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Jack Lessenberry

Essay/Analysis: Political Commentator

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A Detroit native, Jack originally intended to become a historian, but recognized that he wanted to become a journalist during his graduate studies at the University of Michigan.  Since then, he has accumulated nearly forty years of journalism experience in every medium from newspapers to the internet. Jack has worked as a foreign correspondent and executive national editor of The Detroit News, and he has written for many national and regional publications, including Vanity Fair, Esquire, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe.

Currently, in addition to his work at Michigan Radio, he is head of journalism at Wayne State University and a contributing editor and columnist for The Metro Times, Dome Magazine, The Traverse-City Record Eagle, and The Toledo Blade, where he also serves as ombudsman, and hosts the weekly public affairs program "Deadline Now"  on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

Among his favorite memories are of interviewing Gerald Ford about Watergate in 1995 and winning a national Emmy for a documentary about Jack Kevorkian in 1994.

On a personal note, Jack mostly stopped watching TV -- except for documentaries -- when Mr. Ed was canceled, though he admits to a fondness for the crusty old butler on Downton Abbey.

Ways to Connect

Four soldiers sit at a table in South Vietnam, 1972
Manhhai / FLICKR - HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

There’s been a fair amount of excitement over Ken Burns’ new documentary series, this one an 18-hour blockbuster on the Vietnam War.

Burns, who grew up in Ann Arbor, long ago became America’s tribal storyteller, the man who helps us find out who we are, whether the topic is jazz or baseball or the Civil War.

The state Capitol in Lansing.
Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

I’ve been talking to legislators and congressmen for a long time, and know something about lawmakers in the past as well. There are some ways in which I think today’s lot are generally better. For example, they are better educated and drink less. More of them are women, and I think there are far fewer on the take.

But there’s also something very wrong with our legislature today, something that often makes me think we would be better off with the old boozing and occasionally brawling pols, some of whom were still around when I was a young reporter.

Screen showing Line 5 on the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Earlier this week, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette officially confirmed what everybody knew: He is running for governor, or more exactly, for the Republican nomination next year.

When he made his announcement, he said a version of what all politicians say; he is doing this, not for himself, but for the people, for all of us. Well, I know a good way he can start to prove that to us and help his candidacy at the same time:

Photograph of Downtown Detroit
Ifmuth / FLICKR - HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

Toledo, Ohio isn’t in Michigan, but should be. I’m not just saying this because of the famous and farcical 1835 Toledo “War,” that ended up establishing that the city belonged to Ohio, with Michigan getting the western Upper Peninsula as compensation.

More to the point is that the Toledo economy is essentially the Metropolitan Detroit manufacturing economy. Like the Motor City, Toledo has slowly declined as auto jobs waned. The decline has been slower, however, as has the demographic change.

Bill Schuette
Bill Schuette / Facebook.com

Attorney General Bill Schuette, who actually has been running for governor forever, made it official yesterday, at a barbecue in his hometown of Midland. It wasn’t exactly a grass-roots rally; those who went were supposed to donate a minimum of $50 to the campaign.

If you were willing to give $500, you could be designated a “grill master,” and for a thousand dollars, an “on duty” donor. That may have been a slight error in branding; I think being grill master sounds better. But Schuette hasn’t made many errors in this campaign – though, as he himself noted, his party faces an uphill battle.

Trott for Congress

Three years ago, David Trott, a lawyer and a multi-millionaire player in the mortgage business, decided to run for Congress. He spent at least three and a half million dollars of his own money to win a seat representing a group of mostly middle-class, mostly white Detroit suburbs.

Amazon
User soumit / flickr.com

Amazon, the huge online retailer that sells everything from cookbooks to caskets, plans to build a second huge headquarters somewhere in America, and Detroit wants it -- badly.

Sandy Baruah, the CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, is part of a team fighting to lure Amazon to the Motor City. Dan Gilbert, who for years has been buying up vast amounts of Detroit real estate, says he's also put together a second team to woo them.

Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley wrote that this could mean “the arrival of a company that could bring 50,000 jobs and a whole lot of hope to the Motor City.”

The Ambassador Bridge
cmh2315fl / creative commons http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

The owners of the Ambassador Bridge scored a big victory this week. The Canadian government has finally given the Detroit International Bridge Company permission to build a new bridge next to the Ambassador, just a couple of miles upriver from the site of the publicly funded Gordie Howe International Bridge project. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about hurdles the DIBC still needs to clear before the new span can move forward.  

Nuclear Fears

Sep 8, 2017

When I was in elementary school a national magazine did an article on what would happen if a hydrogen bomb were dropped on Detroit. I don’t remember all the details, except that windows would have been broken in Lansing, and where I lived would have been melted glass. This was back in the early 1960s, when we were still tucking ourselves under our desks in that famous “duck and cover” air raid drill.

I wasn’t terribly sophisticated, but I was smart enough to figure out that squatting under a Formica desk wasn’t likely to save anyone. After the Cuban missile crisis, I read portions of a book I was probably too young for, Herman Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War.

Ambassador Bridge
J. Stephen Conn / Flickr

No matter how bizarre your fantasies, reality is sometimes crazier. Nobody could have written a script for what’s happened in national politics.

Nobody ever thought we’d be in some kind of nuclear standoff with North Korea. And few if any expected the Canadian government would ever grant Matty Moroun permission to build a new bridge next to his old Ambassador Bridge.

As you almost certainly know, President Donald Trump said yesterday that his administration would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Currently, the DACA program is allowing something like 800,000 young, undocumented Americans, people brought to this country as children, to stay here without fear of deportation.

Trump gave Congress six months to “fix” the program, but it isn’t clear what he will do if they don’t. Campaigning for the midterm elections will be underway six months from now, and there are certain to be some embattled GOP incumbents who don’t want the president to do anything that might further jeopardize them.

sign that says "DEFEND DACA"
Flickr user Harrie van Veen https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

President Donald Trump announced yesterday that he'll end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program in six months. Gov. Rick Snyder issued a statement opposing the move and urged Congress to act quickly to clarify the status of so-called "DREAMers."

Morning Edition host Doug Tribou and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss how pressure from Snyder and other governors could affect decisions made by Congress. 

Worker at the Flint Engine plant.
Steve Fecht / General Motors

If you talk to someone in Governor Snyder’s administration, you might get the impression that Michigan’s workforce had a lot to celebrate on Labor Day. Last month, unemployment fell to an astounding 3.7%. Frankly, I never thought during the Great Recession that I would ever live to see our state’s jobless rate fall below four percent again.

Enbridge Energy's Line 5 oil and liquid natural gas pipelines run under Lake Michigan at the Straits of Mackinac.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

The state of Michigan this week ordered Enbridge Energy to restore a protective coating on parts of its Line 5 pipes that run beneath the Straits of Mackinac. Enbridge reported to the state that small portions of enamel coating were accidentally removed in two places.

A state commission is facing pressure to shut down Line 5 completely. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about whether Enbridge's disclosure will turn up the heat.

Photograph of Downtown Detroit
Ifmuth / FLICKR - HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

Earlier this week, I was asked to speak to all the incoming students at Wayne State University.

Among many other things, I told them truthfully that I thought they were very lucky to be going to college in Detroit, which has become one of the most fascinating cities in the world.

“Think about it,” I told them. “Do you ever see Philadelphia in the news?” Detroit’s comeback is a major national story.

Child reading
User Melanie / Flickr - http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

We got the latest results from our statewide education tests earlier this week, and here are the highlights — without the jargon. Johnny mostly can’t read as well as he should, and neither can Susie, although she’s doing a little better. Both are doing a little better in math than last year, but not nearly as well as they should.

Michigan GOP Convention
steve carmody / Michigan Radio

What do you do when the group you’ve belonged to your entire life no longer represents your values?

This has often been a problem in the melting pot that is America. Children upset parents by rejecting traditional customs, like arranged marriage.

But it is also a problem in politics.

flooded street in Midland
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

As people in Texas and Louisiana struggle to deal with the impact of Harvey, the storm is also generating new conversations about how to deal with flooding in other parts of the country.

Mid-Michigan is still recovering from floods in late June, and many Michigan cities have had problems in recent years.

Keeping his word

Aug 29, 2017
Ex-state Senator Virgil Smith, Jr.
senatedems.com

More than two years ago, in one of state politics’ more sordid recent episodes, State Senator Virgil Smith Jr. was arrested after he shot up his ex-wife’s Mercedes.

According to prosecutors, the Detroit Democrat was “alcohol dependent” at the time, had asked his former wife to come over for an intimate encounter and then physically assaulted her before shooting up her car. It is unclear whether he was trying to shoot her too.

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.

The Detroit Pistons at the Palace of Auburn Hills
Corey Seeman / creative commons http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

After nearly 30 years, the Palace of Auburn Hills has announced that it will soon close its doors for good. Palace officials this week announced that Bob Seger's September 23rd concert will be the venue's final event. This Week in Review, Weekend Edition host Rebecca Kruth and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about how businesses and the city of Auburn Hills itself will fare without revenue from the former home of the Detroit Pistons.

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.

mayor mike duggan shaking woman's hand
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.

Michigan State University sign
MSU

This week, Michigan State University denied a request from a white supremacist group to rent space on campus. The university said it denied the request due to safety concerns following the violence that broke out last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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.

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