The raging moderate

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Over the past 12 years, Jack Lessenberry’s written about 1,200 words a week in Metro Times. That’s almost 700,000 words. Readers know how he feels about Kwame (incompetent), Granholm (ineffective) and Dubya (criminally stupid). But most readers don’t know that he raises guinea pigs, likes Leonard Cohen and, given a choice, prefers blueberry pie to banana cream.

Readers who meet him in person are often surprised.

“People say, ‘We thought you’d be a very tall ex-hippie with a red flannel shirt and a graying beard,” Lessenberry says.

In reality, he’s a man of middle height whose costume de rigueur is a suit and tie, and while soft-spoken, speaks with assurance.

He’s also funny. Not just wry like his columns often are, but laugh-out-loud funny, with a healthy dose of gentle self-deprecation. While discussing his ignorance of pop culture over coffee and pie (they were out of blueberry) he deadpans, “I know nothing about popular culture except that I’m very gravely concerned about Lindsay Lohan. I think that she really has to clean up her act. I’m very worried that Lindsay is going to burn out, and there are some nights that I don’t sleep thinking about this.”

His lack of knowledge about the ins and outs of youth culture isn’t something that, in reality, he worries about. “I don’t pretend to be hip,” he says.

Rather, he writes about what he knows: Politics. History. Michigan. Detroit.

“Because I’m old, because I’ve been a journalist for a long time, I know a lot of stuff,” he says. “I’ve studied history all my life, so I know a lot just by virtue of longevity, and I can provide people some background.”

Though he likes to describe himself as an old man, at 52, he’s not quite the antique he claims to be. Born in Detroit, Lessenberry’s family left the city before white flight took wing. His father, a bookkeeper, found a job in Royal Oak and settled the family there.

Through college, Lessenberry wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life. He thought it might be history, and started a master’s degree program at the University of Michigan. But he realized the job market for historians (specializing in Soviet history) wasn’t exactly flourishing, and changed tracks. Torn between journalism and law, he chose journalism because it seemed to offer more potential for change. The history program wasn’t a total loss — he met his wife, Karen. They married in 1977, the same year Lessenberry started as an intern at The Toledo Blade (where he now holds the position of ombudsman). After a stint there, he spent the next decade doing what he describes as “all the usual sorts of jobs” at a variety of smaller papers.

Lessenberry had applied to The Detroit News, but executive editor at the time Ben Burns, now director of Wayne State University’s journalism program, said the paper didn’t have the right position for him.

The first time Lessenberry applied, Burns says, “he would have been on the city desk, and I thought the editors on the city desk wouldn’t have known how to use him, and would have resented him for knowing more than they did. He does not suffer fools gladly, nor does he suffer working for fools.”

When Burns did hire Lessenberry in 1982, it was for a job that sounded almost too good to be true. As a traveling correspondent, he went all over the country and the world.

“He did a lot of parachute reporting,” Burns says. “We would send him to the Soviet Union. Most people would say, how do you even get your arms around that, but you could give Jack two or three weeks to do research, then send him in for two or three weeks, and he would write an amazing series of articles.

“He knows a lot, and if he doesn’t know something, he finds it out. Frankly, he’s smarter than any two or three of us.”

Lessenberry quit The News after just five years. Gannett purchased the paper, and he wasn’t happy with the new management. Burns, however, remained so impressed with Lessenberry that after he too left The News for WSU, he hired his former reporter as a journalism professor in 1993.

Lessenberry says he’s a good teacher, but only for students who really want to learn.

“I am very hard and I am very harsh, for a couple of reasons,” he says. “My job is not to have them love me. My job is to give them survival skills.”

In 1993 MT managing editor Jim Dulzo approached Lessenberry in search of a columnist. Lessenberry recommended himself for the job, and Politics & Prejudices began appearing every other week, going weekly after two years. Lessenberry’s first offering was more tongue-in-cheek than serious analysis: a proposal that Oakland County become its own state.

His newest venture is hosting The Jack Lessenberry Show on U-M’s Michigan radio (he says he would have preferred to call it “Hot Air,” since it follows Terry Gross’s Fresh Air). Station general manager Donovan Reynolds says Lessenberry was the obvious choice to lead a discussion about Michigan politics: “We need a place where we can talk about Michigan’s future. I thought Jack would be the right person to lead that discussion. He’s a brilliant reporter. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of Michigan politics and he knows how the system works or doesn’t work. Also, he has a great sense of humor and doesn’t take himself too seriously.”

Over the years, Lessenberry’s work has tended toward the pointedly political — Oakland County’s statehood notwithstanding.

“My definition of a column is different than most,” Lessenberry says. “I think a column should be opinionated reporting. I want people to go away saying, ‘Gee, I didn’t know that,’ because I tell them something, or give an opinion, and back it up, bringing them new information.”

Rarely does his work delve into the personal. Karen’s had a couple of mentions, though. She’s an advanced placement history teacher, and occasionally he’s cited her as a source.

The other sort of columns — the kind about pets or spouses — he considers self-indulgent.

“I see columns that say, ‘Have you ever looked at your video collection and see how they get dust on them? Do you ever see how your bowls stack up?’ If I ever write a column about the bowls in my cabinet, I hope somebody takes me out and shoots me,” he says.

Some MT readers would happily volunteer for the job. Over the years, responses to Lessenberry’s columns have comprised the majority of MT’s letters to the editor.

“He manages to seriously offend a significant portion of his readership on a regular basis, which is something a columnist should strive for,” Burns says.

Lessenberry’s been called everything from MT “communist-in-residence” to “narrow-minded,” but he’s more amused than upset. He doesn’t expect everyone to agree with him.

“I consider myself a raging moderate,” he says. “What discourages me is that people don’t learn from the lessons of the past. It horrifies me that people don’t remember and don’t know what’s going on.”

Some of his angrier critics might be surprised to learn that Lessenberry’s much harder on himself than they could ever be. He’s rarely satisfied with his own work, and edits himself so thoroughly that his editors don’t have much to do. He’s written on holidays and from abroad — in 12 years, he’s never missed a week.

Writing about politics, which he currently does for the Traverse City Record-Eagle in addition to The Blade and MT, requires particular self-awareness. “I have to rigorously interrogate myself, because there are some people you just don’t like, or don’t approve of, and you have to ask, ‘Are you being fair to them?’

“George Orwell, my hero, said you have an obligation to avoid getting stuck in a perverse mood. Once or twice — or more than that — I’ve been snottier than I meant to be about people. I don’t write stuff I don’t believe in, but sometimes I’ll look back and my opinion will be modified by events.

“If you don’t wind up being able to change your mind then you have a real big problem.”

Nancy Kaffer is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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