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Jack Lessenberry

Essay/Analysis: Political Commentator

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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

Child reading
User Melanie / Flickr - http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

We got the latest results from our statewide education tests earlier this week, and here are the highlights — without the jargon. Johnny mostly can’t read as well as he should, and neither can Susie, although she’s doing a little better. Both are doing a little better in math than last year, but not nearly as well as they should.

Michigan GOP Convention
steve carmody / Michigan Radio

What do you do when the group you’ve belonged to your entire life no longer represents your values?

This has often been a problem in the melting pot that is America. Children upset parents by rejecting traditional customs, like arranged marriage.

But it is also a problem in politics.

Keeping his word

Aug 29, 2017
Ex-state Senator Virgil Smith, Jr.
senatedems.com

More than two years ago, in one of state politics’ more sordid recent episodes, State Senator Virgil Smith Jr. was arrested after he shot up his ex-wife’s Mercedes.

According to prosecutors, the Detroit Democrat was “alcohol dependent” at the time, had asked his former wife to come over for an intimate encounter and then physically assaulted her before shooting up her car. It is unclear whether he was trying to shoot her too.

Donald Trump during a campaign rally in Phoenix in October 2016.
Gage Skidmore / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

There’s an old saying that if you put a frog in a pot of water and gradually increase the temperature one degree at a time, the frog won’t notice or hop out before it is cooked.

Scientists say this isn’t really true for frogs, but it may well be true, at least intellectually, for people.

Certainly, we can become desensitized to about any form of outrageousness.

Consider what we are living through now.

The Detroit Pistons at the Palace of Auburn Hills
Corey Seeman / creative commons http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

After nearly 30 years, the Palace of Auburn Hills has announced that it will soon close its doors for good. Palace officials this week announced that Bob Seger's September 23rd concert will be the venue's final event. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about how businesses and the city of Auburn Hills itself will fare without revenue from the former home of the Detroit Pistons.

Jack Lessenbery
Michigan Radio

I had lunch yesterday with Mark Bernstein, the University of Michigan trustee who flirted with a run for governor next year before deciding not to.

He is smart, funny, and I think genuinely committed to making the university and this state a better place. We were talking about what’s wrong with state government when he said something that suddenly hit me like a revelation.

We were talking about how attitudes have changed, and he said, “I think a big part of it is that instead of seeing ourselves as citizens, we now see ourselves as taxpayers.”

The Ambassador Bridge
Mike Russell / Wikimedia Commons / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

There was a story two days ago that was almost entirely ignored in America, but which has significant implications for this part of the world. Dave Battagello of the Windsor Star reported that the new Gordie Howe International Bridge will be delayed another full year.

Why I don't Tweet

Aug 23, 2017
Twitter bird logo icon illustration
user Matt Hamm / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Robyn Vincent is a journalist from Detroit who moved to Wyoming some years ago, where she is the editor of Planet Jackson Hole, which she has built into one of the nation’s more interesting and journalistically vibrant alternative newspapers.

I was honored to learn a few months ago that she follows and admires my work. She wondered, however, why I don’t tweet. She told me that if I did, I could have a considerably greater following than I do now.

kids in classroom
Mercedes Mejia / Michigan Radio

There’s remarkably broad agreement across the political spectrum about something: There is a deep crisis in education in Michigan - and nationally --at virtually all levels.

Tomorrow, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities will release a new report on skyrocketing college tuition, something that makes higher education less and less affordable in an era when education beyond high school is more necessary.

Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

I had an extended conversation with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan last week, and I learned a few things that might surprise you.

I’m not talking, by the way, about his current campaign for re-election. As with any election, this one ain’t over until it's over. But the mayor won the primary this month with an astounding 68 percent of the vote, compared to less than 27 percent for his only real challenger, State Senator Coleman Young II.

Michigan State University sign
MSU

This week, Michigan State University denied a request from a white supremacist group to rent space on campus. The university said it denied the request due to safety concerns following the violence that broke out last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia.

For months, a dedicated group of citizens calling themselves Voters, not Politicians, has struggled to come up with a way to give control of drawing legislative districts back to the people. The idea is to ensure fair, sensible and competitive representation to everyone.

That may sound like arcane political science babble, but it is not. Most of us are being effectively denied choices because of gross partisan gerrymandering done to ensure continuous Republican control of government.

Wikimedia Commons

Former Congressman Vern Ehlers died the way he lived Tuesday night, with quiet dignity. If you are relatively new to Michigan or not from the Grand Rapids area, you may not have known of him, which is too bad. He was one of the most underappreciated members of Congress.

He was full of integrity, and as little a self-promoter as anyone elected to national office can be. He was also something else very rare in Congress – a research scientist with a PhD in physics. I first met him 15 years ago in Detroit, when the Fisher Theater was showing Copenhagen, a play about science, morality, and the decision to build the atom bomb.

Gage Skidmore / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

On the afternoon that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, my seventh grade math teacher decided the best thing he could do was to ignore it.

He reasoned that what was going on in the nation had nothing to do with his job, which was to teach math to a classroom of Michigan kids, and so he carried on, or tried to, ignoring that some of the students were crying and few could focus.

Chinese Chrysler?

Aug 15, 2017
user fiatontheweb / creative commons

Yesterday morning I heard someone on an AM radio station say he had heard a crazy notion that Chrysler might be sold to the Chinese.

It was clear from his tone that he believed this was never going to happen.

Now, after a lifetime of covering the news, here’s something I’ve learned about business and politics. Whenever the movers and shakers start saying something can’t possibly happen, that usually means it most certainly could. Often it means that it is inevitable.

And sometimes, it even means that it’s happened already.

statue of Robert E. Lee atop a horse
Public Domain

Seventy-two years ago today, for the first time ever, the Emperor of Japan spoke to his subjects on nationwide radio.  “Circumstances in the world conflict have proceeded in a manner not necessarily to our advantage,” he said. 

That was perhaps the greatest example of euphemism and circumlocution in history. What the emperor was really saying was “we have lost World War II, and we have no choice except to surrender.” I thought of this in the aftermath of the terrible events in Virginia, where a messed-up character obsessed with Nazis apparently drove his car into a group of people, killing one young woman and injuring many more people.

asbestos warning sign
ktorbeck / Wikimedia Commons

A new audit this week says Michigan needs more inspectors and more money when it comes to asbestos remediation. According to the report, there are only four inspectors in the entire state to respond to complaints, issue violations and inspect landfills. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about why the program is falling behind. 

John Conyers file photo.
Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

The world was a far different place half a century ago, when Detroit was reeling after the nation’s most devastating urban riots. Michigan was a far richer state than it is now. It usually wasn’t hard to get a job on the line, assembling Pontiacs or Oldsmobiles.

Virtually nobody drove Hondas or Datsuns, which is what Nissans were then called. Mitt Romney’s father was governor, though Mitt himself was too young to vote. Michigan had more clout in Washington, and five more members of Congress than it does now.

Mackinac Bridge
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

I've been up north, as we say in this state, for the last week, on Lake Michigan about fifty miles from the Straits of Mackinac. Fifty miles, that is, from Line 5, the oil pipeline – actually, twin pipelines -- under the straits. There has been a lot of concern about Line 5 in recent years.

People have suddenly discovered the existence of the line, which can carry as much as 540,000 barrels of light crude oil and liquid natural gas a day, pumped at high pressure under the lakes.

A "vote here" sign
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

You may not have noticed, but we had primary elections throughout Michigan yesterday. In many places, however, there was no election at all. This is what politicians call an off-off-year.

There are no races for attention-grabbing offices like governor, senator, or president. What people voted on yesterday was a collection of mostly small millage requests, plus a few primary elections for mayor and council seats in places like Detroit and Flint.

Asian carp leaping out of a river.
Great Lakes Fishery Commission

When scientists were working on the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb, there was a brief moment when some thought there was a small chance it might ignite the entire atmosphere.

Which would have meant good-bye life on earth. Enrico Fermi, who had a puckish sense of humor, took bets on whether the test of the bomb would destroy the world, or only New Mexico.

money
user penywise / morgueFile

If you follow state politics, you know that a number of candidates have been running for governor for months.

Gretchen Whitmer and Abdul El-Sayed have each raised more than $1 million. Shri Thanedar, a previously unknown businessman, has dumped more than $3 million into his campaign for the Democratic nomination.

Workers are voting today at a Nissan vehicle assembly plant in Canton, Mississippi whether to join the United Auto Workers union. That might not seem like a huge deal either way.

After all, it’s just one plant. But it is a big one, with more than six thousand workers, about three-fifths of whom are African-American. If the UAW wins, it will be the dwindling union’s first victory ever in a major foreign-owned “transplant” factory.

The Statue of Liberty
Celso Flores / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

You never know, but if President Trump’s sweeping new immigration policy proposals had always been in place, I probably wouldn’t be here. Most likely, you wouldn’t either.

My paternal ancestors supposedly came from Great Britain centuries ago, but my maternal ones came from Bavaria to Michigan in the 1880s. They didn’t speak English and had no special skills, so that would have been that.

On the surface, yesterday was a pretty good day for Michigan. The state announced that the cities of Pontiac and Lincoln Park were both being released from receivership.

The treasurer’s office said both of these aging cities had made considerable strides toward getting their acts and their finances in order. I think that is true, but I also think the state would like to get them off the books. Ever since the mess in Flint, the whole idea of having the state take over and run cities has lost a lot of appeal.

When I was a child, there were kids whose parents told their children never to have anything to do with government or politics. They said it was a dirty and corrupt business.

Well, I grew up believing that was wrong-headed, that while politics was a bruising contact sport, it was a life, in the words of reporter and novelist Allen Drury, capable of honor. That was easier to believe when the memories of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman were still fresh and Profiles in Courage was a best-seller.

YouTube

I haven’t seen the new movie Detroit yet. I think I’m like my African-American teaching colleague Alicia Nails, who told me that after weeks of non-stop coverage, she was starting to feel a little “rioted out.” What I have heard from friends who have seen the movie is that it is powerful but lacks nuance, and leaves the impression that the Detroit in that film is still the Detroit of today.

But there was one nuance I didn’t miss. This was in an interview in the Boston Globe with Kathryn Bigelow, the film’s director. The interviewer asked why the movie wasn’t filmed where it happened.

“We originally located it in Detroit but the tax-credit program had just been disbanded, so we went to … Boston, and shot the movie there,” Bigelow said.

money
khrawlings / creative commons http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Gov. Rick Snyder this week signed off on a set of bills he hopes will help lure some big employers to Michigan. The new law lets employers that meet certain criteria keep some or all of their employees' state income tax.

President William McKinley had a wife to whom he was extremely devoted, but who had a nervous condition that caused her to suffer from frequent seizures, sometimes at state dinners. When this happened, his solution was to throw a napkin over her face, carry on as though everything was normal, and then remove it when the seizure was past.

Jack Lessenbery
Michigan Radio

Forty years ago, I was in a special, high-pressure graduate program at the University of Michigan designed to make trained journalists out of otherwise hapless intellectuals like myself in a year and a half. It was an amazingly successful program.

Many of my classmates went on to jobs in senior management in places like both the New York and Los Angeles Times and the former International Herald Tribune.

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