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
11:55 am
Tue May 24, 2011

Chrysler Resurgent

What goes around comes around, and if you live long enough, you get to see it come around more than once.  I’ve now been through two Chrysler near-death experiences in my adult life.

That includes two controversial loan or loan guarantee cycles, two cases of triumphant resurgence, and as of today, two triumphant moments in which the loans were paid back early.

Wasn’t it just the other day that Lee Iacocca was standing on a stage, grinning from ear to ear, and presenting a huge signed check to pay off the last of his generation’s loan guarantees?

Actually, that was 1983. We were still worried about the Soviet Union and there wasn’t any World Wide Web, but it wasn’t all that long ago. Today, it will be Sergio Marchionne pushing buttons to execute wire transfers to pay off loans.

But it feels pretty much the same. In between, we had interludes in which Chrysler sold itself first to the Germans, then the Italians. I hope somebody realizes that they are running out of former Axis nations to partner with. The only one left has its hands more than full with Toyota and the aftermath of the tsunami.

Seriously, what will happen today is good news. It is also a stinging rebuke to those who argued in 2009 that the government should just let General Motors and Chrysler die. That would have plunged us into deep depression.

Now the company is back on its feet - or almost. One thing that is important to remember is that Chrysler is not really an independent company any more. There is no more Chrysler Corporation. It is now the Chrysler Group, LLC. And to all intents and purposes, it is a division of the Italian automaker Fiat.

Fiat, which already has a controlling interest in Chrysler, will be majority owner by the end of the year. The Italian automaker’s stake in Chrysler may eventually rise to about three-quarters, with the remaining share sold as stock to the general public.

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Commentary
11:29 am
Mon May 23, 2011

Not Guilty As Charged

How many of the forty-four thousand prisoners sitting in our state’s prisons do you think are actually innocent of the charges which put them there? None? A handful? Maybe … one percent?

I talked recently with a man who is an expert on this, and what he told me was absolutely shocking. Jim Petro was Ohio’s Attorney General for four years, until he left office to make an unsuccessful run for governor in 2006.

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Commentary
11:47 am
Fri May 20, 2011

A Life Remembered

Al Fishman called me last week, full of energy as ever, wanting some advice. He wanted to put together a big debate over the national budget  in Michigan. Wanted to show people things could be more fair. I told him I thought people here were more concerned with the state budget crisis right now. “I know that,” he said.

“But state and local budgets also reflect the spending priorities of the federal government,” he explained. What he wanted me to do was to suggest a television personality who could moderate the forum, someone who might help boost attendance.

I suggested a few names. Yesterday morning, Al, who was eighty-two and big on physical fitness, went to the doctor to have a tricky knee looked at. He was in the waiting room when the heart attack came. He may never have known what hit him.

Fishman wasn’t a big name, outside of what his opponents would have called the “left-wing labor community.” There, he was revered, though he didn’t seem to know that.

He acted like just another guy who had just discovered something was wrong in society, and had decided to try to fix it. What was most unusual about him was his energy level and his attitude.

No matter how many times the system disappointed him, no matter how many new wars or atrocities or unfairnesses he lived through, Al never stopped fighting. There was injustice in the world, and he thought it was up to all of us to do something about it.

What he wanted most of all was to abolish war, the nuclear threat, and any kind of discrimination. He grew up in New York City and saw all those things in the army right after World War II.

He came to these parts to attend the University of Michigan, but got involved in politics, and never finished. Perhaps his biggest success came by accident. He married a Serbian-American girl from Detroit, and their political activity caused the Air Force, back in the Red Scare days, to try to kick out her brother, who wasn’t political at all. Edward R. Murrow took up his cause and did one of the most famous programs in television history about it: The Case of Lieutenant Milo Radulovich. That show enabled Murrow to go on to help destroy the demagogue Joe McCarthy.

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Commentary
1:06 pm
Thu May 19, 2011

Film Tax Credits

It seems all but certain now that the film tax credit is dead. Governor Rick Snyder came to office saying he had a dim view of it, and that he was against the state trying to pick winners and losers.

That view does make some sense. My guess is that most of the major recent new industries, from camera phones to  Google,  wouldn’t have been immediately appreciated by governments.

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Commentary
10:22 am
Wed May 18, 2011

Bring Back the Posthumus Rules

I am aware that there’s a battle over whether to put the state’s unexpected surplus in the rainy day fund or to use it to help the schools. I know that libraries are in a fight for their very existence all over Michigan, and Detroit City Council is proposing crippling cuts of something like 75 percent to the city’s cultural jewels, including the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Historical Museum.

However, none of that was featured very prominently in any of the newspaper or commercial station news reports I heard while driving across the state yesterday. What was treated as big news was that former Governor Jennifer Granholm and her husband, Dan Mulhern, were denouncing Arnold Schwarzenegger via Twitter.

Granholm told the world, or at least that portion of it who follow her tweets, that this indicates that maybe we need more women governors, and advised men to keep their pants zipped.

Her husband, a leadership consultant, tweeted “Men: Can we talk maturely, openly and seriously about sex and fidelity?”

The ex-governor’s spouse then appeared to denounce the Arnold as a masculine ideal, and added that it was time to replace machismo - I am paraphrasing here - with brains and heart.

That’s all sensible advice. It also would be nice to think those tweets will be enough to dissuade the next millionaire movie star from impregnating his housekeeper, but I am skeptical.

Nor do I know why we are treating whatever the Granholm-Mulherns are tweeting about this as newsworthy. Yes, I know. He was a governor; she was a governor, it’s about sex, sex sells, et cetera.

However, this also reminds me of one of the few genteel customs in our politics that we seem to have lost in just the past few years. Until now, it has been the convention for defeated candidates and outgoing officeholders to quietly disappear, at least for a year.

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Commentary
10:27 am
Tue May 17, 2011

Miracle League

The Detroit Tigers have been playing baseball for nearly two months now, but for Steve Peck, the start of the season that really counts is still more than two weeks away.

He’s the non-salaried, happily genial commissioner of the Miracle League of Michigan, where everyone is a true all-star.

The Miracle League is designed to give children with every kind of physical and mental disability the chance to play baseball.

One little boy named Dylan can’t walk, but thanks to his able-bodied buddy, has no trouble rounding second base. The parents of Jennifer, a little girl with Down’s syndrome, say they’ve been blown away by how much self-confidence playing has given her.

Peck, a radio host and marketing and communications consultant, says he thinks this may be the most rewarding thing he’s ever done. It started almost eight years ago, when by chance he saw an HBO special about the first-ever Miracle League, which had been founded in Rockville, Georgia in the late 1990s.

The kids played on a special rubberized diamond, so that wheelchairs and walkers could move around. Every child was able to get hits, make runs, and round the bases, thanks to the assistance of a volunteer buddy. There was nothing else like it in the country.

Peck was inspired. Why should Georgia have all the fun?  He went to work and got the City of Southfield to donate some prime land in their civic center complex.  He raised the $325,000 necessary to have the special rubberized field built, and got the league going.

That was eight years ago. Things have been expanding ever since. There are various levels of play now. Some are non-competitive, where everyone just scores runs and has a good time. In others, they play for keeps.  There are now some Miracle Leagues groups where challenged adults can participate.

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Commentary
10:18 am
Mon May 16, 2011

Redistricting Dilemma

When I was twelve years old, Sander Levin, who everybody calls Sandy, was my state senator. When I was eighteen, he ran for governor. He was elected congressman for the district where I now live when I was thirty years old. Next year, I will be sixty.

And Sandy Levin, who turns eighty this summer, will still be representing me in Congress. That’s not to imply that he isn’t still sharp. On the contrary, Levin was chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means committee until Democrats lost control of the House last fall. But he, and the Democrats, have a dilemma.

Republicans are  entirely in charge of the congressional redistricting process this year.  Michigan is losing a seat in Congress, and you know Republicans are going to try to eliminate one of the six seats Democrats hold, not one of the nine held by their party.

Everything I know tells me that they are most likely to throw Sandy Levin in a district with Gary Peters, now serving his second term in the House. Levin has far more name recognition and seniority than Peters.  If the two men are forced to battle against each other in a primary, he’ll almost certainly be the favorite.

Both men also say they are running for re-election, no matter what. But - should Sandy Levin really do this? Might it be better for him - and especially, for his party - if he makes a graceful exit?

Here’s why I say that: Most of Michigan’s Democratic delegation in the House of Representatives are old. Really old.

Next year, John Dingell will be eighty-six. Dale Kildee and John Conyers, eighty-three, Levin, eighty-one. The only exceptions are the just-elected Hansen Clarke of Detroit, who will be fifty-five, and Peters, fifty-three. Does it make sense for the state and the party to sacrifice the career of the fifty-three year old so the guy more than old enough to be his father can have another term?

Within a very few years, all of those lions are going to be gone, one way or another.

Does it make sense to lose all our experience pretty much at once?

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Commentary
11:01 am
Fri May 13, 2011

Now for the Hard Part

Well, Governor Rick Snyder pulled it off. Yesterday, the legislature passed his radical restructuring of the state tax system, agreeing to slash business taxes, eliminate tax credits and for the first time ever, to tax pensions.

The man who was supposed to be a political babe in the woods skillfully guided his agenda home. They will tell you he almost didn’t pull it off. Indeed, Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley had to break a tie vote in the senate to get the bill passed.

But to some extent, this was theater. While some Republicans were genuinely opposed, others were really opposed to being defeated when they run for re-election.

So the outcome was skillfully managed to allow some Senate  Republicans in swing districts to tell their constituents that they voted against Snyder’s plan. But were they really against it? Here’s a clue. When they took a second vote on whether to bypass the waiting period and have the bill take effect immediately, the Republicans unanimously voted to support the governor.

And now for the real test: Will it work? After the vote, the governor praised the legislature for, as he put it, “taking the bold actions necessary to put our state on the path to prosperity, and “paving the way for economic expansion.”

The contrast between Democrats and Republicans on this couldn’t be more stark.

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Commentary
10:29 am
Thu May 12, 2011

What Should Be Private?

Robert Bobb, the tough, controversial Emergency Financial Manager of the Detroit Public Schools, made an astonishing admission yesterday. He has been fighting a deadly form of cancer.

Thirteen months ago, he learned he had Stage Four tongue cancer, which had spread to the lymph nodes in his neck.

His chances of surviving five years were put at less than fifty percent. Hearing such a diagnosis would be enough to emotionally destroy many people. Bobb toughed it out.

He clearly is an intensely private person. In fact, I had never  seen his age in print - he is sixty-six - or knew he was married until yesterday. People knew something was wrong with Bobb; he seemed to have lost weight, and at one point acknowledged he had been ill, but said he was feeling better. In fact, he was involved in an intensive course of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

Bobb would show up at Henry Ford Hospital in the morning, checking in under a fake name, and get half an hour of intense treatment. Then he would go about the battles of the day, and sometimes endure abuse at school board meetings at night.

Remarkably, his secret held, until he decided to reveal it to the Detroit Free Press yesterday, adding, almost as an afterthought, “It was an hell of an ordeal, man.”

Why did he keep his condition from the public? His reasons make sense.

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Commentary
1:00 pm
Wed May 11, 2011

Fast train to somewhere

We’ve had so much bad news for so long it’s sometimes hard to absorb when something goes right. But it did this week, when the federal government awarded Michigan $200 million dollars to improve railroad service between Detroit and Chicago.

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Commentary
2:01 pm
Tue May 10, 2011

Life after GM

The top brass of General Motors were happily bound for Ohio today, to the newly revived automaker’s transmission plant in Toledo.

They are announcing the creation of four thousand new jobs, there and elsewhere.  What was once the world’s biggest corporation is once again hugely profitable -- less than two years after bankruptcy and near-corporate death.

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Commentary
10:37 am
Mon May 9, 2011

Hope and Despair in Detroit

Two years ago, a band of young idealists crisscrossed Detroit, collecting signatures. They had a goal: To make the city a better place to live, with a decent, responsive, functioning government.

They thought the place to start was revising the city charter to  elect a council that would be responsible and responsive. For years, all nine council members have been elected at large, which meant they are in charge of everything and nothing.

They easily could and did ignore constituents they found annoying. Not that this mattered much; as it now stands, Detroit council members have the power to approve the budget and major city projects, but they are powerless to do small everyday things.

They cannot, for example, even ask the lighting department to replace a burned out bulb in a street light.

Worse, the system is set up to produce the worst possible results. Voters are supposed to select nine names from a primary ballot that may include two hundred names. Nobody can possibly know enough to do that, so they pick familiar-sounding ones.

In recent years, this had led to the election of a former school board member famous for being corrupt and the bizarre wife of a congressman who set new standards for bad behavior. Both are in jail now. In recent years, the council has also included an ex-congresswoman who lost her job after holding a fundraiser in a strip club and a once-famous singer who often did not appear to realize where she was or why she was there.

Well, the idealists made things happen. They got voters to approve writing a new charter, and this November, it will be on the ballot. If voters approve, Detroit in the future will have only two at large councilpersons. The other seven will represent manageable-sized districts of just over one hundred thousand residents each.

Other things the new charter would do include creating an inspector general who would investigate waste, abuse, fraud and corruption in city government, and enact mandatory disclosure rules on contractors and lobbyists making political contributions.

That’s the good news. Now for the bad.

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Commentary
10:54 am
Fri May 6, 2011

Social Agenda

Former Michigan Governor John Engler is widely regarded as having been more conservative than Rick Snyder. And certainly, Snyder won the support last year of many prominent independents and even moderate Democrats who never would have voted for Engler.

Yet perceptions and reality aren't always the same thing. You might have expected what some people call the “radical right” to have had a field day imposing their social agenda on the state during the dozen years that John Engler was governor.

However, that mostly didn’t happen. Engler kept those folks pretty effectively bottled up. When they grumbled, he or his people would ask, “would you like a liberal Democrat in this office instead?”

In other words, push too hard, and you risk backlash. Now, nobody ever accused Engler of being stupid. He knew that while Michiganders can be induced to vote Republican, this is anything but a deep red state. There were three presidential elections during the Engler years; Democrats easily carried Michigan each time.

In between, John Engler was re-elected by astonishing landslides. Rick Snyder doesn’t seem to have a social agenda either, except perhaps not to wear ties when he doesn't have to.

Though he has said he is anti-abortion, he is an enthusiastic supporter of embryonic stem cell research. Otherwise, he seems totally focused on the economy. But his fellow Republicans in the legislature have other ideas. They have taken a number of actions that could possibly hurt their party and their governor in the long run.

Yesterday, for example, the House approved both the higher education and the elementary and high school education budgets.

The vote was close, in part because the cuts were too much for even six Republican members to support. But at the last minute, they slapped on another amendment punishing universities that allow benefits for unmarried partners. They can lose up to five percent of their funding.

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Commentary
11:10 am
Thu May 5, 2011

Managing the Mess

When the news broke yesterday that retired General Motors vice president Roy Roberts would be the new Detroit Public Schools czar, the first thing I thought of was Henry Ford.

This is not because I have attention deficit disorder. No, I thought of something brilliant Hank the First once observed about his own career.  Ford said if he had asked about transportation needs in the 1890's, nobody would have said they needed an automobile.

They would have said they wanted a faster horse. For years, various people have been trying in various ways to beat life into a dying horse called the Detroit Public Schools.

They’ve tried appointed boards and elected boards; emergency managers, all sorts of superintendents and infusions of cash.

Nothing has worked very well. Sometimes they identify a particular problem, but the overall health of the system has remained poor. Now if you are not from Detroit, you may not think this matters much to you. Except that it does.

We as a state will all suffer, economically and otherwise, if kids can’t get a functional education in our largest city. Plus, the seeds of many of the problems that have ruined Detroit’s schools are present and growing in other school systems, urban, suburban and rural school systems across the state.

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Commentary
11:34 am
Wed May 4, 2011

May 3rd Election

The voters sent an important message yesterday, to themselves and their communities, and indirectly to the politicians in Lansing. It’s a message the governor and legislature need to hear.

Specifically, the people said that they are willing to pay more for services  important to them. They aren’t necessarily happy with the way things are going or with the people running things. In West Michigan area, they tossed out a boatload of school board members.

Yet the same voters renewed a number of millage proposals, often by wide margins. Sometimes they even voted to increase their taxes, when they were convinced services were necessary.

Grand Rapids narrowly voted to increase a rapid transit millage. Hudsonville voted millions to upgrade the school system.

This trend was especially strong in Southeast Michigan. Struggling, older blue-collar suburbs like Ferndale and Hazel Park have been hard hit by declining property values and a steep drop in state revenue sharing.

Yesterday, they asked their hard-pressed citizens for new money to keep up services.

These aren’t people who have a lot of money, and many no longer have jobs. But they said yes. In tiny Clawson, the people voted more money for their library, a year after the voters in the neighboring and more affluent city of Troy voted to close theirs.

By far, the biggest story was in Southfield, a city of office towers and mostly well-maintained split-level and ranch homes north of Detroit. Seventy percent of its seventy thousand residents are African-American -- mostly middle-class families.

City leaders laid it on the line. They needed a five mill property tax increase, mostly for police and fire services, and they needed it now. Otherwise, they would have to lay off half the city’s police and firemen. Residents knew what that could mean.

They voted the additional taxes by a margin of five to one. Now, these results do not mean that the voters are in a wildly spending mood. They seemed discerning. In Flint, they voted money to keep policemen on the job, but turned down a request for new funds to reopen it the city jail. In blue-collar Garden City, home of iconic rocker Mitch Ryder, officials asked for a twelve-mill increase. Voters said that was too much. They also were reluctant to combine services, such as police and fire. They said no to that in cities as different as Jackson and Harper Woods.

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Commentary
11:14 am
Tue May 3, 2011

O Canada

Yesterday, America’s most important ally and trading partner had an historic election which rocked the foundations of that nation’s politics and has huge implications for the western hemisphere, the United States in general and Michigan in particular.

You would not, however, know anything about that from most of the mainstream media. National Public Radio has covered the Canadian National Election, far better than most, but I don’t even think they have paid enough attention to the story.

Most of the rest of the media, especially in Michigan, largely continues to be consumed with the aftermath of our government’s assassination yesterday of the supreme Al-Qaeda leader.

Yes, Osama bin Laden is still dead, and I don’t mean to minimize the implications of that story, or its continuing repercussions. But we knew about that yesterday.

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May 3rd Election - Commentary
11:41 am
Mon May 2, 2011

Testing Time

Everyone understands that our cities are going to have to make do with less help from Lansing. In fact, nearly every city, village and township  in Michigan has had a harder time the last few years.

Not only has revenue sharing been cut; declining property values and more foreclosures has meant less tax revenue.

Now, we are about to find out the answer to a crucial question:  Are the residents of hard-hit cities going to be willing to pay a little extra to keep up services and their quality of life?

Tomorrow, a number of cities around the state will ask their residents to do just that. Perhaps the most important of these elections is in Southfield, just north of Detroit in Oakland County, one of the many suburbs that exploded after the coming of the freeways.

Southfield’s gleaming office towers hold a daytime population of perhaps two hundred thousand. But at night, seventy-one thousand people call Southfield home. The city is one of well-kept split levels and ranch houses, with a lovely city center complex and one of Michigan’s newest and largest libraries.

Thirty years ago, Southfield was populated largely by young Jewish families. Today, it hasn’t lost its leafy character, but is now seventy percent African-American. Thanks largely to the recession, housing values have crashed, and so have sales tax receipts.

Mayor Brenda Lawrence and the other city leaders know they are on the point of a knife. They have to keep services up and crime down, or their city could topple into urban decay. They don’t say it aloud, but their biggest fear is that Southfield could become Detroit.

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Commentary
10:27 am
Fri April 29, 2011

Great and Bloody Sacrifice

Many of us have been so consumed with our modern economic struggles that we’ve barely paused to note that we faced a much greater crisis one hundred and fifty years ago his month.

South Carolina, the first state to secede from the union, fired on federal troops at Fort Sumter that April, and the Civil War was on.

When it ended four years later, more Americans had been killed than in any war before or since, and the country was a different place. We don’t often think of Michigan in connection with the Civil War. We were then a small, pretty new, and not very major state.

Our entire population was only three-quarters of a million people - far less than the population of Macomb County today. Yet Michigan answered the call enthusiastically.

We overfilled our quota of volunteers. Abraham Lincoln had some anxious moments those first weeks of the war.

Would the states really respond by sending the troops necessary to put down the rebellion? Michigan did. From Detroit, Adrian, Marshall, Ypsilanti and Grand Rapids they came.

Washington asked Michigan for a single regiment. Governor Austin Blair protested. No. We could furnish more. Much more.

The first Michigan troops arrived in the capitol in May, lifting the President’s spirits. “Thank God for Michigan!”Abraham Lincoln said when they arrived.

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Commentary
11:06 am
Thu April 28, 2011

Snyder and the Schools

There was lots of reaction to Governor Rick Snyder’s special message on education yesterday, some of it within minutes after he stopped speaking. What isn’t clear is how many of those doing the reacting had actually listened, or read what he had to say.

Actually, he proposed a number of things that liberals and  progressive education experts should have been happy with. Chief among them was paying more attention to childhood development.

“Early childhood is a time of remarkable brain growth that affects a child’s development and readiness for school,” he said.

He added that our goal should be to create a “coherent system of health and early learning,” to nurture and watch over these children from before they are born, through the third grade.”

Snyder went on to address the threat of alcoholism and premature birth. Hard to see how progressives could fail to agree.

But if he is serious, how is he going to pay for any of this? The governor didn’t explain that, or offer any new money to accomplish what he wanted done. I expected Democrats to say something like “Great ideas. But we don’t need more unfunded mandates.”

However, while the Dems bashed the governor, they seemed to virtually ignore his actual education proposals.

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Commentary
9:12 am
Wed April 27, 2011

A Royal Family for Michigan?

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Earlier this week, I was talking with a battle-hardened senior TV producer in her fifties who I don‘t think of as a romantic.

“I have to cancel a meeting Thursday night,” she told me. “I have to be up by 4:30 on Friday.”

“Are you catching an early flight?” I asked. “No.” she said. “I have to watch the royal wedding.”

Thanks to the time difference, monarchical devotees who want to watch Prince William and Kate Middleton exchange vows live will have to rise before dawn.

I was impressed by that, and remember thirty years ago, when a similar wave of pan-royal excitement swept our nation when Charles and Diana were married. And then suddenly I realized that we’ve been sitting on a solution to a lot of our problems, both in this state and the nation. We need a royal family, and we’ve got the perfect candidate right here in Michigan.

I’m being perfectly serious.

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