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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Commentary
11:28 am
Thu January 12, 2012

Physics and Politics

The scientific and political communities in this state and country often live in largely separate worlds. Former Congressman Vernon Ehlers, a physicist from Grand Rapids and a classy gentleman, was one of the few who managed to bridge that gap.

Smart scientists know that they usually don’t want to focus political attention on what they are doing. Smart politicians, a somewhat rarer breed, know enough to mostly leave scientists alone.

But there was a development yesterday that united both Michigan’s scientists and politicians in concern.

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Commentary
11:35 am
Wed January 11, 2012

The Secret Primary

Well, we now know who won the New Hampshire primary. Michigan’s Republican primary is going to be held February 28. Democrats will pick their delegates in caucuses four months from now, on May 5. There isn’t any urgency for them; they have only one candidate: President Barack Obama.

So Republicans are using a primary; Democrats a caucus. But there is another primary election you probably don’t know about—and which Michigan Democrats don’t want you to find out about. It is also being held February 28.

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Commentary
10:40 am
Tue January 10, 2012

Destroying Our Future

All politicians say they’re against oppressive tax burdens. For instance, Governor Rick Snyder. Almost his entire program is focused on making Michigan more competitive economically.

But the tragic irony of this is that one of the unintended consequences of his reforms is having exactly the opposite effect. We are imposing a stiff and burdensome tax on our young people, making it harder for them to compete than most states do.

In some cases, we are making it impossible, and we are going to be paying the price for this for many years to come.

That’s because we are imposing what Phil Power at the Center for Michigan calls a “college user tax,” on the students of this state that saddles many with crushing debt and prices others out of the market entirely. I learned the details this morning from a story in Bridge, the new online newsmagazine published by the Center, a non-partisan, non-profit group aimed at finding common-sense solutions for our state’s problems. Phil Power also wrote his weekly column about the study. It makes for shocking reading.

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Commentary
11:54 am
Mon January 9, 2012

Who is Clark Durant?

Clark Durant is a man of ideas who is far more knowledgeable about American history than most United States senators I’ve met.

His office is filled with portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, together with photos of a much younger Clark with Ronald Reagan and Sandra Day O’Connor. He’s fascinated by Washington, D.C. and absolutely hates its culture.

This year, he’s running hard for the United States Senate, because he thinks his country is in great danger of being destroyed by debt and spending with no thought for the consequences.

And he believes that maybe, just maybe, he can do something to change that. “If this were just about trying to be one more Republican senator, I wouldn’t be doing this. I know I would be a freshman senator, bottom of the pack in seniority, at 63 years old."

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Commentary
11:28 am
Fri January 6, 2012

Ban on domestic partner benefits for some, may cost more than it saves

A while ago, I heard a lecturer explain how the 1960s were a time in which there was a great cultural clash in our country. Well, you didn’t have to live through the period to know that.

Bob Dylan’s song “The Times They Are A’Changin,“ spells it out. However, I would argue that the present-day culture wars are far deeper than the days when dad yelled at junior to get a haircut, and parents worried over whether their kids were trying marijuana.

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Commentary
12:33 pm
Thu January 5, 2012

What Iowa Really Meant for Mitt Romney and GOP candidates

If you are a political trivia buff, you may know that nobody from Michigan has ever been elected president. Gerald Ford, remember, was appointed vice president, took over when Richard Nixon resigned, and then lost his bid for election on his own.

In fact, nobody born in Michigan has ever been president at all. Ford was born in Nebraska. The closest we’ve actually come to a native son in the White House was Thomas E. Dewey, who was the Republican nominee twice in the nineteen-forties.

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Commentary
11:28 am
Wed January 4, 2012

The Governor and the Bridge

Governor Rick Snyder had an amazing year last year, getting far more of his program through the legislature than anyone could have predicted. His one major defeat was, in a way, shocking.

That was, of course, his attempt to get a new bridge built over the Detroit River, a bridge that wouldn’t cost Michigan taxpayers anything, and which business leaders say is vitally necessary.

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Commentary
2:41 pm
Tue January 3, 2012

Presidential Campaign at Fever Pitch

Well, now it really is the new year. It’s Tuesday; it’s snowy and bone-chilling cold in much of Michigan, and in case you hadn’t noticed, the presidential campaign is in full steam.

Actually, the campaign never stopped, as far as I could tell, but it’s at fever pitch today, because the Iowa caucuses are tonight. If you like baseball more than politics, this is sort of Opening Day.

Opening Day, except that the exhibition season has already lasted about two years, and the World Series, election day itself, is more than ten months away.

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Commentary
9:12 am
Fri December 23, 2011

Michigan's Governor makes a misstep on benefits to the unmarried domestic partners

Politically speaking, this has been the year of Rick Snyder. Since he first burst on the scene two years ago, he has had an astonishing run of success. The experts said a self-proclaimed “nerd” without any political experience couldn’t possibly win the nomination for governor, much less the general election.

 When he did both, they said the new kid would fall on his face in the rough-and-tumble world of Lansing. Instead, he got more significant legislation enacted in a few short months than his predecessor had in eight years.

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Commentary
8:09 am
Thu December 22, 2011

How a former Detroit mayor sees the city

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At lunchtime yesterday, I got a news alert that the state’s preliminary review team found Detroit’s finances a mess.

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Commentary
12:33 pm
Wed December 21, 2011

The Real Homeless: Victims of persecution seeking political asylum

We’re going to see a lot of stories about homeless people in Michigan this winter. Unemployment has come down a little, but is still high, and assistance for the poor is way down.

Shelter and rescue mission managers are bracing for the flood they feel is coming, after the state began cutting tens of thousands of people off cash assistance forever, most of them children.

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Commentary
12:26 pm
Tue December 20, 2011

A new idea for schools, make them centers of the community

Toledo, Ohio is just across Michigan’s southern border, but as far as policy makers in our state are concerned, it might as well be another country. In fact, virtually nobody in Michigan pays much attention to anything going on in Toledo, which is unfortunate.

That’s because in many ways, Toledo, a city of about 300,000 people, is more like Michigan than like the rest of Ohio. It has a blue-collar economy that has long mirrored Detroit’s.The Motor City made cars;Toledo made Jeeps and auto parts.

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Commentary
11:34 am
Mon December 19, 2011

Wayne State football: Go Warriors!

If you are a football fan, you probably know that the Detroit Lions won a thrilling comeback victory yesterday, and are having their best season in something like a million years.

If you know a lot about University of Michigan athletics, you may know that the athletic department has a budget of $110 million, of which football takes the biggest share. Michigan State’s athletic budget is about $80 million.

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Commentary
1:30 pm
Fri December 16, 2011

Michigan's Future: Asking Basic Questions

There are a number of important debates going on in Michigan about our economic crisis, and our future.

Three of the most intense are these: 

  1. Should Detroit have an Emergency Manager?
  2. Should the Emergency Manager law itself be repealed? 
  3. And what’s the future of public education in this state, and how should we pay for it?

Virtually everyone has opinions about these issues, and I have expressed mine, on Michigan Radio and elsewhere. But it occurs to me that we may all be missing something.

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Commentary
11:23 am
Thu December 15, 2011

High-speed buses, instead of light rail, make sense for Detroit

There’s a sense of gloom throughout the mass transit community in Michigan today. Earlier this week, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that he was canceling the long-talked about light rail line to be built up Woodward Avenue in Detroit.

They’ve been discussing light rail in the Woodward corridor for more than forty years. Few remember now, but Detroit’s much ridiculed People Mover was originally intended as the embryo of such a system, to which it would later be connected. Recently, light rail was thought to be only a matter of time.

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Commentary
12:07 pm
Wed December 14, 2011

Detroit’s City Council votes not to cut their own budgets

Yesterday, Detroit City Council sent a clear signal to Governor Rick Snyder and the rest of the state. By their actions, they said “we need you to send in an Emergency Manager and strip us of all financial power. You have to do this, because we are psychologically incapable of seriously addressing our financial problems.”

They would indignantly deny what I just said, of course. Barely a week ago, they huddled around a microphone with Mayor Dave Bing, and defiantly agreed they didn’t need outside help.

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Commentary
12:53 pm
Tue December 13, 2011

Relaxing Liquor Laws

Back in the 1980s, The Detroit News had an excellent editor named Lionel Linder, who did his best to improve the intellectual quality of the newspaper.

Later, after the ownership changed, he became editor of a newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee. On New Year’s Eve 19 years ago, he left work in early afternoon to go home. Unfortunately, he drove across the path of a deadbeat who had been drinking package liquor in his car since morning, and at that very moment passed out with all his weight on the accelerator.

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Commentary
10:34 am
Mon December 12, 2011

Prejudice, Modern Style

Last week two dismaying things happened - one predictable, the other shocking. The predictable one first: the Michigan legislature passed a bill banning the unmarried partner of any public employee from receiving health care benefits, as a spouse normally does.

The bill was sponsored by State Representative Dave Agema, who has never made any secret of his hostility to gay people. Make no mistake about it; this is a gay-bashing bill, though some of those supporting it hypocritically pretend otherwise.

They argued that this is required under a state constitutional amendment that says marriage is limited to men and women. There were even some who said this was necessary to save the cash-strapped state money. But in fact, while nobody has any statistics that I have seen, the amount saved has to be small.

My guess is that this law, if Governor Snyder makes the mistake of signing it, would end up costing the state more money than it would save, because of the lawsuits that are sure to result.

One problem is the state’s public universities. They contend that they have the power to determine their own policies under the Michigan Constitution, and the governor thinks they are right.

But others disagree, especially anti-gay activists, and they are certain to take to the courts. The resulting publicity is sure to be bad for competitiveness in Michigan. Aren‘t we supposed to be trying to attract the best and the brightest to our state? It is worth noting that one of Michigan‘s most respected university presidents is openly gay.

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Commentary
11:56 am
Fri December 9, 2011

The Education Disconnect

Michigan Radio has been sponsoring a set of public forums designed to bring experts on various issues together with the public in an informal, non-threatening way, a series called “Issues and Ale.“ I moderated one earlier this week that focused on education, held at the Wolverine Brewing Company in Ann Arbor. I was doubtful how many people would actually show up. This was on Tuesday night in what is really early winter, with the holidays approaching. To my surprise, however, before the evening was over it was standing room only, with people packing the hall.

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Commentary
12:32 pm
Thu December 8, 2011

Snyder urges Detroit’s leaders to enter into a consent agreement

Native Detroiter Harry Morgan died yesterday. What makes me feel old is that while the rest of the world remembers him fondly for his role in MASH, I think of him as Officer Bill Gannon from Dragnet.

That was the show made famous by the iconic line “Just the facts, ma’am.‘ Which, by the way, nobody ever actually said on the show, any more than Humphrey Bogart said “Play it Again, Sam,” in Casablanca. Those are enduring cultural myths.

There’s another, more dangerous myth out there in Detroit today, a myth apparently shared by the mayor and city council.

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