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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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Donald Trump during a campaign rally in Phoenix in October 2016.
Gage Skidmore / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

There’s an old saying that if you put a frog in a pot of water and gradually increase the temperature one degree at a time, the frog won’t notice or hop out before it is cooked.

Scientists say this isn’t really true for frogs, but it may well be true, at least intellectually, for people.

Certainly, we can become desensitized to about any form of outrageousness.

Consider what we are living through now.

Jack Lessenbery
Michigan Radio

I had lunch yesterday with Mark Bernstein, the University of Michigan trustee who flirted with a run for governor next year before deciding not to.

He is smart, funny, and I think genuinely committed to making the university and this state a better place. We were talking about what’s wrong with state government when he said something that suddenly hit me like a revelation.

We were talking about how attitudes have changed, and he said, “I think a big part of it is that instead of seeing ourselves as citizens, we now see ourselves as taxpayers.”

The Ambassador Bridge
Mike Russell / Wikimedia Commons / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

There was a story two days ago that was almost entirely ignored in America, but which has significant implications for this part of the world. Dave Battagello of the Windsor Star reported that the new Gordie Howe International Bridge will be delayed another full year.

Why I don't Tweet

Aug 23, 2017
Twitter bird logo icon illustration
user Matt Hamm / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Robyn Vincent is a journalist from Detroit who moved to Wyoming some years ago, where she is the editor of Planet Jackson Hole, which she has built into one of the nation’s more interesting and journalistically vibrant alternative newspapers.

I was honored to learn a few months ago that she follows and admires my work. She wondered, however, why I don’t tweet. She told me that if I did, I could have a considerably greater following than I do now.

kids in classroom
Mercedes Mejia / Michigan Radio

There’s remarkably broad agreement across the political spectrum about something: There is a deep crisis in education in Michigan - and nationally --at virtually all levels.

Tomorrow, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities will release a new report on skyrocketing college tuition, something that makes higher education less and less affordable in an era when education beyond high school is more necessary.

Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

I had an extended conversation with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan last week, and I learned a few things that might surprise you.

I’m not talking, by the way, about his current campaign for re-election. As with any election, this one ain’t over until it's over. But the mayor won the primary this month with an astounding 68 percent of the vote, compared to less than 27 percent for his only real challenger, State Senator Coleman Young II.

For months, a dedicated group of citizens calling themselves Voters, not Politicians, has struggled to come up with a way to give control of drawing legislative districts back to the people. The idea is to ensure fair, sensible and competitive representation to everyone.

That may sound like arcane political science babble, but it is not. Most of us are being effectively denied choices because of gross partisan gerrymandering done to ensure continuous Republican control of government.

Wikimedia Commons

Former Congressman Vern Ehlers died the way he lived Tuesday night, with quiet dignity. If you are relatively new to Michigan or not from the Grand Rapids area, you may not have known of him, which is too bad. He was one of the most underappreciated members of Congress.

He was full of integrity, and as little a self-promoter as anyone elected to national office can be. He was also something else very rare in Congress – a research scientist with a PhD in physics. I first met him 15 years ago in Detroit, when the Fisher Theater was showing Copenhagen, a play about science, morality, and the decision to build the atom bomb.

Gage Skidmore / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

On the afternoon that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, my seventh grade math teacher decided the best thing he could do was to ignore it.

He reasoned that what was going on in the nation had nothing to do with his job, which was to teach math to a classroom of Michigan kids, and so he carried on, or tried to, ignoring that some of the students were crying and few could focus.

Chinese Chrysler?

Aug 15, 2017
user fiatontheweb / creative commons

Yesterday morning I heard someone on an AM radio station say he had heard a crazy notion that Chrysler might be sold to the Chinese.

It was clear from his tone that he believed this was never going to happen.

Now, after a lifetime of covering the news, here’s something I’ve learned about business and politics. Whenever the movers and shakers start saying something can’t possibly happen, that usually means it most certainly could. Often it means that it is inevitable.

And sometimes, it even means that it’s happened already.

statue of Robert E. Lee atop a horse
Public Domain

Seventy-two years ago today, for the first time ever, the Emperor of Japan spoke to his subjects on nationwide radio.  “Circumstances in the world conflict have proceeded in a manner not necessarily to our advantage,” he said. 

That was perhaps the greatest example of euphemism and circumlocution in history. What the emperor was really saying was “we have lost World War II, and we have no choice except to surrender.” I thought of this in the aftermath of the terrible events in Virginia, where a messed-up character obsessed with Nazis apparently drove his car into a group of people, killing one young woman and injuring many more people.

John Conyers file photo.
Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

The world was a far different place half a century ago, when Detroit was reeling after the nation’s most devastating urban riots. Michigan was a far richer state than it is now. It usually wasn’t hard to get a job on the line, assembling Pontiacs or Oldsmobiles.

Virtually nobody drove Hondas or Datsuns, which is what Nissans were then called. Mitt Romney’s father was governor, though Mitt himself was too young to vote. Michigan had more clout in Washington, and five more members of Congress than it does now.

Mackinac Bridge
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

I've been up north, as we say in this state, for the last week, on Lake Michigan about fifty miles from the Straits of Mackinac. Fifty miles, that is, from Line 5, the oil pipeline – actually, twin pipelines -- under the straits. There has been a lot of concern about Line 5 in recent years.

People have suddenly discovered the existence of the line, which can carry as much as 540,000 barrels of light crude oil and liquid natural gas a day, pumped at high pressure under the lakes.

A "vote here" sign
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

You may not have noticed, but we had primary elections throughout Michigan yesterday. In many places, however, there was no election at all. This is what politicians call an off-off-year.

There are no races for attention-grabbing offices like governor, senator, or president. What people voted on yesterday was a collection of mostly small millage requests, plus a few primary elections for mayor and council seats in places like Detroit and Flint.

sign that says "vote here"
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Michigan Radio Morning Edition Host Doug Tribou and Senior News Analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss the results of yesterday's primary elections in Detroit, Flint and Pontiac. 

Asian carp leaping out of a river.
Great Lakes Fishery Commission

When scientists were working on the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb, there was a brief moment when some thought there was a small chance it might ignite the entire atmosphere.

Which would have meant good-bye life on earth. Enrico Fermi, who had a puckish sense of humor, took bets on whether the test of the bomb would destroy the world, or only New Mexico.

money
user penywise / morgueFile

If you follow state politics, you know that a number of candidates have been running for governor for months.

Gretchen Whitmer and Abdul El-Sayed have each raised more than $1 million. Shri Thanedar, a previously unknown businessman, has dumped more than $3 million into his campaign for the Democratic nomination.

Workers are voting today at a Nissan vehicle assembly plant in Canton, Mississippi whether to join the United Auto Workers union. That might not seem like a huge deal either way.

After all, it’s just one plant. But it is a big one, with more than six thousand workers, about three-fifths of whom are African-American. If the UAW wins, it will be the dwindling union’s first victory ever in a major foreign-owned “transplant” factory.

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

You never know, but if President Trump’s sweeping new immigration policy proposals had always been in place, I probably wouldn’t be here. Most likely, you wouldn’t either.

My paternal ancestors supposedly came from Great Britain centuries ago, but my maternal ones came from Bavaria to Michigan in the 1880s. They didn’t speak English and had no special skills, so that would have been that.

aerial shot of buildings, soccer stadium
Rossetti

Wayne County is a step closer to letting its unfinished jail in Detroit become a $1 billion development that would include a pro soccer stadium. The county is working to finalize details with businessman Dan Gilbert. In exchange for the jail site, Gilbert would construct a new criminal justice center near I-75 in the city.

Morning Edition host Doug Tribou and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss the deal and whether major league soccer would be successful in Detroit. 

On the surface, yesterday was a pretty good day for Michigan. The state announced that the cities of Pontiac and Lincoln Park were both being released from receivership.

The treasurer’s office said both of these aging cities had made considerable strides toward getting their acts and their finances in order. I think that is true, but I also think the state would like to get them off the books. Ever since the mess in Flint, the whole idea of having the state take over and run cities has lost a lot of appeal.

When I was a child, there were kids whose parents told their children never to have anything to do with government or politics. They said it was a dirty and corrupt business.

Well, I grew up believing that was wrong-headed, that while politics was a bruising contact sport, it was a life, in the words of reporter and novelist Allen Drury, capable of honor. That was easier to believe when the memories of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman were still fresh and Profiles in Courage was a best-seller.

YouTube

I haven’t seen the new movie Detroit yet. I think I’m like my African-American teaching colleague Alicia Nails, who told me that after weeks of non-stop coverage, she was starting to feel a little “rioted out.” What I have heard from friends who have seen the movie is that it is powerful but lacks nuance, and leaves the impression that the Detroit in that film is still the Detroit of today.

But there was one nuance I didn’t miss. This was in an interview in the Boston Globe with Kathryn Bigelow, the film’s director. The interviewer asked why the movie wasn’t filmed where it happened.

“We originally located it in Detroit but the tax-credit program had just been disbanded, so we went to … Boston, and shot the movie there,” Bigelow said.

President William McKinley had a wife to whom he was extremely devoted, but who had a nervous condition that caused her to suffer from frequent seizures, sometimes at state dinners. When this happened, his solution was to throw a napkin over her face, carry on as though everything was normal, and then remove it when the seizure was past.

Jack Lessenbery
Michigan Radio

Forty years ago, I was in a special, high-pressure graduate program at the University of Michigan designed to make trained journalists out of otherwise hapless intellectuals like myself in a year and a half. It was an amazingly successful program.

Many of my classmates went on to jobs in senior management in places like both the New York and Los Angeles Times and the former International Herald Tribune.

Shri Thanedar
shri2018.com

Imagine you suddenly came into $3.3 million dollars, and your instructions from the universe were to spend it to make life better for the people of Michigan.

My guess is that your first idea would not be to spend it to try to win the Democratic nomination for governor next year. But that’s what Shri Thanedar is doing.

Jack Lessenbery
Michigan Radio

President Donald Trump has just nominated former Congressman Pete Hoekstra to be ambassador to the Netherlands. The appointment should be speedily confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Hoekstra, who came to this country as a baby, was born in Holland and speaks fluent Dutch.

He’s a former chair of the House Intelligence Committee, and in every respect is as fully qualified for this job as any political appointee could be.

Ambassadors fall into two categories. Those who have come up through the ranks of the Foreign Service, and are state department experts in their field. They tend to be ambassadors in places like Paraguay. Former politicians or well-heeled campaign contributors tend to get ambassadorial appointments in more glamorous countries.

Jack Lessenbery
Michigan Radio

The fires of the Detroit riot began blazing exactly fifty years ago today. Years later, in an odd case of serendipity, I got to know Ray Good, the first police lieutenant on the scene, in the course of profiling his wife Janet for Esquire Magazine.

That was in the 1990s, when she had her moment of fame as Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s partner in evaluating who he would help die.

President Donald Trump
Gage Skidmore / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Hard to imagine, but man first walked on the moon exactly 48 years ago today. I think most of us thought we’d have had colonies there by now, but of course we don’t.

That was a long time ago, but here’s something you may find even harder to believe. Six months ago, we woke up in a nation where Barack Obama was still president.

michigan state capitol
Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

When I heard that Mark Bernstein wasn’t running for governor, what instantly popped into my head was a line from Macbeth: "Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it."

In other words, the best part of his campaign was his decision not to wage one. The immediate beneficiary is Gretchen Whitmer, whom Bernstein then endorsed.

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