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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Politics & Government
8:37 am
Thu January 24, 2013

Commentary: Our newspapers, ourselves

Lessenberry commentary for 1/24/13

Last weekend, when I was going to the North American International Auto Show, I walked by the Detroit News building.

It is an impressive structure, designed by legendary architect Albert Kahn nearly a century ago.  Carved along the top are inspirational sayings about the role of the press in a Democratic society. The News moved into that building in 1917, as the United States was moving into World War I.

Since then, presidents and would-be presidents have gone there to be interviewed, as has virtually every celebrity the nation has known. Some of the nation’s greatest journalists have worked in that building, where the editors ran the place from magnificent paneled offices and one of the world’s most beautiful newspaper libraries. In the years before radio, they set up billboards outside and crowds gathered to read the World Series scores and news bulletins.

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Politics & Government
10:33 am
Wed January 23, 2013

Commentary: The future of the State Fair

Lessenberry commentary for 1/23/13

Four years ago, then-Governor Jennifer Granholm abruptly canceled one of our state’s oldest traditions, the Michigan State Fair, which had been held in Detroit for well over a century.

The fair had dwindling attendance in recent years, though it still attracted several hundred thousand people annually. True, it was also losing a few hundred thousand dollars a year.

However, that’s not all that much in a $50 billion state budget. The normally tight-fisted legislature disagreed with the governor, and voted to keep the fair going.

But Granholm vetoed that, saying the state could no longer afford it. She also said that she thought the land might be better used for something else, which made me think she had a plan to sell it to a developer with political connections.

But nothing happened for the last year of her term, or for more than a year of the Snyder administration. The fairgrounds just sat empty. The famous big stove caught on fire and was destroyed.

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Politics & Government
9:06 am
Wed January 23, 2013

The week in Michigan politics

cncphotos flickr

Week in Michigan politics interview

In this week in Michigan politics, Jack Lessenberry and Christina Shockley discuss the likelihood of Michigan having a part time legislature, what will happen to former Supreme Court Justice Diane Hathaway and who is likely to replace her. Lessenberry and Shockley also talk about the 26-year-old who will soon be the emergency manager for Benton Harbor.

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Politics & Government
8:00 am
Tue January 22, 2013

Commentary: Rigging presidential elections

Lessenberry commentary for 1/22/13

We’re used to some level of dirty politics in our elections, even presidential elections  -- in fact, smears, nastiness and exaggeration have been around since the time of George Washington.

But we draw the line at trying to actually rig the election results. When the verdict is in, it’s in, and everybody accepts the result.

Except now certain Republicans around the country have a plan to rig presidential election results to virtually guarantee that any Republican would win the presidency, even if they really lost.

Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus has endorsed this plan, members of his party are actively pushing it in Pennsylvania, and Governor Snyder says it is worth thinking about in Michigan.  The truth is that it is not only unfair, but has the potential, if adopted, to make Michigan less relevant in presidential elections.

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Politics & Government
8:36 am
Mon January 21, 2013

Commentary: Gun laws and forgetting our history

Lessenberry commentary for 1/21/13

Pretty much everyone remembers George Santayana’s famous saying that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t talking about the Republicans in Michigan’s state senate, but he could have been.

Real life is different from fiction. In the real world, things happen that are just too crazy for anyone to make up. And if there’s any political question that we can say has been settled for all time, it is that federal law always trumps state law. When they conflict, federal law is the law.

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Politics & Government
9:00 am
Sat January 19, 2013

The week in review

Steve Carmody Michigan Radio

Week in review interview for 1/19/13

This “week in review” Michigan Radio’s Weekend Edition host Rina Miller and political analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss: Governor Rick Snyder’s State of the State speech, the possibility of no fault absentee voting, a positive report on Michigan’s housing market, and a possible tax amnesty program for Detroit.

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Politics & Government
8:35 am
Fri January 18, 2013

Commentary: Why Detroit failed

Lessenberry commentary for 1/18/13

This week, people in the Detroit area have been giddy with excitement over what seems to be even a better North American International Auto Show than usual. But in a week the auto show will be over, and sooner or later, we’ll be painfully reminded that Detroit is still teetering on the edge of insolvency.

Lately, the city council has been making some rational or semi-rational moves aimed at staving off the loss of political control. And indeed, the Governor seems to have slowed what once looked like a quick march to the appointment of an emergency manager.

Still, it is hard to see how a state takeover of the city can eventually be avoided, given what my students would call Detroit’s “ginormous” problems balancing its budget and the ticking time bomb of 12 billion in unfunded liabilities.

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Politics & Government
7:56 am
Thu January 17, 2013

Commentary: State of the Roads

Lessenberry commentary for 1/17/13

Governor Rick Snyder would be the first to admit he is not a spellbinding speaker, and even by that standard, last night’s state of the state speech was not one of his best.

It’s hard to imagine that he could think that fostering a spirit of unity would be easy, after Republicans rammed right to work legislation through in a single day, without hearings, in what had to be the most bitterly controversial lame-duck session in Michigan history.

The governor’s weak acknowledgment that there had been “divisive times” at the end of the year and that he “wished it hadn’t happened” did nothing to heal the rift between the parties.

Democrats feel betrayed and lied to, and that isn’t going away any time soon. Add in the fact that Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic leader in the state senate, is almost surely gearing up to run for governor herself, and you don’t have an obvious formula for successful bipartisan cooperation.

Which is unfortunate for one big reason: Our roads. They are falling apart, and for the third year in a row, the governor is trying to do something about them.

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Politics & Government
9:03 am
Wed January 16, 2013

Commentary: A conversation about right-to-work

Lessenberry commentary for 1/16/13

I suppose if I were a Martian in Michigan this week, I’d be a bit baffled about what we think is news, and why.

Actually, forget the Martian part. Frankly, I can’t figure out the thinking of the mainstream media, and I’ve been part of it since the 1970’s. Today, for example, the Detroit papers are devoting a lot of space to the auto show, which I understand. They also seem very excited that the National Hockey League strike is over, which I sort of understand.

There is also a story about the latest rumor that Jimmy Hoffa is buried somewhere, which is entirely inappropriate. We are only supposed to have one of these a year. We already dug up someone’s driveway last summer, and whoever is spreading the latest yarn needs to wait till August.

There’s a story about two brothers who stole their father’s corpse, so they could resurrect him through prayer. And, a new investigation revealing that Natalie Wood, the actress who fell off a boat and drowned 32 years ago, actually fell off a boat and drowned. I am sure that’s been on the mind of a lot of unemployed Michiganders trying to make ends meet. However, there is evidence that some of us are thinking about real things.

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Politics & Government
8:37 am
Wed January 16, 2013

The week in Michigan politics

User: cncphotos flickr

Week in Michigan politics interview

In this “Week in Michigan politics” Michigan Radio’s Morning Edition host Christina Shockley and Michigan Radio’s political analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss Governor Rick Snyder’s upcoming State of the State address and how a judge ruling over the Detroit Public School district could set a precedent for emergency managers in the state.

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Politics & Government
8:34 am
Tue January 15, 2013

Commentary: MLK’s real birthday

Lessenberry commentary for 1/15/13

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday would have been today. This may surprise you, since his “official” birthday is next Monday. We celebrate it then, so some people can have a long weekend.

My guess is that for millions of Americans, the meaning of the Martin Luther King Junior holiday is that the banks and post offices are closed and kids get a day off from school. I also suspect strongly that the great civil rights leader wouldn’t have liked being turned into a sanitized plastic icon. 

He spent a fair amount of time in Michigan. He led a huge freedom march in Detroit two months before the famous one in Washington, and tried out a version of the “I have a dream” speech at Cobo Hall. That was half a century ago this summer.

MLK has now been dead longer than he was alive, and it is easy to forget how young he was. Had he not caught that bullet on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, King could easily still be alive and giving presidents hell.

He would have been 84 today. That’s the same age as John Conyers, who is still in Congress. King was about five years younger than Avern Cohn, who is still serving with distinction as a federal judge in Detroit. But King died at the ridiculously young age of 39.

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Politics & Government
8:03 am
Mon January 14, 2013

Commentary: Bringing political parties together

Lessenberry commentary for 1/14/13

Once upon a time, Michigan legislators from both parties sparred sometimes over partisan issues, and then eventually huddled in the back of the chamber to figure out how to get the job done.

Then, they’d often go hang out or play golf together, Republicans and Democrats. These days, members of the two parties all too often regard each other as if they were the bad guys on the other side of the Berlin Wall.

That has become especially true since term limits. Nastiness may have reached an all-time high after last fall’s astonishing lame duck session, in which the Republicans rammed right to work past livid Democrats. But while there’s something to be said for being able to accomplish your goals, having two parties whose members barely speak to each other is not a recipe for good government.

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Politics & Government
9:00 am
Sat January 12, 2013

The week in review

State Capitol Building, Lansing, MI
Ifmuth Flickr

Week in review interview for 1/12/13

This week and review Michigan Radio’s Weekend Edition host Rina Miller and political analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss proposed bills to end lame duck sessions and make it easier to file freedom of information act requests. They also chat about the controversial right to work Pure Michigan ad that appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

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Politics & Government
11:14 am
Fri January 11, 2013

Commentary: How much political fight left for Sander Levin

Lessenberry commentary for 1/11/13

If you watched anything other than football on New Year’s Day, and turned to CNN or C-Span, you probably saw a soft-spoken, older man speaking on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. With his shock of white hair sometimes askew, he was urging his colleagues not to take us over the fiscal cliff.

He is, of course, Congressman Sander Levin, from Royal Oak, who has represented a group of mainly working-class suburbs in the House for 30 years. To us old-timers, however, that’s just his latest venture.

Sandy Levin was first elected to the state senate when his party’s current leader, President Obama was three years old. Rick Snyder was in grade school when Levin lost a race for governor in this state that was so close and so controversial there are still people today who feel he was robbed.

Sandy’s political success may in part have motivated his little brother to get into politics, first by being elected to Detroit City Council. Today, Carl Levin is the longest-serving U.S. Senator in state history. 

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Politics & Government
11:17 am
Thu January 10, 2013

Commentary: Saving Detroit--a blueprint

Lessenberry commentary for 1/10/13

Two inspiring things happened yesterday in a place where the word “hope” is too often preceded by the words “little” or “no.” Mayor Dave Bing’s Detroit Works Project finally released its “future city” report on how to build a Detroit that works.

That might not have meant much in itself. There have been all sorts of bright and brilliant visionary plans that today are gathering dust on some library shelf.

But the release of the book-length Detroit Future City Plan was accompanied by the announcement that the Kresge Foundation was pledging a $150 million to help it stay on track to reality. While that sounds like a lot, it is, of course, a drop in the bucket, an amount that by itself might not even cover the soaring current budget deficit. But it is a sign of belief in the future.

The plan, called the Detroit Strategic Framework, envisions a Detroit 17 years from now that seems more like some idealized version of Seattle or Vancouver.

By then, the planners see the population has having stabilized at between six and eight hundred thousand people, a city transformed by federal, state, local and just good old sweat equity efforts into a variety of green spaces and mixed-use neighborhoods.

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Politics & Government
8:31 am
Wed January 9, 2013

Commentary: Remembering Nixon

Lessenberry commentary for 1/9/13

Richard Nixon, who remains probably the most enigmatic and fascinating of modern presidents, would have been 100 years old today. I never exactly met him, though I was in the same room with him twice, and got a nod and a smile.

Thirty years ago, however, I got a surprising and totally unsolicited letter and package from our only president ever to resign from office. In his own handwriting, Nixon wrote:
  “Dear Mr. Lessenberry, in view of the national debate on foreign policy issues, I thought you might like to have a copy of the page proofs of a book on Soviet-American relations which I have just completed.”  Nixon added that he was sending the book to, quote, “a selected number of government officials and opinion leaders.”

This flabbergasted me. I was then a young national correspondent for the Detroit News, specializing in politics and foreign affairs, and frequently traveled abroad. But I was hardly a national opinion leader.

Then it dawned on me why he had sent the letter. Following his resignation, Nixon turned out a steady stream of books, largely self-serving, in an effort to rebuild his reputation.

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Politics & Government
7:54 am
Wed January 9, 2013

The week in Michigan politics

Michigan Supreme Court
Subterranean Flickr

Week in Michigan politics interview for 1/9/13

This week in Michigan politics, Michigan Radio’s Morning Edition host, Christina Shockley and Michigan Radio’s political analyst, Jack Lessenberry discuss the resignation of Michigan Supreme Court Justice Diane Hathaway and the firing of Detroit’s top lawyer.

Justice Hathaway resigned this week. This comes after a disciplinary panel filed an ethics complaint against her. The complaint accuses Hathaway of cheating and lying about a real estate transaction that saved her $600,000.

Lessenberry says, “It’s another black eye to the Michigan Supreme Court which has been rated the least respected of all Supreme Courts in the Nation by the University of Chicago by a law school study there.”

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Politics & Government
8:36 am
Tue January 8, 2013

Commentary: Vacancy in the Court

Lessenberry essay for 1/8/13

A young reporter once asked me how you could tell if a someone was really retiring of their own free will, or being fired. “Well,” I said, “When someone prominent retires, they often announce it well in advance, and they honor them with a dinner. When someone suddenly leaves at ten in the morning on Tuesday, allegedly to spend more time with their family, they’ve been fired.” 

Yesterday, we learned that Michigan Supreme Court Justice Diane Hathaway is “retiring” from the court, barely halfway through her first term. Her retirement was announced right after the Judicial Tenure Commission lodged a formal complaint against her.

That complaint is perhaps the most damning against a sitting judge I’ve ever seen. It claims she violated federal and state laws against fraud, federal money laundering and tax laws, and constitute “conduct that is contrary to justice, ethics, honesty, or good morals.”

None of this comes as much of a surprise. Last spring, WXYZ-TV in Detroit first reported irregularities in the sale of a house she and her husband owned in Grosse Pointe Park.

Two months ago, federal authorities then sued Hathaway and her husband, who is also a lawyer, and have attempted to seize a home they own in Florida for fraudulently hiding real estate they owned in order to get a bank to write off a large mortgage.

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Politics & Government
8:36 am
Mon January 7, 2013

Commentary: Benny Napoleon on crime and Detroit

Lessenberry essay for 1/7/13

Benny Napoleon knows law enforcement. He joined the Detroit police force almost by accident when he was an 18-year-old shoe salesman looking for something to do with his life.

That was back in 1975. Twenty-three years later, he became police chief, and violent crime dropped by 30 percent over the next three years. He retired when Kwame Kilpatrick became mayor, and taught and practiced law.

Two years ago, he was elected Wayne County Sheriff. And now he is thinking seriously about running for mayor of Detroit. My guess is that he may well be the favorite, whether or not Dave Bing runs again.

Napoleon is a lifelong Detroiter with a charismatic personality and an infectious grin. But he’s deadly serious about saving Detroit. He knows there are astronomical budget problems, and billions of long term liabilities that the city is probably never going to be able to pay.

Nor does he claim to have the economic answers, certainly not yet.  But the city’s biggest problem, he believes, is violent crime, especially the soaring homicide rate. “The reason for that,” he told me this weekend is the “especially violent narcotics trade in Detroit, and the gang activity,” and an extremely aggressive young male culture.

Napoleon strongly believes there could be no better use of what limited resources the city has than to crack down on violent crime. He once headed the city’s gang squad. He’s never been shot, though bullets have whizzed past him; he’s never shot anyone, though several times, he’s had to come close.

Detroit’s population has fallen by 300,000 people since he was police chief. “If you ask people why they left, the overwhelming majority will tell you it’s because of violent crime,” he said.

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Politics & Government
9:00 am
Sat January 5, 2013

The week in review

Michigan lawmakers are using a political maneuver to ensure that it's more difficult for Michigan voters to repeal unpopular, controversial bills.
Matthileo Flickr

Interview

This week in review Weekend Edition host Rina Miller and political analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss how the "fiscal cliff" deal will affect Michiganders, some changes going on at Chrysler and what will happen with former Governor Jennifer Granholm's TV show now that Current TV is being sold to Al Jazeera.

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