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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.

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I’m in Grand Rapids today, at the annual convention of the Michigan Press Association, which represents daily and weekly newspapers throughout the state. It is largely a happy event.

Those gathered celebrate and award prizes to some of the best journalism in the state. This year’s top winner was an investigation in which the Detroit News revealed that dirty surgical equipment was being used in operating rooms at a major hospital.

Donald Trump is far from the only politician to believe in “alternative facts.” During the 1984 presidential campaign, when I was working for the Detroit News, I somehow ended up interviewing Lyndon LaRouche, who managed to be both zany and sinister at the same time.

LaRouche, sometimes a Trotskyite and sometimes a right-winger, alternated between competing as a Democrat and running as an independent, and may be best remembered for his theory that Queen Elizabeth II was the mastermind of a huge drug cartel.

I spent lunchtime the other day with a highly educated suburban woman named Amina, who lives in the white-collar suburb of Canton, in the same county but light-years away from Detroit. Her husband is a professor at Lawrence Tech, and she has degrees in both post-childhood development and in education policy with a focus on global studies.

Now thirty-six, she’s lived in many places, but was born not far from where she lives now. She’s thoroughly American, but a bit different from many of her neighbors. She has four children, which isn’t that common these days. She also spends much of her time with other kids in a part of Detroit where her neighbors might never go in a million years.

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

The Michigan School Reform/Redesign Office recently released its latest list of schools that are under-performing. There are 38 schools on this year's list that could be closed, mostly in Detroit. This Week in Michigan Politics, Morning Edition host Doug Tribou and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about whether Detroit's school district would be able to survive such a large round of closures.

They also discuss what role U.S. Secretary of Education nominee Betsy Devos plays in the state's school closure discussion, concerns over President Donald Trump's order to freeze all grant programs at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and a move to bring new voting machines to Michigan.

A century ago, opinionated journalism was dominated by the brilliant and sarcastic columnist H.L. Mencken. Among other things, he was a flamboyant atheist. Once, someone demanded to know what he would do if he died and found himself before God and his angels.

Mencken replied that he would bow and say, “Gentlemen, I was wrong.”

Well, I haven’t been hauled up before the Almighty – yet -- but I am indeed sometimes wrong.

I got a wonderful email yesterday from Jim Bower, a listener in Byron Center near Grand Rapids. Believe it or not, I think most writers enjoy hearing thoughtful criticism, even if, or maybe especially if, the reader or listener disagrees.

Nobody knows exactly what our new president will do, or will be able to do. He hasn’t always been consistent, and much of what he wants would have to get through Congress.

But one of the things he has been fairly consistent about is immigration. He is still promising to build a wall, and has said he wants to force every undocumented person to leave.

michigan.gov

Gov. Rick Snyder delivered his seventh State of the State address on Tuesday. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about why the speech isn't considered to be one of Snyder's finest.

They also discuss the governor's push to save Medicaid expansion, Attorney General's Bill Schuette's stance on a Flint water crisis lawsuit, and education secretary nominee Besty DeVos' hearing on Capitol Hill.

While the Japanese use our calendar for practical purposes, they officially start a new era every time an emperor takes office. This is, for example, Heisei 29 in Japan, not 2017.

We do a version of the same thing. We talk of the “Clinton years,” or the “Bush years,” and even link cultural events to the reigns of our presidents, none of which last more than eight years. We talk about Reagan-era fashions, for example.

Congressman Justin Amash, a Republican from Grand Rapids just starting his fourth term, is never going to be part of the good old boys and girls club that runs Congress.

He doesn’t “go along to get along,” follows his own brand of “libertarian light” conservatism, and if he hasn’t had time to read a bill or grasp its full implications, traditionally just votes “present” no matter what his party’s leadership says.

Governor Rick Snyder gave his annual state of the state speech last night. If you missed it, don’t feel bad. There was virtually nothing to miss. I’ve seen five different governors deliver these annual speeches over the last 40 years.

None of them will live for the ages. Years ago, after one, a reporter for United Press International turned to me and said, “We have nothing to fear except fear itself, and another speech next year.”

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

Gov. Rick Snyder delivered his seventh State of the State address to the Legislature last night. Michigan Radio senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry says this year's address was "curiously short on specifics and proposals" and lacked "any concrete proposal to make things better."

This Week in Michigan Politics, Lessenberry talks with Morning Edition host Doug Tribou about highlights from last night, including Snyder's desire to "create more and better jobs" and his plan to crowd source ways to control invasive carp in the Great Lakes. They also talk about which topics got little or no attention from the governor, including the Flint water crisis and the scandal over the state's automated unemployment claims system. 


Governor Rick Snyder will deliver his seventh State of the State address tonight. My guess is that not many people will watch or listen; with this speech, they hardly ever do.

Abraham Lincoln famously said at Gettysburg that “the world will little note nor long remember what we say here.”

Lincoln was as wrong as he could be about his own words.

For many Americans, the life of Martin Luther King Jr. means mostly that they get a day off from work or school, a day in which the banks are closed and the mail doesn’t come.

They may also know him as a one-dimensional icon of the civil rights movement, who repeatedly said “I have a dream,” during some famous speech a long time ago, and also said, “I may not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the promised land,” and then got shot.

Mercedes Mejia / Michigan Radio

The Michigan Legislature is back in session, and the bills are rolling in. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and Michigan Radio senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry look at a bill that would phase out the state income tax, and another that would end daylight saving time in Michigan.

They also discuss Education Secretary nominee Betsy Devos' rescheduled confirmation hearing, Detroit's newly elected school board, and Gov. Rick Snyder's upcoming State of the State address.

(Support trusted journalism like this in Michigan. Give what you can here.)

Detroitsound.org

You could argue that the biggest Michigan story of the last decade was Detroit – the fall of its famously corrupt mayor, the city’s descent into bankruptcy, and its reemergence and renaissance. Nobody would have believed 10 years ago that downtown Detroit would be booming today, or that Midtown near Wayne State University would be a trendy place to live.

Today, Detroit’s streetlights are all on again, and a balding and plump white guy from the suburbs is the most popular mayor in years.

For a while yesterday, it looked as if we might have some hope of better things from Lansing.

New Speaker of the House Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, seems to be a genuinely well-liked man, who has talked about reaching across party lines.

You may have heard that we Baby Boomers are no longer the largest generation in America; millennials passed us a couple years ago. But we really haven’t started to die off. There are still more than 74 million of us left, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But we have started to reach retirement age. The oldest of us will be 71 this year; the youngest approaching their mid’ 50s. Notice I said that we are reaching retirement age. That’s not the same thing as being able to retire. Most of us can’t afford it.

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

Some Flint residents have said they're worried that Flint's water will meet federal standards and get the "all-clear."

For This Week in Politics, Morning Edition host Doug Tribou and Michiga Radio senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about what government leaders need to do to ensure that people don't feel the process in Flint isn't being rushed. 

They also talk about whether we'll see a political shift from Gov. Rick Snyder during his final two years in office, a bill that would repeal Michigan's school turnaround law, and the odd mix of electric vehicles and SUVs at the North American International Auto Show


Ten days from now we will have a new President, and in time he will name a new justice to the Supreme Court, and eventually a nominee is likely to be confirmed.

I teach college students, mostly seniors and graduates, journalism history and law. And sometime after the new justice takes office, one will ask me when they’ll have to run for reelection. They don’t, of course; they are selected for life.

One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons showed a judge looking down at a defendant and asking, “So – just how much justice can you afford?” Judges never say things like that, or at least I hope not. But the system sort of does, whether we admit it or not.

If you doubt that, consider this: Let’s say some state agency went after Dick and Betsy DeVos and accused them of defrauding the taxpayers out of money. They were not only ordered to pay it back; they were then assessed a fine four times the size of what they got…

Michigan's Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA) has wrongly accused tens of thousands of people of cheating on their unemployment claims.
Bytemarks / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Thousands in Michigan were wrongfully accused of unemployment fraud through the state's automated claims system. Now, the director of the Unemployment Insurance Agency has been reassigned.

This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about the long road to get things back in order at the UIA. They also talk about Gov. Snyder's emergency declaration in Macomb County and U.S. attorney Patrick Miles Jr.'s decision to step down from his post in Michigan's Western District.

(Support trusted journalism like this in Michigan. Give what you can here.)

 

By now, millions of people have been horrified by the great Macomb County sinkhole, which has destroyed at least three modern houses in the suburb of Fraser.

Imagine waking up on Christmas Eve, as one couple did, to the sounds of the foundations of your house popping as it sank into the ground.

Milton Mack, who was chief probate judge in Wayne County for many years, is probably the state judiciary’s top expert in the problems of prisons and the mentally ill.

Mack, now state court administrator, has long maintained that we could significantly reduce both our state prison population and its costs if more of our mentally ill could be put on medication instead of being locked up. But efforts at reform have too often been stymied by politicians who were more concerned about looking “tough on crime.”

A long time ago, a graceful man named Adlai Stevenson ran for President against Dwight D. Eisenhower, the much-beloved national war hero. The campaign was hopeless.

When he conceded defeat, full of charm and wit as always, a reporter asked if Stevenson planned to run again in four years. The candidate looked startled, and then broke into a broad grin. “Examine that man’s head!” he said, laughing. Stevenson would eventually run again, but he knew that nobody in the country wanted to think about another political campaign for a while.

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

Ford changed gears yesterday, with an announcement that it's canceled plans for a new factory in Mexico and will instead invest $700 million in its Flat Rock plant in Michigan. This Week in Michigan Politics, Morning Edition host Doug Tribou and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about whether pressure from President-elect Donald Trump influenced that decision.

They also talk about former state Senator Gretchen Whitmer's announcement that she plans to run for governor of Michigan in 2018, and new Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller's response to the massive sinkhole in the city of Fraser. 


Except for a few brief years in the 1960’s, it has never been fashionable to care about the desperately poor in this country. John F. Kennedy did challenge us to do something about poverty in his inaugural address:

“If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

But today, we have a President-elect who said:

“Benefits should have strings attached to them."

Happy New Year!  Since Michigan Radio graciously allows me to express my opinions, I thought I’d start by asserting the holidays were a very nice break, but that they didn’t last long enough. Well, that may be the least controversial thing I’ve said in a while.

We are in a new year, about to have a new administration in Washington, and I thought I might start it out by talking about the nature of journalism and what I try to do.

It’s sometimes difficult to figure out what voters really want. But that’s clearly not true when it comes to one thing: Hunting wolves. Michigan citizens want that outlawed.

Every poll has shown that.

Two years ago the people overwhelmingly voted to outlaw wolf hunting by a nearly two-to-one margin. This would be off the table for now in any event, because the federal government has declared wolves an endangered species.

I was recently tempted to bludgeon one of my students into recognizing that interesting things had happened, even before he was born, back in the ancient early 1990s, say.

We were discussing the origins of the World Wide Web, the invention that actually made wide-ranging use of cyberspace possible. Having considered this, he said prior to that, I must have actually had to find things in books.

When I learned yesterday morning that Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette had charged two Flint former emergency managers in connection with the water crisis, what popped first into my head was an image long ago of a young senator from Tennessee.

“What did the President know, and when did he know it?” Howard Baker had asked on national television more than 43 years ago, when Rick Snyder was in high school.

The country tore itself apart over the next 14 months over this, and we all know how Watergate turned out.

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