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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

Newspaper
Zoe Clark / Michigan Radio

I think I can say that I have some professional credibility as a journalist. I have a master’s degree from a major university, a national Emmy award, work in all forms of media, and am in charge of journalism at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Yet legally, I have the same standing as a journalist as a high school dropout who writes a blog in his grandmother’s basement, and that is exactly the way it is supposed to be.

Plumbers are licensed by the state. So are doctors, lawyers, and every other profession great and humble. But I am granted the right to do what I do by a greater authority, the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. That’s as sacred a secular document as they come.

Rick Snyder
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Senator Howard Baker uttered his immortal words one summer 44 years ago when Rick Snyder was about to become a high school sophomore.

“What did the president know, and when did he know it?”

Thirteen months later, we had enough of the answer to force Richard Nixon to resign the presidency, ending a long national nightmare we thought we’d never see repeated.

Peter McPherson, one of the best presidents Michigan State has had in recent years, told me once that when he was a student at MSU, there was a controversy over whether to allow a Communist to speak on campus.

This was back in the early sixties, we were at the height of the Cold War, and the administration didn’t want to allow a perceived enemy of America to speak. Eventually the Communist did get to speak… and the students who went found him mind-numbingly boring.

I took a trip back in time yesterday, sort of, to Plymouth, Michigan – a tidy, mostly gentrified Wayne County town 26 miles and at least that many light years from the city of Detroit.

I turned on Main Street, and stopped in the law office of John Stewart, who has practiced there for more than 30 years. When I looked around, I expected to see Atticus Finch, or Jimmy Stewart, the folksy yet brilliant country lawyer from Anatomy of a Murder.

The offices were in what had been a comfy private home built nearly a century ago. There were bookshelves everywhere, lined not just with law books but biographies of Lincoln, Jefferson, and other books you might actually want to read.

Marijuana plants
Flickr user A7nubis / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

The criminal prosecutions in the Flint Water crisis are just starting to make their way into the courts. This week, the state's medical officer, Dr. Eden Wells,  was supposed to begin a preliminary exam to determine if her case would go to trial, but prosecutors said they're adding charges including involuntary manslaughter. That pushed the exam back to next month. There are 13 defendants who have not pleaded guilty. Only one has actually begun an exam.

Morning Edition host Doug Tribou asks senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry whether the trial process is moving too slowly. 

Sam VarnHagen / Ford Motor Co.

My guess is that virtually everyone who even half-heartedly follows the news knows that a Republican senator from Tennessee called the White House an “adult day care center” after the President called him a coward, et cetera, et cetera.

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

We haven’t had a lot of what we used to call “slow news days” lately.

Something that once might have been a story for a week quickly gets overwhelmed by a new torrent of disasters, natural and man-made.

One story that was somewhat overlooked was an interesting Freedom of Information Act case involving the president of the University of Michigan, Mark Schlissel, and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a group whose ideology oscillates between libertarianism and thinly veiled support for the Republican Party.

Police
J J / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of legislation proposed that was, well, just plain nutty. Some was wrongheaded, some was outrageous, and generally the system took care of itself. There have also been things that became law that I profoundly disagreed with or which filled me with dismay. But I frankly cannot recall being really scared by any of it, until now.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof is pushing a plan to legalize a whole new class of private police forces, and if that isn’t immensely frightening, I think it should be.

Mark J. Hardy / Flickr, http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Donald Trump doesn’t often make me laugh, but he did a week ago, when he announced his grand plan to change the tax system. We should all support it, he said, because it would finally end “the crushing, the horrible, the unfair estate tax, or, as it is often referred to, the death tax.”

Trump went on to explain how farmers and people with small businesses have to hold a “fire sale” after the owners die to pay “the death tax, a disaster for this country.”

stock photo of hotel exterior
Flickr user mandj98 / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

This week a man shot and killed at least 59 people from his hotel window in Las Vegas. Detroit city councilwoman Janee Ayers has since suggested the idea of banning rifles in hotels facing large public spaces. Governor Snyder said this week that the shooting was a reminder of the importance of being vigilant at Michigan's large venues – for example football stadiums and Ford Field.

There’s nothing I can say about the tragedy in Las Vegas, except this: some version of that will happen in Michigan, probably sooner rather than later.

The politicians are either in the pay of the gun lobby fanatics or resigned to the fact that they can’t possibly overcome them, so nothing will change.

Nothing, that is, unless and until people somehow demand that democracy and sanity be restored. So far, they haven’t, and the senseless killing will go on.

Water running from tap
jordanmrcai / Creative Commons

Back in early summer I went to see Candice Miller, the former congresswoman who is now Macomb County Public Works Commissioner. She was mainly concerned with dealing with the now-famous sewer collapse that happened in Sterling Heights last Christmas.

Miller is far more conservative than I, but I’ve always admired her can-do, no-nonsense and pragmatic approach to government. She had thrown herself completely into her new job, and was discovering new things daily. Among them, she told me, was an apartment complex in Eastpointe that was illegally discharging all its sewage directly into Lake St. Clair.

Jeff Reutter / Ohio State University

Drive just a few miles south of the Ohio border, and you’ll find yourself on a bridge over the Maumee River, which runs through downtown Toledo on its way to Lake Erie.

Right now, the river is an oddly beautiful emerald green, as if it had been dyed to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day six months early. Except it isn’t dye, it’s algae. The Maumee flows into Lake Erie, which has been hit with one of the largest algal blooms on record, one that stretches all the way to Canada, as well as for many miles west.

And any thoughts about how beautiful this all is are likely to be driven away the moment you encounter the horrible dank sewage smell, or notice the dying fish on the shoreline.

Living Out Loud

Sep 28, 2017

My guess is that nobody has ever before compared Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy Magazine and all that went with it, with Kristi Etue, the director of the Michigan State Police.

I’ve never met either. I cannot imagine Etue dressed in anything other than her blue uniform, or Hefner, who died yesterday, in anything other than a velvet bathrobe.

user kulshrax / creative commons

Years ago, someone asked if I knew the difference between a legislator and members of a certain disreputable occupation. The answer was that when men gave women in the other group money, it was clear they expected something for it.

Lawmakers and lobbyists aren’t always so honest. Bribing or attempting to bribe a lawmaker is illegal. But it is perfectly legal for a lobbyist, say, for an energy group, to spend lavishly on a key lawmaker, buying her or him expensive meals and paying for their travel to “conferences.” In such cases, it is perfectly clear what those contributing the money want.

row of young men in front of bus
Old News, Ann Arbor District Library

Over the past couple of weeks, people across the country have been looking back at a painful chapter in U.S. history: the Vietnam War. The conflict is the subject of a new 10-part PBS documentary by Lynn Novick and Ann Arbor native Ken Burns.

Michigan Radio's Morning Edition host Doug Tribou and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry look at the role Michganders played in Vietnam and the war's ongoing legacy in the state.

wrecked car
Robbie Howell / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Speaker of the House Tom Leonard of DeWitt don’t appear to have much in common. My guess is that their ballots totally cancel each other out in every election.

But they are together today on something: a plan to drastically cut auto insurance rates statewide, something especially relevant in Detroit.

I had breakfast the other day with Marti Robinson, who was a highly respected trial attorney in Detroit before President Obama appointed her to the Consumer Product Safety Commission four years ago, for a term that expires next month.

Democrats still have a three-to-two majority on that commission, and once she leaves, she is certain to be replaced by a Republican. And she is very, very worried about what that will mean – and not just from a conventional partisan standpoint.

Governor Rick Snyder has done two remarkably positive things for Michigan in his nearly seven years in office, both in his first term. First, he found a way to get around a legislature corrupted by campaign donations and make a deal for a new Detroit River bridge.

Granted, the Gordie Howe International Bridge has yet to be built, but it now seems all but certain it will be. That’s something crucially important for the long-term economy of this state and region. But the immediately worthwhile thing Snyder did was narrowly succeed in pushing the legislature to accept Medicaid expansion four years ago.

people in voting booths
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

When you’ve paid attention to politics for a long time, you gradually begin to think you’ve seen it all, or at least some of us did before the rise of Donald Trump.

But one thing we’ve never seen before is so many candidates running so hard for attorney general and secretary of state more than a year before the election.

State Senator Tonya Schuitmaker launched a video promoting her candidacy for the Republican nomination for attorney general this week, and Speaker of the House Tom Leonard is expected to run as well. On the Democratic side, lawyer Dana Nessel, hero of Michigan’s same-sex marriage and adoption case, was first to announce for attorney general.

Recently, I said in passing that I had never run for any office, and later I realized this was not strictly true. I have twice been elected to the board of the prestigious Historical Society of Michigan, and am now its president. However, I don’t get any salary, have no real power, and my stunning electoral triumph was due to the fact that I ran unopposed.

I can also promise that if I get defeated for reelection, I will not immediately begin running for the presidency of the American Shetland Pony Association, largely because I know close to nothing about little horses. That might, I hope, strike you as sensible.

Four soldiers sit at a table in South Vietnam, 1972
Manhhai / FLICKR - HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

There’s been a fair amount of excitement over Ken Burns’ new documentary series, this one an 18-hour blockbuster on the Vietnam War.

Burns, who grew up in Ann Arbor, long ago became America’s tribal storyteller, the man who helps us find out who we are, whether the topic is jazz or baseball or the Civil War.

The state Capitol in Lansing.
Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

I’ve been talking to legislators and congressmen for a long time, and know something about lawmakers in the past as well. There are some ways in which I think today’s lot are generally better. For example, they are better educated and drink less. More of them are women, and I think there are far fewer on the take.

But there’s also something very wrong with our legislature today, something that often makes me think we would be better off with the old boozing and occasionally brawling pols, some of whom were still around when I was a young reporter.

Screen showing Line 5 on the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Earlier this week, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette officially confirmed what everybody knew: He is running for governor, or more exactly, for the Republican nomination next year.

When he made his announcement, he said a version of what all politicians say; he is doing this, not for himself, but for the people, for all of us. Well, I know a good way he can start to prove that to us and help his candidacy at the same time:

Photograph of Downtown Detroit
Ifmuth / FLICKR - HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

Toledo, Ohio isn’t in Michigan, but should be. I’m not just saying this because of the famous and farcical 1835 Toledo “War,” that ended up establishing that the city belonged to Ohio, with Michigan getting the western Upper Peninsula as compensation.

More to the point is that the Toledo economy is essentially the Metropolitan Detroit manufacturing economy. Like the Motor City, Toledo has slowly declined as auto jobs waned. The decline has been slower, however, as has the demographic change.

Trott for Congress

Three years ago, David Trott, a lawyer and a multi-millionaire player in the mortgage business, decided to run for Congress. He spent at least three and a half million dollars of his own money to win a seat representing a group of mostly middle-class, mostly white Detroit suburbs.

Amazon
User soumit / flickr.com

Amazon, the huge online retailer that sells everything from cookbooks to caskets, plans to build a second huge headquarters somewhere in America, and Detroit wants it -- badly.

Sandy Baruah, the CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, is part of a team fighting to lure Amazon to the Motor City. Dan Gilbert, who for years has been buying up vast amounts of Detroit real estate, says he's also put together a second team to woo them.

Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley wrote that this could mean “the arrival of a company that could bring 50,000 jobs and a whole lot of hope to the Motor City.”

Nuclear Fears

Sep 8, 2017

When I was in elementary school a national magazine did an article on what would happen if a hydrogen bomb were dropped on Detroit. I don’t remember all the details, except that windows would have been broken in Lansing, and where I lived would have been melted glass. This was back in the early 1960s, when we were still tucking ourselves under our desks in that famous “duck and cover” air raid drill.

I wasn’t terribly sophisticated, but I was smart enough to figure out that squatting under a Formica desk wasn’t likely to save anyone. After the Cuban missile crisis, I read portions of a book I was probably too young for, Herman Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War.

Ambassador Bridge
J. Stephen Conn / Flickr

No matter how bizarre your fantasies, reality is sometimes crazier. Nobody could have written a script for what’s happened in national politics.

Nobody ever thought we’d be in some kind of nuclear standoff with North Korea. And few if any expected the Canadian government would ever grant Matty Moroun permission to build a new bridge next to his old Ambassador Bridge.

As you almost certainly know, President Donald Trump said yesterday that his administration would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Currently, the DACA program is allowing something like 800,000 young, undocumented Americans, people brought to this country as children, to stay here without fear of deportation.

Trump gave Congress six months to “fix” the program, but it isn’t clear what he will do if they don’t. Campaigning for the midterm elections will be underway six months from now, and there are certain to be some embattled GOP incumbents who don’t want the president to do anything that might further jeopardize them.

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