Jennifer for president!

On New Year’s Day, the survivors of November’s statewide election assembled at the Capitol in Lansing to take their oaths of office, shivering in the bitter cold. Amazingly, the public managed to contain its fascination at seeing its elected representatives installed.

Actually, no one much showed up, except for a few hundred reporters, toadies, office seekers, party functionaries and family members. Few seemed to care what the main man, a grayer and paunchier John Engler, had to say, which was that the state had been made great by "education, opportunity, family and community."

If so, I idly wondered, why had he run an administration hostile to all four concepts? Don’t matter none; Engler is yesterday’s news. Term-limited; lame duck, bound for a cabinet post in 2001 in President George Bush II’s White House, the pundits say.

But the protectors of the public’s right to know reported nary a syllable from the lips of Candice Miller, re-elected secretary of state, nor wisdom from Dick Posthumus, who will become governor of the assisted suicide state if Engler departs before the end of his final four years. Instead, the JOA hybrid trumpeted the real news in a banner headline:


"Her bubbly, free-wheeling speech called for an end to political apathy," breathed the writer, a Free Press reporter. She "could barely contain her excitement." The new attorney general "said she would push to make political campaigns ... more like the thoughtful exchange of ideas they should be," the paper said. We were shown a picture of the bubbly philosopher in a bright red coat, waving.

Now none of this was all that surprising, as the media has been hard at work inventing Jennifer Granholm, an interesting object lesson into what passes for a "thoughtful exchange of ideas" in the media. That is not meant as a slap on our new attorney general, who did come out of nowhere to become the Democrats’ nominee, and then won impressively when her party’s ticket was being creamed.

But even before the votes were in, speculators were already nominating her for the governorship in 2002, possibly against Candice Miller, a head-to-head (blonde-on-blonde) contest the media would love.

Granted, new talent in politics, especially among Democrats, is exceedingly rare these days. Yet we don’t have the faintest idea if Granholm will be good, bad or indifferent at her job, or whether she has any ideas or any ability to execute them. We do know that she is peppy, perky, and looks much better than John Engler.

But the readers of Michigan’s newspapers may have an easier time getting a hint of her fashion sense than they do her job performance. The week before, I went to see the man she replaced, Frank Kelley, who served as Michigan’s attorney general longer than anyone has in any state, ever. He had been appointed in December 1961, re-elected ten times since. During his first year he proposed what became the nation’s first consumer protection division. He went on to start the first environmental protection division.

Those were heady times. Soon after Kelley took office he visited the U.S. attorney general, a fellow 10 months younger than he was. Don’t just sit there and wait for cases to come to you, Bobby Kennedy told him. Use the office to do some good.

"I didn’t need much more encouragement than that," he said. Recently, a lot of media critics have beaten up on the Kennedy-era press corps for being lapdogs, for not having done more to expose JFK’s alleged fooling around with women.

Was the press coverage really so much different then? I asked Kelley. Why, yes. "Gentlemen didn’t cover other gentlemen’s (sexual) peccadilloes, because they might well have peccadilloes of their own," he nodded.

But it was different another way, too; the press actually reported on government. True, it was an all-male, all-white press, "but covering the capital was seen as a premier beat. They were the aristocrats ... the day the governor had a press conference to announce my appointment, 10 reporters came in, all male, all white, all in suits.

"I knew that the next day everyone would have written a three-column story that would have good placement. Now, we have diversity among the press corps, which is good, you know, but it doesn’t matter. Why? There is 80 percent less political coverage," Kelley said. "You have a disinterested public out there."

The newspapers have lost their zeal to educate, their mission to keep them informed, so they give them what they think they want. So they get astrologers and lots of sex scandals."

Lying on a box of mementos was a photograph of him with JFK, a man once seen as more than some of his parts. "Yeah. I was a believer," he said. Kelley believed that public service can be a noble calling. He served well and long; left before he had to, and in the end filmed brilliant TV commercials many think put Granholm over the top.

Naturally, we’d like to think she is of the same cloth, rewoven for the future. But finding out could take time, and patience. (Bo-oooo-ring!) Instead, let’s get ahead of the curve: Granholm for president: soccer mom for the millennium.

That settles politics for now; next week, I’ll tell you what to think about something else.

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