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Over the past 12 years, Jack Lessenberrys written about 1,200 words a week in Metro Times. Thats almost 700,000 words. Readers know how he feels about Kwame (incompetent), Granholm (ineffective) and Dubya (criminally stupid). But most readers dont 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 youd be a very tall ex-hippie with a red flannel shirt and a graying beard, Lessenberry says.
In reality, hes a man of middle height whose costume de rigueur is a suit and tie, and while soft-spoken, speaks with assurance.
Hes 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 Im very gravely concerned about Lindsay Lohan. I think that she really has to clean up her act. Im very worried that Lindsay is going to burn out, and there are some nights that I dont sleep thinking about this.
His lack of knowledge about the ins and outs of youth culture isnt something that, in reality, he worries about. I dont pretend to be hip, he says.
Rather, he writes about what he knows: Politics. History. Michigan. Detroit.
Because Im old, because Ive been a journalist for a long time, I know a lot of stuff, he says. Ive 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, hes not quite the antique he claims to be. Born in Detroit, Lessenberrys 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 wasnt sure what he wanted to do with his life. He thought it might be history, and started a masters degree program at the University of Michigan. But he realized the job market for historians (specializing in Soviet history) wasnt 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 wasnt 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 Universitys journalism program, said the paper didnt 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 wouldnt 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 doesnt know something, he finds it out. Frankly, hes smarter than any two or three of us.
Lessenberry quit The News after just five years. Gannett purchased the paper, and he wasnt 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 hes 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. Lessenberrys 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-Ms Michigan radio (he says he would have preferred to call it Hot Air, since it follows Terry Grosss 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 Michigans future. I thought Jack would be the right person to lead that discussion. Hes a brilliant reporter. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of Michigan politics and he knows how the system works or doesnt work. Also, he has a great sense of humor and doesnt take himself too seriously.
Over the years, Lessenberrys work has tended toward the pointedly political Oakland Countys 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 didnt 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. Karens had a couple of mentions, though. Shes an advanced placement history teacher, and occasionally hes 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 Lessenberrys columns have comprised the majority of MTs 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.
Lessenberrys been called everything from MT communist-in-residence to narrow-minded, but hes more amused than upset. He doesnt expect everyone to agree with him.
I consider myself a raging moderate, he says. What discourages me is that people dont learn from the lessons of the past. It horrifies me that people dont remember and dont know whats going on.
Some of his angrier critics might be surprised to learn that Lessenberrys much harder on himself than they could ever be. Hes rarely satisfied with his own work, and edits himself so thoroughly that his editors dont have much to do. Hes written on holidays and from abroad in 12 years, hes 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 dont like, or dont 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 Ive been snottier than I meant to be about people. I dont write stuff I dont believe in, but sometimes Ill look back and my opinion will be modified by events.
If you dont 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.