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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

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.

Well, regardless of your politics, you can’t say nothing good came out of the aborted Michigan recount.

Chris Thomas, the state’s longtime elections director, said last night that Detroit will get new voting machines before the city elections next year.

Mark Twain once said that “no man’s life, liberty and property are safe while the legislature is in session.” 

He’s been dead for more than a century, but I’m sure he wouldn’t be the least surprised to learn that things haven’t improved in the slightest.

Actually, they’ve gotten worse, in Michigan at any rate, thanks to term limits, which have served to vastly increase the power of the lobbyists.

Well, as you may have heard, the final days of the lame duck session are winding down, and not nearly as many bills have been rammed through as I first thought might be the case. Lawmakers,for example, gave up early on plans to slash teacher pensions, and “reform” retiree health care for municipal employees in the state.

I’ve been wrong about a number of things this year. I didn’t expect Donald Trump to win the presidential election, but then again, almost nobody did.

More recently, I didn’t think there would be anything startling if there was a statewide recount of Michigan’s votes. I was partly right about that. They did manage to recount a little more than 40% of the vote before the recount was stopped.


I respect most people who go into politics, and have admired some. But with a very few exceptions, I’ve never been in awe of those I’ve met, including Presidents.

They were highly accomplished people, occupying an institution I revered, but people still the same. But that’s not how I felt on a cold March morning almost thirty-four years ago, when I climbed into a small plane in Washington headed for New Hampshire.

Well, the chaotic mess of Michigan’s off-again, on-again recount battle is apparently finally over.

The reason I say “apparently” is that absolutely nothing has been certain this year, and it is still possible, though unlikely, that more courts could intervene.

Essentially, everyone connected with this looks like the gang who couldn’t shoot straight, right down to Mark Goldsmith, who appeared to be a flip-flopping federal judge. The Republicans look worst of all, however. 

Ottawa County is a pretty lovely place on the western shore of Lake Michigan, a little south of Grand Rapids. I know it primarily for two things: the tulip festival in Holland, and for being the most Republican county in Michigan.

Ottawa last voted Democratic for president in 1864, when the local farmers decided they’d had enough of the Civil War and wanted their boys home. Since then, it has been as Republican as they come. Franklin Roosevelt couldn’t carry it, nor could Lyndon Johnson.

One of the most frightening, haunting and horrible stories I heard this year had nothing to do with politics. In September, an eight-year-old autistic child in Lake Orion was supposedly misbehaving in class.

So his teacher locked him in a padded room by himself for three and a half hours – a barbaric, medieval punishment called “seclusion and restraint.”

On Election Night it seemed clear the Republican candidate had won an upset narrow victory in Michigan. But some people wouldn’t accept it. They fought to get a recount.

The Republicans opposed it. But when a recount was finally ordered, irregularities and mistakes began to turn up. Figures had been transposed. Soon, the lead changed.

Pretty much anyone who ever amounted to anything has been inspired to success at some point by a teacher, usually in elementary or high school. Which makes the Michigan Legislature’s running war on teachers somewhat hard to understand.

Yes, I understand the Republicans hate teacher unions, primarily the National Education Association, because they often contribute to Democratic campaigns. 

Tim Greimel, the outgoing leader of the Democrats in the Michigan House of Representatives, put it this way:

“I’ve talked to thousands of voters, and never had a single one say we’ve needed more money and less accountability and less transparency in politics.” 

I have no doubt that’s true.

The state officially certified Michigan’s election returns two days ago, and though the focus was on the extremely close presidential race, there was something I found even more troubling in another result, one that’s drawn very little notice.

That would be the vote for the state board of education. John Austin, who is now the board’s president, courageously rallied his colleagues to support the rights of transgender students. 


As you may have heard, Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate, is asking for a recount of the vote in the three key states that decided the election – Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and our own state of Michigan, which was the closest of all.

The Clinton campaign, or whatever remains of it, doesn’t hold out any real hope that the outcome will change, but supports the recounts, on the ground the public ought to be assured of the integrity of the process. 


There was a lot of horrified reaction from those who support public schools at the announcement that Michigan’s own Betsy DeVos was Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of education.

John Austin, the president of the Michigan Board of Education, said “it’s like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse and feeding it school children.” Austin, however, was narrowly defeated this year, and won’t be around to try and resist.


Wayne State University is, I often tell the parents of prospective students, quite possibly the safest large campus in the state. I’ve taught there for nearly a quarter-century, and I get crime reports from Wayne’s superb police chief, Anthony Holt.

They usually have entries like this:

“Student was wandering around Cass Avenue at 2 a.m. and a man grabbed her cell phone and ran away.”

Yes, if you put your i-Pad down and turn your back, it is quite likely to disappear.

Fifteen years ago, a group called Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation sued Nestle Waters North America, a division of the huge international conglomerate, over its plans to withdraw vast amounts of groundwater in Osceola County in Northwest Michigan.

Nestle wanted to siphon 400 gallons a minute from the aquifer, to bottle and sell at a profit. The environmentalists were concerned about what this would do to nearby rivers, streams, and ultimately, Lake Michigan. After years of legal wrangling, they came to a compromise in 2009.

Here’s the story I’m worried about hearing this weekend: An angry Clinton supporter carving a turkey plunges the knife not into the white meat, but his Trump-supporting uncle.

That’s not as far- fetched as it sounds. Inability to cope with what happened November 8th has meant lots of extra work for grief counselors, therapists, and the like.


A forgotten hero

Nov 18, 2016

There were just a few lines on the obituary page of yesterday, with a tiny picture. Margaret Fishman, beloved wife of Alvin, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, aunt. Graveside services this morning in Detroit. Nothing exceptional, except for one line: “Margaret was a lifetime fighter for world peace, civil rights, workers’ rights, and justice for all.”

That she was. And for a moment sixty-three years ago, she was at the center of the world’s attention, at the dawn of the age of television journalism. Her younger brother, Milo Radulovich, was caught in the maw of Cold War hysteria.


Yesterday we learned that the Detroit News is inviting every editorial employee, from the most junior reporter to the executive editor, to quit their jobs. If you work there and you decide to voluntarily walk the plank, they’ll give you one week’s pay for every year you were there, up to half a year’s pay.

That’s not a very good offer as buyouts go; a year ago, a friend of mine who had been a News columnist for many years was offered a year’s pay to quit.


Sixteen years ago, during the campaign that led to the famous Bush-Gore disputed presidential election, I did a joint appearance with pollster Steve Mitchell, who predicted victory for George W. Bush and then-Senator Spencer Abraham in Michigan.

I said that I thought the pollster’s Republican bias was showing. He said that wasn’t true, and to prove it he regretfully predicted that Mike Rogers, a state senator then trying to be elected to Congress, was going to lose.


You may not have noticed, but Gov. Rick Snyder is in China this week, on what his administration is calling his sixth “investment” mission to the world’s newest economic superpower.

This particular trip is designed, the governor’s office says, to help establish Michigan’s global leadership in “autonomous vehicle technology,” which is industry-speak for cars that will drive themselves, at least to some extent.


I have been a staunch defender of the Electoral College, that quaint mechanism left over from the early days of the republic. You may well know how it works, though many people don’t.

When you voted for president last week, you in fact voted not for a candidate, but for a slate of sixteen people who pledge to vote for that candidate. The winning electors will drive to Lansing on December 19 and cast their votes in longhand as they would have done in 1792.


When I woke up the morning after the election, what popped into my head were some lyrics from the Democracy, written by that greatest of all poets of song, Leonard Cohen

“I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean/I love the country, but I just can’t stand the scene. And I’m neither left nor right/I’m just staying home tonight/getting lost in that hopeless little screen.” I suspected Wednesday morning that many people felt the same way.


I spent yesterday working in my office and hearing from people whose emotional state could be compared to that of survivors from a destroyed village. They were in utter despair and wanted hope. Donald Trump, a man whose campaign had been defined by attacks on women, immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans, and general boorish behavior, was President-elect of the United States.

Angela Russo, a former student of mine, an occupational therapist in her early 30s and a former television reporter, was mostly stunned.


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