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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.

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There are a lot of things that Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof doesn’t like. They include unions, especially teachers’ unions. The state’s rule requiring the payment of decent, prevailing wages to workers on state construction jobs. Meekhof is also very much against anything making it easier for people to vote, including making it easier to get absentee ballots.

Sixty-three years ago, the most famous journalist in America broadcast this on national television:

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends on evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear of one another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason.”

I’ve never met Eli Broad, the billionaire Los Angeles philanthropist, though I have interviewed him on the phone. He comes across as a kindly man who cares deeply about education and the arts.

I think there would be a lot less resentment of the so-called "one percent" if more of them were like Mr. Broad, who is committed to giving away 75% of his wealth.

Here are three examples of how messed-up and dysfunctional Michigan government has become.

First, last fall the Democrats had a candidate for state representative who had been convicted of eight felonies, charged with three more, and who had cost taxpayers nearly $100,000 thanks to a sexual harassment suit filed against him by an aide.


Tampons and sanitary napkins.

I’ve been a journalist for four decades, and during that time have written and broadcast about everything from train wrecks to Marshall Tito. I’ve written about plumbing problems in Russia and filed stories from Paraguay, but don’t think I have ever written a word about tampons. That isn’t because I am squeamish about them.

Yesterday I was talking to State Senator David Knezek of Dearborn Heights about a tax bill, when I decided to ask him what he thought of the president’s sudden order barring entry to this country from seven Muslim nations.

I would normally never ask a first-term state senator to comment on a foreign policy initiative by the president of the United States. But these are not normal times, and Dave Knezek is not just another state senator. He served two tours of duty in Iraq.

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.

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.

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.”

From left to right: Macomb County County Executive Mark Hackel, Warren Mayor Jim Fouts, and Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller
From left to right: Macomb County government, City of Warren, GOP.gov

Metro Detroit's infamous Macomb County might be "the most politically craziest county in Michigan, if not the planet."

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.

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.

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…

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.

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.

There is a leaked audio tape that has caused a sensation in political circles in the Detroit area. The language is raw, shocking and horribly vile, and, for once is not about sex.

A voice that sounds very much like that of Warren Mayor Jim Fouts complains that quote, “while on Fridays in the past I would be going to meet some women, tonight I am meeting with a group of retards. Tonight is retard night.” 

If you’ve been following politics, you’ve probably heard that the Electoral College is meeting today, and is expected to formally ratify the election of Donald Trump as President.

Well, that statement isn’t really true. The Electoral College never “meets” in the sense of everybody going to a central location. What happens is that electors from each state go to their state capitols, including Lansing, and fill out ballots casting two separate votes, one for President and the other for Vice-President.

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