that school’s long history.

Governor William Milliken
Bentley Historical Library

Today would have been George Washington’s 286th birthday, and when I was a child we celebrated his birthday in school, as we did Abraham Lincoln’s ten days before.

Teachers used both as opportunities to teach us about the good semi-myths that helped bind us together; Washington chopping down the cherry tree and Honest Abe splitting rails.

Today, of course, both birthdays are lumped together as a generic Presidents’ Day, which basically means a day when the banks are closed and there isn’t any mail.

I have always been attracted to women with dark hair. If you find that statement utterly irrelevant to anything I do professionally, that’s because it is.

AR 15 in carrier case
Photo by Zachary Newton from Pexels / https://www.pexels.com/photo-license/

Since the massacre at a school in Parkman, Florida, Michigan schools have been responding to threats in their communities. Students in Kalamazoo drafted a petition about gun legislation that quickly got tens of thousands of signatures.

Michigan Radio's senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry joined "Morning Edition" host Doug Tribou to discuss gun control and school safety. 


Patients at the Eloise Psychiatric Hospital in the early 1950s.
Friends of Eloise

When I was a child growing up in the Detroit area in the 1960s, all the kids knew what happened if you became mentally ill, or as we so nicely put it, went nuts. You would be taken to Eloise, which we vaguely knew of as a huge mental institution somewhere.

Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

It’s been five days since the Valentine’s Day school shooting in Florida; the 17 dead are being buried, and the story is easing out of the headlines.

This weekend, writing a newspaper column, I started to refer to this as “our nation’s latest school shooting,” and caught myself. Better not say that, I realized.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette (left) and Special Counsel Todd Flood, along with Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton and the Flint Water Investigative Team have been investigating the Flint water crisis for most of the year
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

State Attorney General Bill Schuette faced questions this week over whether the state's inquiry into Michigan State University's handling of the Larry Nassar scandal is truly independent. In a newly released letter regarding his appointment of Bill Forsyth to lead the investigation, Schuette says Forsyth will "serve under my direction and at my pleasure."

This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss Schuette's role in the investigation.


Someday, a shooter will walk into a school, probably a suburban school, somewhere in Michigan, and blow teachers and students away, most likely with a weapon no civilian should be allowed to own. When that happens, don’t give me any credit for prophecy.

Both houses of the legislature collaborated to pass bills yesterday that will put chump change in your pocket and damage our state’s ability to educate children and have a future. What’s more, they don’t care. The architects of this plan will be out of office soon.

Most of the state senate is term-limited, and so voters, even if they figure out what happened, will be unable to punish them. By then, many will be working as lobbyists for the special interests who told them how to vote.

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

When I was growing up, we were taught we should be proud to be a nation of immigrants.

Later, as a young reporter, I learned that Americans held complex and contradictory views on immigration, views that all too often could be summed up as: "Immigration was great right up until the boat that brought my ancestors over. After that, it should have been stopped." 

aerial photo of the Great Lakes
National Oceanic and And Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

President Donald Trump's new budget proposal would cut 90 percent of the funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The program helps clean up the lakes and protect them against invasive species.

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