Jack Lessenberry

Daily essays about politics and current events with newspaper columnist Jack Lessenberry. Subscribe to a podcast of his essays here. Learn more about Jack here.

Ways to Connect

When I was three years old, a little girl in my neighborhood was snatched off the street, raped and murdered. Her body was found a week later in a garbage dump, and the crime never solved.

This traumatized my mother, who instilled in me a lifelong fear of child molesters. It took about half a century before I stopped being frightened whenever a car pulled up next to me.

Donald Trump is coming to Michigan again early next month, this time specifically to court black voters in Detroit. My guess is that the Clinton campaign is thrilled by this.

In fact, they probably wish Trump would spend every day until November 8 in Detroit. If he did so, and managed to make some connections with black Detroiters, he might manage to lift his level of support in that community to maybe four percent.

I met a former student of mine for an early lunch Tuesday, in a little café in the bustling, cosmopolitan suburb of West Bloomfield. Anasie Tayyen has three children, who are seven, nine and 12, and has her hands full running after them and managing her pediatrician husband’s office.

But she now realizes she was also meant to be a writer.

Last week, she had a beautiful piece in the Huffington Post, called “The Olympics Chased the Bogeyman Away.” It begins with these lines:

"Being Muslim in America has been anything but easy this past year. The presidential election has been particularly hard on many Muslim-American children’s psychological well-being."

I heard over the weekend from a retired night city editor from an Ohio newspaper who sent me an article from the New York Post about media bias and the presidential election.

He, and the authors of the article, believe the mainstream media is outrageously in favor of Hillary Clinton. Not that the old editor was especially a Donald Trump supporter.

“There’s never been an election with two less-qualified candidates,” he said, but added, “but that still doesn’t give journalists the right to choose sides so blatantly.”

Perhaps the ultimate political nightmare scenario has been the specter of a stolen election, especially a presidential election. This is not something candidates have tended to talk about, mainly for good and responsible reasons.

Democracy, to a large extent, depends on trust. If citizens were to believe that their votes won’t be honestly counted, that could be an enormous destabilizing influence. That’s not something members of any party in a stable democracy normally want.


Donald Trump is bringing his chaotic presidential campaign to Michigan today, for the second time in two weeks. He is going to speak to a rally at a sports arena in Dimondale, a little outside Lansing, about five this afternoon.

And this morning, I realized something, which was that I don’t much care.

I have had more than enough of this endless campaign.


Democratic chances of finally winning a majority in the Michigan House of Representatives got a lot stronger Wednesday. Republican chances of winning new seats on the state board of education got considerably weaker.

And that’s because a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals unanimously denied a Republican request to reinstate the law that prevents voters from casting a straight ticket ballot. 

I’ve been covering politics for a long time, and inevitably, in every election year, amid the high drama and low insults, something happens that is just plain silly.

This year, as you may have noticed, has not been a typical presidential election in any way, shape or form. But what you might call the "Trumpville Follies" is not the only contender for what you might call the "Eugene Ionesco Prize for Best Real Example of the Theater of the Absurd."

Mike Flanagan retired voluntarily a year ago, after ten years as state superintendent of public instruction, a job often referred to as state superintendent of schools.

That he lasted so long and retired of his own accord is more remarkable than it may seem. Most of his immediate predecessors were fired by the state board of education.

Twenty years ago, before he was finally sent to prison, I asked Dr. Jack Kevorkian whether he thought physician-assisted suicide would ever be legal throughout America.

He told me yes, but not for the right reasons.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You are a baby boomer,” he said. “There’s 75 million of you. There are only about 17 million in the next generation. Do you think they are going to spend all their money to keep you hooked up to machines? They’ll make (assisted suicide) a sacrament!”

There was a fair amount of presidential excitement in the Detroit area this week, because both major party nominees came to campaign here just a few days and a few miles apart.

Once, this wouldn’t have seemed unusual. Back at the turn of the century, 16 long years ago, Michigan was seen as one of the three most important states in the nation.

A year or so ago, one of my students saw me talking with Kathleen Straus, a longtime member of the state board of education.

Later, he asked me who she was. When I told him, he said he hadn’t known there was such a board and asked me what they did.

I certainly haven’t been thrilled with the moral leadership shown by the leaders of the Michigan Democratic Party. None called for former State Senator Virgil Smith’s resignation after he shot up his ex-wife’s car on a residential street.

That was last year, and Smith is finally in jail now. Nor did any leading Democrats call on voters to reject another embarrassing creature, State Representative Brian Banks, who won a primary last week despite having been convicted of eight felonies.

Donald Trump started his week off by coming to Motown and delivering a traditional Republican speech to the Detroit Economic Club, the spiritual home of successful old-school businessmen.

I wasn’t there, though I later read the speech and watched a portion of it on one of my perpetually glowing glass screens. My first thought was that the media and hard-core fans of the raw Donald had to be disappointed. Trump behaved pretty much like a normal conservative candidate for President.

William Milliken, the longest-serving governor in Michigan history, and a man who has the Republican Party woven into his DNA, is announcing today his choice for President.

He will vote for Hillary Clinton. There are those who have said for years that Milliken is no longer a real Republican. They have called him a RINO – Republican in Name Only.

For years, those who know how badly our economy needs a new bridge over the Detroit River have waged an epic battle with Matty Moroun, owner of the aging Ambassador Bridge.

For a long time, Moroun, the 89-year-old-billionaire holder of the 87-year old bridge managed to thwart any attempt to build a new bridge at what is America and Canada’s most economically important border crossing. Billions of dollars in trade cross over it every week.

For years, hardworking, far-seeing people from both parties have been trying hard to come up with a mass transit plan that makes sense for metropolitan Detroit.

This is not, incidentally, something that’s been pushed primarily by environmentalists, though they are enthusiastically supportive. Intelligent, enlightened business interests know how badly the area needs a better way to get people to jobs.

Today is primary election day across Michigan, and whenever there’s an election, there are always a number of bizarre things going on. The best one I can remember happened sixteen years ago not in Michigan, but in Missouri, where a Republican United States Senator named John Ashcroft lost his reelection battle to a Democrat named Mel Carnahan.

Losing your seat is always humiliating, and it was made more so by the fact that Ashcroft’s party’s nominee for President, George W. Bush, carried Missouri that year.

Michigan’s statewide primary elections are tomorrow, and most of us probably won’t bother to vote.

And that’s too bad. Too bad for us, that is. Our first statewide primary was the presidential one in March, and it set an all-time turnout record. More than two and a half million people voted.

If I had young adult children I might have called last night and told them, “I’m sorry, but Metropolitan Detroit is hopeless. You should start planning to move somewhere like Chicago.”

That’s because yesterday, two selfish and short-sighted men sabotaged perhaps our last best hope to bring decent 21st century mass transit to a region that largely operates on a 1955 model with worse roads.

If you have a sense of history, try to imagine this: Cast your mind back to 1960, when Senator John F. Kennedy was running for President against Richard Nixon, at the time the nation’s vice president.

What if JFK had publicly suggested that the Soviet Union try to steal Nixon’s private foreign policy memos and release them to the press?


Telling All

Jul 27, 2016

Well, after a rocky first day, the Democratic National Convention seems to be on course to doing what the Democrats wanted it to do. Certainly Hillary Clinton supporters can’t complain about Bernie Sanders; he’s been extremely gracious.

This convention, by the way, has inadvertently proven his longtime complaint that the process was rigged against him; the famous leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee made that perfectly clear. It also seemed unfair that states like Michigan cast a majority of their votes for Clinton, when Sanders actually won the primary here.

Shortly after the Democratic National Convention got started Monday morning, I got a phone call from a near-panicked Clinton supporter. “The convention is in chaos!” she said. “Bernie Sanders’ own supporters booed him when he told them to support Hillary.”


There are thousands of journalists in Philadelphia today, covering the opening of the Democratic National Convention. I don’t want to give anything away, but the Democrats are going to end up nominating Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine.

Remember, you heard it here first. But there are fewer print reporters than there used to be, and they will return to newsrooms that have a small fraction of the staffs they once did. Increasingly, so-called dailies don’t deliver every day, or cover nearly as many stories.

Something happened in a courtroom in Detroit Thursday that may have more impact on the November elections in Michigan than anything at the Republican convention.

Earlier this year, Republicans in the legislature outlawed straight-ticket voting in all elections in Michigan. They gave a lot of phony excuses for why they did this, but the real reason is clear. Straight-ticket voting tends to help Democrats, especially for offices that are less high-profile, like board of education seats.

It would be easy to watch the terminal narcissism unfolding in Cleveland this week and conclude that politics have nothing to do with real life. I was half-tempted at one point to call Dr. Mona, the hero doctor of Flint, and ask her how important the question of Melania Trump’s plagiarism was to the poisoned children and desperate parents of Flint.

Then I realized I couldn’t justify wasting even a few seconds of her time that way. But that doesn’t mean everyone who runs for office is an egomaniac.

Thirty-two years ago, I watched President Ronald Reagan give a speech in Michigan in which he attacked Democratic nominee and former Vice-President Walter Mondale.

“If his administration had been a book,” Reagan said of the man running against him, “you would have had to read it from back to front to get a happy ending.”

The bottom line, Phil Power told me recently, is that our future is all about the schools.

Power isn’t exactly a wild and crazy left-wing radical. He ran for the U.S. Senate once as a moderate Democrat nearly 40 years ago, but lost the primary to a fellow named Carl Levin.


Several weeks ago, I was rushing to a meeting at Wayne State University, distracted and speeding on the freeway. Suddenly, I saw the flashing lights and was soon pulled over by a black policeman, who took my license and registration and went back to his car.

I expected a ticket and points on my record, and I indeed deserved them. But he eventually came back, gave me a warning, and said I had better slow down and be careful.
 

I was astonished and grateful. But today I am scared.

Remember the Onion, that crazy satirical newspaper people couldn’t get enough of in the 1990s? It’s still around, but these days, I think real life has gotten better than art at being utterly absurd. Certainly that was the case in Michigan yesterday.

I mean, can you imagine a better Onion headline than “Governor whose aides poisoned children appoints oil industry lobbyist to head environmental agency?”

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