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Has John Engler lost it?

Apr 20, 2018

Whether you liked his policies or not, there’s no doubt John Engler was an enormously effective governor a quarter-century ago. He knew the Legislature and how it worked.

He also knew virtually all of its members personally – their strengths, their weaknesses, what they wanted and needed. That was partly because he’d spent 20 years in the state house and senate before being elected governor in a tremendous upset in 1990.

That reputation for getting things done is why Michigan State trustees chose Engler as their interim president at the end of January. 

They felt he could protect the school’s finances, and somehow right the ship. He had a reputation of being able to go through a brick wall, and they hoped he could do that for his alma mater. But it hasn’t worked that way.

Now, there are calls for Engler to step down, after one of Larry Nassar’s victims claimed he met with her and offered to settle her claims against the school for $250,000. She also said the former governor had falsely claimed the unofficial leader of the victims, Rachel Denhollander, had offered to settle. Engler denied all of this, but he clearly did meet with the woman, 18-year-old Kaylee Lorincz, without consulting the trustees.

Things got worse when Carol Viventi, who Engler brought aboard as his hand-picked special counsel and vice president, denounced Kaylee and accused her of trying to “set up” Michigan State and extort more money out of the school. What Viventi and her boss seem to have missed is that attacking young sexual assault survivors isn’t a good idea.

Soon, Viventi was forced to issue a humiliating apology. And all this has, for the first time, led to an open rift between Engler and at least some of the eight trustees who picked him.

“Regardless of what happened in that room, the decision to take a meeting with the Lorincz family showed extremely poor judgment,” trustee Brian Mosallam wrote in a more or less open letter to Viventi. “At no time did this board authorize this administration to interact directly with our courageous survivors or their families,” he added.

Trustee Dianne Byrum, who also voted to install Engler as president, said the meeting was “highly inappropriate,” and even Republican Trustee Mitch Lyons wondered why, if Kaylee Lorincz’s charges weren’t true, Engler didn’t refute them right away.

All this reminded me of another former governor, one from Ohio — James Rhodes. He was a political powerhouse who twice defeated incumbent Democratic governors in the 1960s and 70s, served four terms, and generally got what he wanted.

Except he stayed too long at the fair. He made a final comeback attempt when he was 75 and had been out of office for years, and was clearly out of touch. He lost in a humiliating landslide, and his career was over. John Engler isn’t Jim Rhodes.

But times have changed. Engler, who turns 70 this fall, is back in Lansing after being out of power for 15 years. The legislators of his time are all gone, and the world has changed. The sexual abuse scandals are far deeper than anyone knew.

You have to wonder whether he was in fact the right person for this job.

You also have to wonder if he regrets taking it.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.