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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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Michigan State University sign
Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio

Back in the late 1850s, a handful of farm boys were taken to the woods outside Lansing and told to cut down some trees and build themselves classrooms and a dorm.

That was the beginning of what became Michigan State University. Last month may have been the worst in that school’s long history.

Governor William Milliken
Bentley Historical Library

Today would have been George Washington’s 286th birthday, and when I was a child we celebrated his birthday in school, as we did Abraham Lincoln’s ten days before.

Teachers used both as opportunities to teach us about the good semi-myths that helped bind us together; Washington chopping down the cherry tree and Honest Abe splitting rails.

Today, of course, both birthdays are lumped together as a generic Presidents’ Day, which basically means a day when the banks are closed and there isn’t any mail.

I have always been attracted to women with dark hair. If you find that statement utterly irrelevant to anything I do professionally, that’s because it is.

Patients at the Eloise Psychiatric Hospital in the early 1950s.
Friends of Eloise

When I was a child growing up in the Detroit area in the 1960s, all the kids knew what happened if you became mentally ill, or as we so nicely put it, went nuts. You would be taken to Eloise, which we vaguely knew of as a huge mental institution somewhere.

Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

It’s been five days since the Valentine’s Day school shooting in Florida; the 17 dead are being buried, and the story is easing out of the headlines.

This weekend, writing a newspaper column, I started to refer to this as “our nation’s latest school shooting,” and caught myself. Better not say that, I realized.

Someday, a shooter will walk into a school, probably a suburban school, somewhere in Michigan, and blow teachers and students away, most likely with a weapon no civilian should be allowed to own. When that happens, don’t give me any credit for prophecy.

Both houses of the legislature collaborated to pass bills yesterday that will put chump change in your pocket and damage our state’s ability to educate children and have a future. What’s more, they don’t care. The architects of this plan will be out of office soon.

Most of the state senate is term-limited, and so voters, even if they figure out what happened, will be unable to punish them. By then, many will be working as lobbyists for the special interests who told them how to vote.

The Statue of Liberty
Celso Flores / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

When I was growing up, we were taught we should be proud to be a nation of immigrants.

Later, as a young reporter, I learned that Americans held complex and contradictory views on immigration, views that all too often could be summed up as: "Immigration was great right up until the boat that brought my ancestors over. After that, it should have been stopped." 

satellite map of Michigan, the Great Lakes
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

There are a lot of baffling things about President Trump, but perhaps the most baffling is this: Usually, when you win a close election, you do everything you can to hang on to those voters who gave you victory.

Trump won the last election by a tiny margin, and he won it in the Great Lakes states, flipping Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio.

Today is Abraham Lincoln’s 209th birthday, and it seems safe to say he probably wouldn’t have made it this far even had John Wilkes Booth left him alone.

If you’ve read much about Lincoln, you may recall that he served a single term in Congress, and then didn’t run again. I wondered about that for years, until I learned they had a deal where Lincoln would run for a term, and then another Whig would.

flickr user Charlie Nguyen / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

I am both a human being and a journalist, and so I’m not surprised by most human frailties. I understand jealousy and greed and theft. I understand get-rich-quick schemes, sexual and romantic desires that aren’t always appropriate, and overeating.

But I don’t understand why anyone would attack and severely injure or kill anyone for their sexual orientation.

Politicians, even lame-duck and completely retired ones, do not like admitting they were wrong. Usually about the best you can get is some statement like “mistakes were made.”

In the worst cases, they obstinately keep on pushing wrong-headed policies even when they have clearly been shown to be disastrous. For further proof of this, read any good history of the Vietnam War. 

Michigan's 13th congressional district
Wikipedia

Just in case you were wondering, I’m not running for the vacant seat in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District. I’m not trying to start rumors. I’m not running for anything, and can’t imagine I ever would. I’m a journalist, not a politician.

people in voting booths
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Hard to believe, but today would have been Ronald Reagan’s 107th birthday. I remember meeting him when he made a surprise visit to the press tent at an international economic summit conference in 1983. He seemed bigger in real life than I had expected.

The next year, I remember seeing him in a soft rain, urging everyone to go out and vote, and to get their friends and neighbors to do the same. That was when he was running for reelection, in a campaign where the only real question was whether he’d win all fifty states.

Michigan State University sign
Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio

I love history, and while it is dangerous to go too far in comparing the past to the present, it is also absolutely true that you can’t know where you’re going till you know where you’ve been.  And while the past doesn’t exactly repeat itself, there are useful parallels.

Michigan State University sign
Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio

To the best of my knowledge, the New York Times, the nation’s newspaper of record, has never before bothered to notice Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees.

But in a stunning editorial Wednesday, the Times called on Governor Rick Snyder to remove the disgraced eight MSU trustees who did nothing to exercise oversight or protect one of the nation’s major universities from perhaps the worst scandal in higher education history.

mconnors / morgue file

Last night I had dinner with Morris Dees, the legendary founder and head of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the group that essentially put the Ku Klux Klan out of business. Not many people know this, but Dees is in Michigan fairly often these days.

He married Kathleen Kalahar, a high-powered Detroit lawyer, a year or so ago, and the couple split their time between Detroit and Alabama. You might say the definition of true love is voluntarily leaving Alabama to spend weeks in Detroit in January.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette proposed yesterday we amend the constitution to give the governor the power to appoint the boards of Michigan’s three biggest universities – the University of Michigan, Michigan State, and Wayne State.

Michigan State University sign
MSU

In recent days, I’ve heard people affiliated with various other universities say how glad they are not to be at Michigan State. Parents whose children go to MSU are worried. Not about sexual molestation, but about the school’s reputation.

One of the central problems of any government or corporation is this: Whose job is it to keep an eye on those in charge? Political science professors are fond of quoting the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, who supposedly put it this way: Who will guard the guardians?

Well, Plato never actually said that; some Latin poet did, hundreds of years later. Plato did, however, worry about it. Americans used to think we’d solved the problem.

Michigan State University
John M. Quick / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Quite unintentionally, Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon and trustee Joel Ferguson did their stricken university a great service in the past few days.

In their attempt to save her job and prevent any real change from happening, they proved how desperately necessary change was.

What’s astounding is that neither of them seems to get it, even now.

Governor Rick Snyder
Rick Snyder for Michigan / Facebook Page

Governor Rick Snyder gave his last state-of-the-state speech last night, though for a good chunk of it we really had Governor Richard Dale Snyder, his actual full name, wearing a dark suit and a blue tie, warning the lawmakers to be fiscally responsible.

The speech, like virtually all such speeches by all governors, was little noted, except by political reporters. Nor, to further steal from Lincoln, will it be long remembered. But it was interesting for a number of reasons.

Wayne State University
Wayne State University

This week, Wayne State University will begin a year-long celebration of what it is calling its sesquicentennial or 150th anniversary. Though I may get in trouble for saying this, the fact is that this anniversary is essentially an invented public relations one.

While the ancestor of the university’s medical school was indeed founded in 1868, Wayne State really grew out of the Detroit public school system, which began to offer junior college classes around the time of World War I. Nothing resembling a complete university existed before the 1930s, and the medical school was grafted on years later.

Michigan State University sign
MSU

When I heard Friday that Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees was meeting behind closed doors with President Lou Anna Simon, I assumed this was to accept or compel her resignation. After the revelation that she had known at least something about the allegations against sports medicine Dr. Larry Nassar for years, I thought there was no other option.

Knowing when to go

Jan 19, 2018
MSU President Lou Anna Simon
Bike Ann Arbor / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

I do not know Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon very well, but I did know her predecessor, Peter McPherson, whom she served as provost.

Once, I asked him how long a university president should stay in office. McPherson’s hero, the legendary John Hannah, had been MSU’s president for 27 years, and transformed the school from a small mostly agricultural college into a huge “megaversity.”

McPherson said the ideal was to leave one year before people wanted you to, so that in coming years, they would say “I wish President X would have stayed around for another year?” rather than, “thank God, at least Old X is finally gone.”

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.
Photo courtesy of Governor Snyder's office

If Governor Rick Snyder were prime minister of Great Britain, he’d have gone to the palace and resigned this morning. That’s because he lost what Parliament would have called a vote of no confidence, and lost it in spectacular fashion.

Both the state House and Senate overwhelmingly voted to override Snyder’s vetoes on two bills. There are 90 Republicans in the legislature, and our Republican governor kept the support of precisely one of them. 

These days, the place to go for solid in-depth print reporting on what’s happening in this state is not a newspaper, but Bridge, the online magazine.

Bridge, a publication of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Michigan, has hired many of the state’s best journalists to do deep-dive, penetrating reporting about conditions in this state.

Today, they have a blockbuster story that indicates that Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and a number of union leaders are trying to recruit another Democratic candidate for governor.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at Cobo Hall Detroit, June 23, 1963.
50th Anniversary Freedom Walk Facebook Page

Today is not only the Martin Luther King federal holiday, but Dr. King’s actual birthday. Had he not caught that bullet on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel half a century ago, he might still be with us.

John Dingell, the longest-serving congressman in our history, is still very much alive, and sending daily tweets about the insanity that is Washington today.

Most people don’t know this, but both branches of the Legislature have nonpartisan fiscal agencies that analyze the economic impact of bills on the Michigan economy.

Five days before Christmas, the Senate Fiscal Agency published a short book that was guaranteed not to become a best seller: Michigan’s Economic Outlook and Budget Review.

U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow
Studio08Denver / Flickr - HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCl0

For Michigan Republicans, running for the U.S. Senate has become an exercise that reminds me of a group of single guys who go off to the bar. They are happy, relaxed, they’ve just been paid, and they sit there and drink and talk about all the worlds they will conquer.

But the hours go by and dawn approaches, and in the morning, they trudge back to work in the cold gray half-light of reality. That’s what we are starting to see now, in Michigan Republicans' attempts to win the seat held by U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow.

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