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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

satellite map of Michigan, the Great Lakes
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

There are a lot of baffling things about President Trump, but perhaps the most baffling is this: Usually, when you win a close election, you do everything you can to hang on to those voters who gave you victory.

Trump won the last election by a tiny margin, and he won it in the Great Lakes states, flipping Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio.

Today is Abraham Lincoln’s 209th birthday, and it seems safe to say he probably wouldn’t have made it this far even had John Wilkes Booth left him alone.

If you’ve read much about Lincoln, you may recall that he served a single term in Congress, and then didn’t run again. I wondered about that for years, until I learned they had a deal where Lincoln would run for a term, and then another Whig would.

money
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Gov. Rick Snyder presented his final budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year to the House and Senate this week. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle found things they did and didn't like about the governor's spending plan, which includes increased spending for roads and education.

This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about what else stood out in Snyder's budget.


flickr user Charlie Nguyen / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

I am both a human being and a journalist, and so I’m not surprised by most human frailties. I understand jealousy and greed and theft. I understand get-rich-quick schemes, sexual and romantic desires that aren’t always appropriate, and overeating.

But I don’t understand why anyone would attack and severely injure or kill anyone for their sexual orientation.

Politicians, even lame-duck and completely retired ones, do not like admitting they were wrong. Usually about the best you can get is some statement like “mistakes were made.”

In the worst cases, they obstinately keep on pushing wrong-headed policies even when they have clearly been shown to be disastrous. For further proof of this, read any good history of the Vietnam War. 

Michigan's 13th congressional district
Wikipedia

Just in case you were wondering, I’m not running for the vacant seat in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District. I’m not trying to start rumors. I’m not running for anything, and can’t imagine I ever would. I’m a journalist, not a politician.

Michigan State University sign
Wikimedia Commons / public domain

Michigan State University's interim president and former Gov. John Engler has appointed an interim athletic director and said that no candidates from MSU would be considered for the permanent job. He has also ordered MSU staff to preserve anything that could be evidence for various sexual assault investigations.

people in voting booths
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Hard to believe, but today would have been Ronald Reagan’s 107th birthday. I remember meeting him when he made a surprise visit to the press tent at an international economic summit conference in 1983. He seemed bigger in real life than I had expected.

The next year, I remember seeing him in a soft rain, urging everyone to go out and vote, and to get their friends and neighbors to do the same. That was when he was running for reelection, in a campaign where the only real question was whether he’d win all fifty states.

Michigan State University sign
Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio

I love history, and while it is dangerous to go too far in comparing the past to the present, it is also absolutely true that you can’t know where you’re going till you know where you’ve been.  And while the past doesn’t exactly repeat itself, there are useful parallels.

Plaque on the door of the MSU Board of Trustees
Cheyna Roth / MPRN

State Attorney General Bill Schuette wants the governor to be in charge of appointing board members at Michigan State University, Wayne State University and the University of Michigan. Board members at those schools are currently chosen through statewide elections.

This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss Schuette's call to eliminate the elections, which comes as MSU's board faces public scrutiny over its response to the Larry Nassar scandal. 


Michigan State University sign
Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio

To the best of my knowledge, the New York Times, the nation’s newspaper of record, has never before bothered to notice Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees.

But in a stunning editorial Wednesday, the Times called on Governor Rick Snyder to remove the disgraced eight MSU trustees who did nothing to exercise oversight or protect one of the nation’s major universities from perhaps the worst scandal in higher education history.

mconnors / morgue file

Last night I had dinner with Morris Dees, the legendary founder and head of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the group that essentially put the Ku Klux Klan out of business. Not many people know this, but Dees is in Michigan fairly often these days.

He married Kathleen Kalahar, a high-powered Detroit lawyer, a year or so ago, and the couple split their time between Detroit and Alabama. You might say the definition of true love is voluntarily leaving Alabama to spend weeks in Detroit in January.

Former Governor John Engler
WikiCommons

Twenty-seven years ago, Jim Blanchard and State Senate Majority Leader John Engler ran against each other in one of the most dramatic gubernatorial elections in Michigan history. Blanchard, the incumbent, was heavily favored. But in the biggest upset in state political history, John Engler won a narrow victory and went on to serve three terms.

Joint Congress
The White House

President Donald Trump delivered his first State of the Union address last night. He made references to the auto industry in Michigan and took credit for some jobs moving to the region.

Michigan Radio's Morning Edition host Doug Tribou and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss the parts of the speech relevant to Michigan residents.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette proposed yesterday we amend the constitution to give the governor the power to appoint the boards of Michigan’s three biggest universities – the University of Michigan, Michigan State, and Wayne State.

Michigan State University sign
MSU

In recent days, I’ve heard people affiliated with various other universities say how glad they are not to be at Michigan State. Parents whose children go to MSU are worried. Not about sexual molestation, but about the school’s reputation.

Larry Nassar listens to Ingham County Judge Rosemarie Aquilina hand down his sentence of 175 years in prison.
Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio

This week, former Michigan State University sports Dr. Larry Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for sexually assaulting women and girls under the guise of medical treatment. Two top MSU officials have since resigned, and investigations into the school are stacking up.

This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss what could be just the beginning of MSU's troubles.


One of the central problems of any government or corporation is this: Whose job is it to keep an eye on those in charge? Political science professors are fond of quoting the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, who supposedly put it this way: Who will guard the guardians?

Well, Plato never actually said that; some Latin poet did, hundreds of years later. Plato did, however, worry about it. Americans used to think we’d solved the problem.

Michigan State University
John M. Quick / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Quite unintentionally, Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon and trustee Joel Ferguson did their stricken university a great service in the past few days.

In their attempt to save her job and prevent any real change from happening, they proved how desperately necessary change was.

What’s astounding is that neither of them seems to get it, even now.

Governor Rick Snyder
Rick Snyder for Michigan / Facebook Page

Governor Rick Snyder gave his last state-of-the-state speech last night, though for a good chunk of it we really had Governor Richard Dale Snyder, his actual full name, wearing a dark suit and a blue tie, warning the lawmakers to be fiscally responsible.

The speech, like virtually all such speeches by all governors, was little noted, except by political reporters. Nor, to further steal from Lincoln, will it be long remembered. But it was interesting for a number of reasons.

Governor Rick Snyder
Rick Snyder for Michigan / Facebook Page

Last night Governor Rick Snyder delivered his eighth and final State of State address at the Capitol in Lansing. One of the topics Snyder hit on was "civility" in politics.

"One of the warning signals, I'll tell you, if you hear someone running for office, and this is my personal view, and they talk about fighting, the red light should be flashing," he said. "Who are we fighting? Ourselves. That's not right. Fighting does have a role. It was on the beaches of Normandy, not on the beaches of Lake Michigan." 

Wayne State University
Wayne State University

This week, Wayne State University will begin a year-long celebration of what it is calling its sesquicentennial or 150th anniversary. Though I may get in trouble for saying this, the fact is that this anniversary is essentially an invented public relations one.

While the ancestor of the university’s medical school was indeed founded in 1868, Wayne State really grew out of the Detroit public school system, which began to offer junior college classes around the time of World War I. Nothing resembling a complete university existed before the 1930s, and the medical school was grafted on years later.

Michigan State University sign
MSU

When I heard Friday that Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees was meeting behind closed doors with President Lou Anna Simon, I assumed this was to accept or compel her resignation. After the revelation that she had known at least something about the allegations against sports medicine Dr. Larry Nassar for years, I thought there was no other option.

Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon
File photo / Michigan State University

Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon is facing mounting pressure to resign over how the university handled complaints against former sports Dr. Larry Nassar. The full leadership of the state Legislature, MSU's student newspaper and MSU's student government have all called for her resignation. However, it doesn't look like Simon is going anywhere at the moment.

This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about what could be keeping Simon from stepping down.


Knowing when to go

Jan 19, 2018
MSU President Lou Anna Simon
Bike Ann Arbor / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

I do not know Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon very well, but I did know her predecessor, Peter McPherson, whom she served as provost.

Once, I asked him how long a university president should stay in office. McPherson’s hero, the legendary John Hannah, had been MSU’s president for 27 years, and transformed the school from a small mostly agricultural college into a huge “megaversity.”

McPherson said the ideal was to leave one year before people wanted you to, so that in coming years, they would say “I wish President X would have stayed around for another year?” rather than, “thank God, at least Old X is finally gone.”

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.
Photo courtesy of Governor Snyder's office

If Governor Rick Snyder were prime minister of Great Britain, he’d have gone to the palace and resigned this morning. That’s because he lost what Parliament would have called a vote of no confidence, and lost it in spectacular fashion.

Both the state House and Senate overwhelmingly voted to override Snyder’s vetoes on two bills. There are 90 Republicans in the legislature, and our Republican governor kept the support of precisely one of them. 

More than a dozen state senators have sponsored a bill that would eliminate Michigan's income tax by 2022.
Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Last week I talked about the fact that Michigan is headed for a serious budget crisis that threatens everything from education to foster care to public safety.  

We’ve been cutting state government spending on programs that give people a chance at a better life for years. We’ve been neglecting the vitally important public sector of our economy, which is why so many of our roads and bridges are falling apart.

lower half of gymnast on balance beam
Flickr user James Thomas / Creative Commons

About 140 women and girls have accused former sports doctor Larry Nassar of sexually assaulting them while he worked for Michigan State University and the U.S. women's Olympic gymnastics team. More than 80 women and girls are scheduled to speak this week at his sentencing hearing. 

Senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry tells Morning Edition host Doug Tribou about what has stood out to him so far about the victims' statements. 

These days, the place to go for solid in-depth print reporting on what’s happening in this state is not a newspaper, but Bridge, the online magazine.

Bridge, a publication of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Michigan, has hired many of the state’s best journalists to do deep-dive, penetrating reporting about conditions in this state.

Today, they have a blockbuster story that indicates that Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and a number of union leaders are trying to recruit another Democratic candidate for governor.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at Cobo Hall Detroit, June 23, 1963.
50th Anniversary Freedom Walk Facebook Page

Today is not only the Martin Luther King federal holiday, but Dr. King’s actual birthday. Had he not caught that bullet on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel half a century ago, he might still be with us.

John Dingell, the longest-serving congressman in our history, is still very much alive, and sending daily tweets about the insanity that is Washington today.

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