Jack Lessenberry

Essay/Analysis: Political Commentator

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.

This morning, ground was broken for a new Whole Foods Market in Detroit -- and plenty of people are excited about it.

Detroit is commonly said to be underserved in terms of supermarkets, and has even been called a “food desert,” because of its perceived lack of stores selling things like fresh local produce.  Whole Foods bills itself as the world’s largest natural and organic food chain, and they’ve never had a store in the city.

Nobody would dispute that health care is one of the biggest issues facing this nation. And virtually everyone, regardless of their politics, is waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Next month, the nation’s highest court will announce its decision on the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act Congress passed two years ago.

Their decision will have a major impact on this nation. But in Ferndale, a small, charming, quirky, and largely working class Detroit suburb, a tiny group hasn’t been waiting.

To badly paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, history will little note nor long remember Bob Dole’s presidential campaign sixteen years ago. Dole was the Republican nominee against President Bill Clinton that year.

This was before the sex scandals came to light, and Clinton breezed to reelection. Bob Dole, an authentic war hero with a hilariously caustic sense of humor, ran a bumbling race that didn’t reflect that he was actually a quite capable man. 

There’s a phenomenon that happens sometimes after a major stock market crash which is known by the ghastly name, “Dead Cat Bounce.”  We saw a lot of that back in the fall of 2008.

The Dow Jones averages would plunge 500 one day. The next day, they’d recover, say, 50 points, before falling even further later in the week. What was that brief rally all about? Well, it wasn’t about any real improvement in the market.

For weeks, former Republican Congressman Joe Schwarz seriously considered running for the job again, this time as a Democrat. He talked to me about that several times.

He was actually very close to actually getting in the race, for a congressional district that stretched along Michigan’s southern border, from Monroe in the east to Jackson. But then last week, Schwarz finally decided against it. I had been convinced he would run, and as a journalist, thought it a fascinating prospect.

Two weekends ago, I went to something called the Bow-Wow brunch, at an upscale hotel in suburban Detroit. The purpose was to raise money to support the Michigan Humane Society.

The tail fins on cars were just starting to take off the first time he ran. The nation had about half as many people as it does now.

Neither of his opponents this year had yet been born. For that matter, neither had Governor Snyder or President Obama.

John F. Kennedy was a freshman senator, General Motors was the world’s most powerful corporation, and nobody had ever seen a Japanese car. We are talking 1955, when, a few days after Christmas, a few thousand voters showed up for a special election, and sent a geeky-looking 29-year-old lawyer to Congress.

It’s hard to see the future. If you had been around during the Cretaceous Period, sixty-five million years ago, it would have been obvious that the world belonged to the huge and magnificent dinosaurs which dominated the planet.

Nobody would have paid much attention to the little rat-like things called mammals scurrying around the forest floors. But in the end, they would inherit the earth.

State Senator Rick Jones of Grand Ledge might want to watch his back for the next few weeks, or maybe, decades. Yesterday, he threatened to violate a time-honored legislative custom.

Lawmakers at all levels are traditionally known for telling the people “do what we say, not what we do.”

There’s an old Russian saying that, even, if you covered the world with asphalt, eventually a crack would form.

And in that crack, grass would grow. I was reminded of that yesterday by an Italian businessman my age, a man who is betting on green shoots coming through a town caked with many layers of asphalt. His name is Sergio Marchionne, and he is the CEO of a company called Fiat. Three years ago, he did something many at the time thought stupid. He took over a dying bankrupt company.

If everyone who is trying to get a referendum on something on the ballot this fall succeeds, every conscientious person may end up having to spend half an hour in the voting booth in November.

That’s a  bit of an exaggeration, but not much. There is a campaign to get a ballot referendum on the state’s emergency manager law -- and another to recall the governor himself.

The unions are collecting signatures to try to get a constitutional amendment to protect collective bargaining for workers in both the public and private sectors.

Sometimes it seems that everybody in the world is in favor of democracy, just as long as it gives them the result they want.

When that doesn’t happen, well, then they don’t like it so much. We saw two prime examples of this yesterday. The first was a state board of canvassers meeting, where the panel refused to put a repeal of the new emergency manager law on the ballot.

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Kelly cares deeply about our highest court, on which she has served for sixteen years.

For a long time, a number of things have bothered her about the court.  A University of Chicago law school study four years ago ranked Michigan’s Supreme Court dead last in the nation. Among its criteria: “Judicial independence from political and outside influences.”

Recently, I served as the master of ceremonies at the Council on American Islamic Relations annual banquet in Dearborn.

There, I met a family that had suffered an injustice at the hands of our state so terrible it was hard to believe it wasn’t a movie. Ahmed and Rehab Amer were Arab-Americans living a quiet life in suburban Detroit. But in nineteen eighty-five, their two-year-old son died after falling in the bathtub. The state immediately took their other kids away and charged Rehab, their mom, with negligence.

Detroit, as you probably know, is trying desperately to avoid emergency manager status, bankruptcy, or both.

Governor Rick Snyder isn’t the most popular figure in Motown these days, but he is on the same page with city leaders on that, which is why he helped craft the so-called consent agreement.

The mechanics of it are still being worked out. But yesterday, Mayor Dave Bing proposed a new city budget that was almost frightening in terms of its austerity, and depressing when you think of the services this once-great city used to provide.

You have to give Matty Moroun, the 84-year-old owner of the Ambassador Bridge, credit for something. To steal the old Timex watch slogan, he takes a licking and keeps on ticking.

When the courts told him to live up to an agreement he made with the state about road improvements around the bridge, known as the Gateway project, he ignored the judge’s orders for two years.

If I were the late Andy Rooney, I might start today by asking whether you see your glass as half full -- or half empty?

Meaning -- do you focus on the positive or the negative? On the other hand, there’s an old joke about the difference between an optimist, a pessimist, and a Detroiter. The optimist sees the glass as half full; the pessimist, as half empty.

Reporters were caught off base yesterday when they learned that Governor Rick Snyder was not in Lansing as they thought, but in Afghanistan, visiting the troops. The secrecy was understandably needed for security reasons, and the trip is the sort of morale-boosting thing that governors and other state officials traditionally do.

But it was very telling when the governor reported on what the soldiers wanted to talk about. Besides the surging Detroit Tigers and fading Red Wings, the chief thing on their minds seemed to be jobs.

If you had any doubts whether Michigan is still an important player on the national stage, consider this. Yesterday, embattled Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who is trying to survive a recall, appeared at a fundraiser in the Detroit suburb of Troy.

Today, President Obama will visit fundraisers of his own in West Bloomfield. These men are about as different politically as possible. Walker is seen by the nation's unions as Public Enemy Number One. Those unions will be firmly behind the President's re-election. Obama and Walker differ on virtually every domestic issue.

But they do have something in common. Neither man was scheduled to visit the desolation that is Detroit.

That city's more conservative paper, The Detroit News, startled me today by suggesting that the President's limousine take a detour through the city, perhaps, "past the heaps of rubble that were once businesses on Harper near City Airport, and into the blocks surrounding Denby High School off East Outer Drive, where there are more abandoned homes than occupied ones."

The newspaper suggested that Detroit is every bit as bad off as New Orleans was in the wake of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. But there have been no massive federal programs to rebuild Detroit. This nation has spent billions of dollars on the war in Iraq over the last decade, a war that seems to have won us nothing. Can you imagine the positive effect a small fraction of that money would have had on Detroit? Or Flint, or Pontiac, or any number of the rest of Michigan's crumbling cities large and small?

I think I'd like to be a doctor. Physicians generally make a lot more than I do, and I could certainly use the extra income.

I have read several biographies of famous figures in medicine, and know how important it is to wash your hands a lot.

Besides, I once spent most of a day with the famed heart surgeon Denton Cooley years ago. So, I think I'll ask the state to waive the rules while I start delivering babies and removing tumors.

Okay. You may think this idea is nuts. And that's because it is nuts. But don't worry - the closet I'll ever come to practicing medicine is using my teeth to pry the lid off the aspirin bottle.

But the scary thing is that I'm not all that sure the Snyder administration feels that way.

No, they aren't talking about allowing people like me to practice medicine in their garage. Not yet, anyway.

But yesterday, the state Office of Regulatory Reinvention recommended abolishing occupational boards and essentially, ceasing to regulate and license at least eighteen occupations.

A few of these may actually not need regulation; the world will probably not collapse if auctions aren't run by a state licensed and regulated auctioneer. But it seems clear to me that most of the occupations involved very much need oversight.

Most people would probably say their presidents. Based on a non-scientific experiment I’ve been conducting in casual conversations, a fair number of people, can even name the presidents of those schools.

Well, at least the one they attended.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said something that wasn’t true yesterday. Not anything that could get him removed from office or disbarred, mind you. But something untrue nevertheless.

He was speaking, not as attorney general, but in his capacity as state chairman of the Romney campaign. He said that this state was up for grabs in the election, adding “Michigan’s a jump ball state, and it’s not been that way since 1988.

Well, it is true that for now, anyway, both sides are pledging to wage tough, vigorous and expensive campaigns here.

There’s an elderly lady in the Detroit suburbs who doesn’t follow the news much these days, and I’m grateful for that.

Her name is Margaret Radulovich Fishman, and you may never have heard of her. You may not even remember her brother, Milo Radulovich. But fifty-nine years ago, they were at the center of one the biggest human rights controversies in our history.

Back in nineteen-fifty, a formerly obscure freshman senator named Joe McCarthy charged that there were eighty-one Communists working in the U.S. State Department.

Virtually nobody paid much attention, but the last faint hope that the Michigan State Fair would somehow be revived ended this week.

Two days ago, Governor Rick Snyder signed bills authorizing the state to give up ownership of the Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit. Those 163 acres would be returned, the governor’s office said, “to productive uses.“

Some interesting construction is going on down by the Detroit River, and more is about to start. Michigan Department of Transportation crews have been pouring concrete to finish a long-overdue road. Next week more crews will swing into action.

They will begin tearing down a concrete pier to nowhere, and then build a truck access road to help relieve congestion leading to the Ambassador Bridge. If you’ve come up to Detroit on I-75 from the South, you’ve probably seen huge trucks stacked up in the right lane.

I first met Mike Wallace 23 years ago, when I became a regional screener for the Livingston Awards, the biggest-deal prize there is for young journalists. Naturally, like every other baby boomer, I didn’t remember a time when Mike Wallace was not part of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.

Throughout Detroit’s financial crisis, the governor has had a consistent message: This is about money and financial mismanagement, not about race. This didn‘t have anything to do with  the bitter racial issues that have plagued Detroit and complicated the city’s relationship with the suburbs, and the state, and itself.

Sixty years ago today, Detroit was the fifth largest city in the  nation, vibrant, rich and powerful. The city wouldn’t begin losing people till the first freeways opened up in the next year.

The population had probably reached two million. The summer before, the President of the United States had come to help the city celebrate its two hundred and fiftieth anniversary.

Last summer I went to Traverse City to speak to the state association of property law lawyers. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, they will probably little note nor long remember what I said there.

But I’ll never forget something I saw there. The night before my speech, they took us to the Turtle Creek Casino for dinner. The food was excellent. But we walked through the gamblers sitting at the slot machines, and that was haunting. They looked like zombies, most of them, mechanically feeding money into the one-armed bandits. Few of them looked like they could afford to gamble.

Yesterday, I was driving across Michigan and listening to the coverage of Detroit’s financial crisis, when I realized something.

Detroit must seem like an alien world to many who don‘t live in the city. And the reactions of many Detroiters, including some members of city council, must seem both baffling and irrational.

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