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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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President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office, 1972
www.nixonlibrary.gov

Probably few are thinking about him today, on what would have been his 105th birthday, but there was a time when everybody thought about him all the time.

For a while, he was one of the most divisive figures in this nation’s history. I never met him, but I was in a room with him more than once. The last time was nearly thirty years ago before a packed crowd at the Detroit Economic Club.

Homeless
SamPac / creative commons

Fifty-four years ago, kids were bused from my suburban Detroit high school to Ann Arbor for a special event. The president was coming to the University of Michigan to give a historic commencement addresses. Lyndon Baines Johnson, in office exactly six months following the assassination of President Kennedy, announced his plans to build what he called the Great Society by launching a massive war on poverty.

When Democrats won massive majorities in both houses of Congress that fall, he was able to do just that. These days, popular legend sees the War on Poverty as a failure. In reality, statistics tell a different tale. Some of the programs were clearly poorly thought out, and funding for and interest in poverty waned as the Vietnam War heated up.

Thirty years ago, both Detroit newspapers circulated statewide, had hundreds of thousands of readers, and had squads of reporters in Lansing, covering state government.

The Detroit News at one time had 13 reporters there, on the reasonable theory that state government was really the most important branch of government in the lives of people.

Macomb County Clerk Karen Spranger
Macomb Daily

There’s a principle in law called the “presumption of regularity” that holds that, generally speaking, the things government does are considered to be legal unless proven otherwise.

That’s why, a law professor once told me, it took so long for people to really believe that President Nixon was lying and encouraging members of his administration to break the law.

MidMichigan Urgent Care - Houghton Lake
MidMichigan Community Health Centers

For the last year, there has been a lot of news about Republican efforts to kill the Affordable Care Act, or failing, that, to try and strangle its funding.

In recent weeks, we’ve also become increasingly aware of the crisis facing the federally funded Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP, which provides health insurance for more than nine million kids nationwide, more than 100,000 of them in Michigan.

Capitol Building in Lansing, MI
Matthileo / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

One day this fall, I was listening to the news while driving to Lansing. The announcer, in a manner-of-fact tone, talked about the tweets the President of the United States had sent in the wee hours of the morning attacking his own secretary of state. It seems the two men differed on what approach to take in handling the dictator with nuclear weapons our chief executive was calling “Little Rocket Man.”

What struck me was the degree to which this all seems normal now — the degree to which late night comedy, so-called reality TV, and the affairs of state have all merged into one giant infotainment center. There are days when I even think that I’m getting used to this, and to me, that’s the most worrisome of all.

moare / MorgueFile

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday that the state has to refund more than half a billion dollars improperly taken from the state’s teachers.

That has to be an extremely welcome holiday present for Michigan’s beleaguered teachers, who for years have felt under siege from politicians who have weakened their unions, their pensions, and made them pay more for health care.

This should also be a political gift to the Democrats, who have in recent years become the party of choice for the state’s teachers, especially since Republicans in the legislature often seem to have declared war on teachers as a class.

prescription drugs
Charles Williams / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

I was a teenager during the psychedelic 1960s, when my friends were tuning in, turning on, dropping acid, and later dropping out. For those of you who weren’t there and are seized with Sixties nostalgia, it was, more than most TV specials suggest, an age of anxiety.

Thetoad / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Getting a state constitutional amendment on the ballot is a lot harder than it sounds, as many groups have found out over the years.

FOIA
Vincent Duffy / Michigan Radio

We once had a President who believed anything he did was legal, just because he was President, and that he had the right to keep anything from the public he wanted to.

His name was Richard Nixon, he attempted to lead a vast criminal cover-up, and in the end, that didn’t work out too well. He was driven from office in disgrace, largely because even top members of his own party believed America was meant to be a democracy.

Michigan's Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA) has wrongly accused tens of thousands of people of cheating on their unemployment claims.
Bytemarks / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin once said that the death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million is a statistic. Well, tragedy can also result from treating people as statistics, and that’s what happened to at least 37,000 Michiganders in recent years.

gretchen whitmer
Michigan Senate Democrats

For more than a year, the sexual assault scandal at Michigan State University has been simmering in the background, a ticking time bomb that was certain to explode with devastating consequences for the university.

That this would have a political dimension was also certain.

prison bars
Flickr user FatMandy / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

For many years I’ve admired Milton Mack, who is about as authentic a Detroiter as they come. Two of his ancestors arrived with Cadillac when they founded the city in July 1701.

I don’t know how long it was before those French voyageurs built their first prison stockade. But today, Michigan has tens of thousands of people in prison, which costs us almost $2 billion a year. Mack, who spent years as chief probate judge in Wayne County, has studied our prison system for years and made recommendations for improving it.

Larry Nassar at a hearing in Michigan in 2017
Kate Wells / Michigan Radio

Last week I talked about the sexual assault scandal involving sport doctor Larry Nassar at Michigan State University and its possible effect on next year’s campaign for governor. 

There’s only one safe prediction about next year’s elections: Millions will be spent on broadcast commercials for the various candidates for office.

Millions more will be spent on commercials attacking these candidates, many paid for by secret, so-called “dark money” funders that are disgracefully legal in Michigan. But so far, the ad that has gotten the most attention is a well-produced but low-budget spot posted on YouTube a couple weeks ago. It’s an ad featuring Dana Nessel, who is attempting to get the Democratic nomination for Michigan attorney general.

Many years ago, a lonesome, newlywed army officer was sent to Detroit, and on a day in late April – his birthday – he wrote his wife Julia a hopeful letter. He had managed to rent what he called “a neat little house” in the same neighborhood as a couple of his friends.

“In the lower part of the house there is a neat double parlor, a dining room, one small bedroom and kitchen. There is a nice upstairs and a garden filled with the best kind of fruit. There is a long arbor grown over with vines that will bear fine grapes.”

There is, to put it mildly, a lot going on these days, with the biggest story being the ever-mushrooming national sexual harassment scandal.

But there is another sex scandal of a different sort that is already a big deal and which seems almost certain to become much bigger and take on many more dimensions. I’m speaking about the events at Michigan State University, involving former sports medicine Dr. Larry Nassar, who has been credibly accused of sexually abusing at least 125 women and girls.

US capitol building
Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

U.S. Representative John Conyers announced his resignation yesterday. Several of the 88-year-old's former staff members have accused him of sexual harassment. His supporters held a rally in Detroit Monday urging Conyers to stay in office. 

Michigan Radio's Morning Edition host Doug Tribou and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss his decision to step down immediately instead of finishing his term. 

I’m not running for Congress, even though my congressman and two nearby ones have announced they are going to retire. As I have said many times in many parts of this great state, I am not a candidate for anything; and never intend to be.

Editors' note: Rep. Conyers announced his resignation Tuesday morning, after this story was published. Read more here.

It seemed last week that the career of Congressman John Conyers was coming to an end. Many women had come forward to accuse him of sexual harassment.

The 88-year-old congressman came back to Detroit from Washington and had to be hospitalized, evidently for stress. We had conflicting signals from his aides, but some of them at least hinted that he might soon resign from the office he’s held for more than half a century.

Congressman Sandy Levin announced his retirement over the weekend, ending a political career that lasted more than half a century and was utterly free of any taint of scandal.

By the time his term ends, he will have served 36 years in the House of Representatives, matching the 36 years his younger brother, Carl Levin, served in the Senate.

Someone once told me you should leave any job about a year before people want you to. Well, as I speak these words, I have no idea how long Congressman John Conyers will be in office.

But I can tell you this: When he does leave, few will wish he had stayed longer. Half a century is probably more than long enough for any job, and Conyers has been there longer than that.

https://housedems.com/chang/

One morning earlier this week, I was in a donut shop on Vernor Avenue in southwest Detroit, in a neighborhood where you hear far more Spanish than English.

In fact, everyone in the shop was speaking Spanish except me and the woman I was drinking coffee with – state Representative Stephanie Chang, who represents this area, and about 90,000 people. Chang’s territory also includes the land where the Ambassador Bridge stands as well as the place where the new Gordie Howe International Bridge is to be built.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley
(photo by Laura Weber/MPRN)

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley has announced that he is, indeed, a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor next year, which wasn’t exactly a surprise.

In fact, he has been expected to get in for so long some were starting to think that maybe he wouldn’t run after all.

There’s something curiously similar in the way Governor Rick Snyder handled negotiations for the new Detroit River bridge at the beginning of his administration, and the proposed deal announced yesterday with Enbridge on the future of Line 5, the oil pipeline that runs under the Straits if Mackinac.

In both cases, he seems to have decided the legislature was essentially dysfunctional, and went ahead and made his own deal. That assessment was certainly accurate in the case of the bridge. Whether that’s true in the case of Enbridge isn’t clear, but what this agreement does do is allow the governor’s office to keep control of the process during the next few stages.

John Conyers file photo.
Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Last week, Detroit Congressman John Conyers became one more powerful man caught in a sexual harassment scandal. It was revealed he’d reached a settlement with a former employee a few years ago. The woman was paid more than $27,000, evidently with taxpayer funds.

Rev. Harry Cook
Desmond & Sons Obituary

Forty years ago or so, Harry Cook, an Episcopal priest turned newspaper reporter who later worked as a priest again, landed perhaps the last interview ever with Father Charles Coughlin, the famed radio priest whose open anti-Semitism and flirtation with Nazism led the Vatican to silence him during World War II.

The University of Michigan Regents
Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio

I have never been more proud of the University of Michigan than I am today, because it showed last night that it believes that our Constitution is stronger than our enemies.

In a rare public meeting, the regents voted not to forbid Richard Spencer, a man who is essentially a Nazi, from speaking on campus. Trustee Mark Bernstein was the most eloquent in explaining why. “The only thing worse than Richard Spencer being on our campus is stopping him from being on campus,” he said. Bernstein knew that if the university failed to live up to America’s bedrock values of free speech and free expression, it would play right into Spencer’s hands.

Men in late middle age are capable of daydreaming. For most of us, these dreams are fairly pedestrian. Maybe, just maybe, we might be the first 60-something to suddenly break into the major leagues. Maybe that one lottery ticket I buy every Thanksgiving will turn out to be a big winner and I’ll be able to quit my job.

Those are fairly typical fantasies. But things change for those few of us who actually do have a whole lot of money. Some do things like acquire a 24 year old girlfriend, whether they are already married or not. Others buy large boats, or perhaps a Maserati.

John-Morgan / creative commons

There’s a lot that can be argued about the Republican tax bill that has passed the House and still faces an uncertain future in the U.S. Senate.


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