Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

Remembering Abner Mikva

Abner Mikva - former Congressman, federal judge and Counsel to President Bill Clinton - passed away the other day.  He was 90 years young, and one of the few people in American history to have served in all three branches of the federal government.  A man of towering intellect and principle, Judge Mikva was also a thorough-going mensch . . . a true gentleman.  What follows is derived from my 2010 book The Jews of Capitol Hill. I had the honor of interviewing Ab Mikva on a number of occasions, the first being nearly 25 years ago. . . 

Although he can trace his ancestry back through five generations, Judge Abner Mikva has never been able to determine precisely when or how his family acquired their rather distinctive name. Mikvah is the Hebrew term for the ritual bath that Orthodox Jewish women are required to visit after each menstrual cycle before resuming sexual relations, and that Jewish men visit in order to purify themselves before the Sabbath or holidays. One might posit that just as Bakers, Coopersmiths, Wacholders and Schneiders are descended respectively, from ancestors who baked, made barrels, distilled gin and were tailors, the Mikvas are likely descended from people who were in charge of the community bath.  It is plausible, but by no means certain. The judge's youngest daughter, Rabbi Rachel Mikva Rosenberg, has another theory: “Mikva comes from a similar Hebrew word; the one meaning hope.” Either theory works well for a politician, especially one from Chicago, for ironically one of The Windy City's best‑known political characters in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had a similar name: “Bathhouse” John Coughlin.

Abner (“Ab”) Joseph Mikva was born not in Democrat Bathhouse John's Chicago, but in Socialist Victor Berger's Milwaukee, on January 21, 1926. His parents, Henry Abraham and Ida (Fishman) Mikva, were both immigrants from Russia. Ab's paternal grandparents, the product of an arranged marriage in the old country, never lived together in America. Grandpa Mikva lived in Monroe, Wisconsin, while his wife resided in Milwaukee. Mikva recalls that his grandfather would come back to Milwaukee for Passover and other major Jewish holidays, and that his grandmother “would throw food at him while she was serving and mutter under her breath.” Apparently, the senior Mikva, throwing off the shackles of the Old World, wanted to sow his wild oats. Grandma Mikva, an old-fashioned woman, could not abide his roguishness and threw him out.

Ab Mikva grew up in a Yiddish‑speaking, left‑wing socialist home. His father, who spent the Depression years working as a clerk for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), was a member of the International Workers Order. Though raised in a strictly Orthodox home, Henry Mikva became an atheist. He sent Ab to kindershul in order to learn to read and write Yiddish, but ordered the boy to “get up and leave the classroom” whenever the instruction turned to Hebrew or Torah. Mindful of his father's admonition, Ab did pick himself up and leave the room whenever the subject matter turned religious. On more than one occasion, the teacher admonished him by saying: “Boychik (young man), come sit down! Don't listen to that meshugeneh (crazy) father of yours!” But Ab, who even at a young age “knew where the power was,” kept on walking. Toward the end of his life, as a tuberculosis patient at Denver's Jewish Consumptive Relief Society, Henry had a change of heart; in his last years, he became the facility's High Holiday chazzan (cantor). Speaking of his “daughter the rabbi,” Judge Mikva quips, “She is a Jewish miracle – that she should grow up in our household.”

Following his graduation from high school in 1944, Ab Mikva joined the Army Air Corps and spent the war as a navigator with the Air Force Training Command. Enlisting as a private, he mustered out a second lieutenant in 1946. Following his discharge, Mikva spent the next two years as a student at the University of Wisconsin and then two more years at Washington University in St. Louis. Despite never having received his undergraduate degree, Mikva was admitted to the law school of the University of Chicago in 1949. Before entering law school, he married Zorita “Zoe” Wise, who became a schoolteacher.

Mikva’s introduction to government – Chicago-style – was “a curt message that it would survive without him.”  It is a story that has become a part of the city’s political lore.

While still a law student, Mikva stopped in the 8th Ward Regular Democratic headquarters looking to volunteer his time.  For some reason, this was “suspect behavior.”

            “Who sent you?” the committeeman asked.

            “Nobody,” Mikva answered.

            “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.  We ain’t got no jobs,” the committeeman told him.

            Mikva told him he wasn’t looking for a job.  This was even more suspect.

            “We don’t want nobody that don’t want a job.  Where you from anyway?”

            “The University of Chicago,” Mikva responded.

            “We don’t want nobody from the University of Chicago in this organization,” he was told.

            Thus ended his career as a cog in the Chicago Democratic machine.

Undeterred, Mikva did find time to volunteer for the campaigns of Governor Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965) and United States Senator Paul Douglas (1982-1976).  In 1951, Mikva was awarded a juris doctor. From all indications, he was the shining star of his class: cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, editor‑in chief of the law review, and Order of the Coif. Following his graduation, Mikva went to Washington, where he spent a year clerking for United States Supreme Court Justice Sherman Minton (1890-1965), a former Senator from Indiana.

Upon his return to Chicago in 1952, Ab Mikva entered private law practice, becoming an associate of future Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg (1908-1990). He eventually joined the firm of Devoe, Shadur, Mikva and Plotkin. The firm's practice dealt largely with labor issues. During his sixteen years with the firm (1952-68), Mikva worked extensively with the West Side Organization (WSO), “an early community–civil rights organization engaged in seeking to break down prejudice in employment, housing and schools.” In the mid‑sixties, acting as WSO chief counsel, Mikva became involved in a case that went all the way to the Illinois State Supreme Court, West Side Organization v. Centennial Laundry Company (215 N.E. 2d 443 1966). In this case, rank-and-file members of WSO organized a protest against Centennial Laundry's discriminatory hiring practices. Centennial obtained an injunction prohibiting WSO from publicizing the laundry's said practices. Mikva successfully prosecuted the appeal, which resulted in the “vacating of the injunction, allowing damages to the West Side Organization for the wrongful issuance of the injunction.” This was a landmark case not only in the area of labor law, but within the realm of free speech as well.

In 1956, Mikva ran for the Illinois State Legislature from the Twenty-third district, a traditionally liberal enclave centered in Hyde Park. The Twenty-third also included Woodlawn, the site of the University of Chicago and home of one of Mikva's political mentors, Saul Alinsky (1911-1972). A political organizer of legendary proportions, Alinsky was the author of two seminal, must-read works for organizers: Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. Known nationally as “The Father of Pragmatic Radicalism,” Alinsky taught Mikva his organizing techniques. When the young attorney decided to run for the legislature, Alinsky gave him a bit of advice: “You're going to have to develop two separate strategies, because what you've got to sell in Woodlawn won't sell in South Shore and Hyde Park, and what you've got to sell in South Shore and Hyde Park won't sell in Woodlawn.” Running without the endorsement of the powerful Daley machine, Mikva nonetheless rode to victory. Just as Mikva found a mentor in Alinsky, so too would Mikva, many years later become a mentor to another Alinsky devotee and future member of the Illinois legislature - a young Harvard Law student named Barack Obama.

As a member of the state legislature, Mikva was one of the “kosher‑nostra,” a group of like‑minded liberals whose ranks included future United States Senators Adlai E. Stevenson III (1930- ) and Paul Simon (1928-2003). Mikva, a member of the Judiciary Committee, was voted Outstanding Freshman Legislator by the Springfield press corps. During his decade in the Illinois House, Mikva sponsored measures dealing with crime control, mental health, civil rights, credit reform, and educational opportunities. At the end of each of his five terms in the State House, he was voted Best Legislator by the Independent Voters of Illinois.

In 1966, Mikva gave up his safe seat in order to challenge incumbent Democrat Barratt O'Hara for the Second Congressional District seat. O'Hara (1882-1969), had been a figure in Illinois politics for more than half a century. A veteran of the Spanish‑American War, he had been elected Lieutenant Governor of Illinois thirteen years before Abner Mikva was born.  Despite running once again without the endorsement of the Daley machine, Mikva made a creditable showing, losing by less than 4 percentage points. Following what was to be his only political defeat, Mikva continued practicing law and began working on Mayor Richard Daley in the hope of receiving his political blessing for the 1968 race. In 1968, O'Hara was eighty‑six years old and beginning to fail. Daley suggested that he should retire. When O'Hara refused “hizzoner's” recommendation, the Chicago mayor gave Mikva his “reluctant backing.” This time, running on a platform calling for increased foreign aid, a guaranteed annual wage, fair‑housing laws, abolition of the House Un‑American Activities Committee, and recognition of the People's Republic of China, Mikva won the Democratic primary in a landslide. In the November election, he defeated his Republican opponent with 65% of the vote.

Although Mikva was one the new kids on the block in Congress, he was not without some good friends. Ironically, three men representing California districts had all been raised within a half‑mile of Mikva's home back in Milwaukee: two liberals, Phillip Burton and Fortney “Pete” Stark, and the ultra‑conservative John G. Schmitz. The late San Francisco–area Representative Phil Burton (1926-1983), husband of the late Representative Sala Burton, was, during his congressional career, one of the true powers in the House. Pete Stark (1931- ), who made a fortune in banking before entering Congress, spent 40 years in the House, where he was a stalwart liberal with a passion for universal healthcare. Schmitz (1930-2001), who represented an Orange County district and replaced Alabama Governor George Wallace as the American Party's presidential candidate in 1972, was at one time a member of the ultra‑right John Birch Society. When the four got together to share old memories and the impact that growing up in Depression‑era, socialist Milwaukee had on them, Schmitz remarked, “Well, it had an effect on me, but apparently not the same as on you guys.”

Abner Mikva made an immediate impact in the House of Representatives. As one of the Congress's “most determined . . . opponents of the Vietnam war,” he often found himself denounced on the floor by hawks like Representative Wayne L. Hays. Never at a loss for acidic commentary, Hays referred to Mikva as “an emissary from Hanoi . . . a dupe of the Viet Cong” Because of his consistent opposition to increased war appropriations and his efforts to prohibit the bombing of dams and dikes in North Vietnam, Mikva was put under surveillance by army intelligence officers. When he learned of the army's interest in his person, he was outraged; he called for a thorough public investigation. Taking the House floor, he spoke with angry emotion: “There must be a complete purging of every command official who was responsible for establishing and operating this spy network. I, for one, would urge the resignation of every such command officer, in the interests of restoring America's credibility in its own military.” The surveillance was quickly terminated. In his first term, Mikva was also appointed to the Brown Commission, which provided the main impetus for efforts to re-codify the criminal laws of the United States.

Growing up in Milwaukee, Abner Mikva had experienced little anti-Semitism. That was to come later: “. . . the first time I really experienced it (anti‑Semitism) was in Congress. It came in the person of Speaker John McCormack (1891-1980) who, every time I would seek recognition would say, ‘THE GENTLEMAN FROM NEW YAWK!’ The parliamentarian would have to lean over and remind him that I came from Illinois. It was either my politics or my religion that made him assume that I came from New York. It was probably a little of each, but mostly the latter.”

Although Mikva was an active legislator during his first term, he had serious reservations about Congress. “What have we done for the people?” he asked one reporter after completing his first term. “What has Congress really done about the real, real problems? . . . The quality of life – is it any better for Congress having met two years? Nothing came out of the Congress for the people – nothing like Social Security, nothing like Medicare . . . . Here I am in Congress, and now I find that Congress ain't where it's at.”

After the 1970 census, Mayor Richard Daley directed that Mikva's white, largely Jewish district be reapportioned out of existence. Heeding Daley's directive, the state commission merged Mikva's Hyde Park power base into the predominantly black First Congressional District, represented by the former Olympic gold medal winner (1932 and 1936 games) Ralph Metcalf (1910-1978). Deciding he did not want to deprive Chicago of a “much‑needed Black Congressman,” Mikva moved his family north to Evanston in order to run in the newly-created Tenth District. In announcing his candidacy for the seat, Mikva told the press, "Any decision to end the career of an elected official ought to be made by the people, not by judicial fiat.” Surviving charges of being a “carpetbagger,” Mikva won the Democratic primary, but lost the general election to Samuel Young, who rode to victory on Richard Nixon's coattails.

During the next two years, Mikva practiced law with the Chicago firm of D'Ancona, Pflaum, Whatt & Riskind, accepted an appointment as adjunct professor of law at Northwestern University, and served as vice president of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action. In 1973, he began gearing up for a rematch with Young. The Tenth, a largely Republican district, was certainly not going to be Mikva's for the taking; it would take a lot of money and a lot of organization. Buoyed by a substantial war chest and a finely honed organization, he succeeded in defeating Young by a narrow margin. Two years later, “in one of the most expensive and hard‑fought Congressional races in the country,” Mikva effectively turned back a gerrymandering attempt by Mayor Daley and defeated Young by 201 votes. Uniquely, while Democrat Mikva was squeaking to victory, presidential candidate Gerald Ford was carrying the district by more than 60,000 votes. In his last election, Mikva defeated newcomer John Porter by a slightly larger margin of 1,200 votes. When Mikva left Congress to accept a seat on the United States Court of Appeals, he was replaced by the Republican Porter (1935- ), who would hold the seat until 2000.

Ab Mikva was considered the darling of the liberals. As head of the Democratic Study Group, he was the acknowledged leader of the liberal faction in the House. This group was responsible for “keeping Democrats and other coalitions abreast of weekly legislative action.” They published a weekly study guide concerning the current week's legislation that would be reaching the House floor. Among Ab Mivka's most important accomplishments was acting as floor‑manager in the debate about giving eighteen‑year-olds the right to vote – an effort that resulted in the passage and ratification of the Twenty-sixth Amendment to the Constitution in June 1971.

Mikva led the fight for a stronger code of ethics for members of Congress. By means of the law he enacted – since revised and strengthened – outside income for members of Congress was limited to 15 percent of their congressional salaries. The bill also eliminated office slush-fund accounts and, for the first time, required members to disclose their financial holdings. Mikva also proposed a measure for partial public financing of congressional elections by which contributions of $100 or less would be matched with monies drawn from the voluntary tax check‑off fund. Defeated in 1978, this proposal is still brought up during every session of Congress.

Long interested in reforming and streamlining government, Mikva was responsible for introducing the first “sunset” bill. Although never acted on, this imaginative proposal would have caused federal regulatory agencies to self-destruct – go completely out of existence – unless they could justify their continued existence. The bill gave Federal regulatory agencies seven years to prove their intrinsic worth; if they did not, they were automatically out of business.

Although a political realist, Mikva often acted more like a starry‑eyed idealist. One example was his efforts to eliminate handguns. Throughout his congressional career, Mikva regularly submitted legislation prohibiting “the manufacture, sale and distribution of handguns in the United States except for use by the police, military and licensed pistol clubs.” Each time Mikva's proposal went to committee for hearings, the National Rifle Association would make a full frontal assault on Congress to make sure that the measure never came to a vote. “No other piece of legislation, no change in our law, no amount of resources for law enforcement could have a greater impact on crime,” Mikva told his colleagues. So thoroughly did Mikva outrage the NRA that when President Carter nominated him for a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the well‑heeled lobby spent more than six months and $1 million in an effort to block his nomination. During Senate confirmation hearings, an NRA spokesman claimed that Mikva's well‑known antipathy for weapons would make it virtually impossible for him to be objective in hearing cases dealing with guns. Undeterred, the Senate confirmed Mikva by a vote of 58 to 31.

Ab Mikva resigned from the House of Representatives on September 26, 1979, in order to take his seat on the second most powerful court in the land. President Carter selected him from among a list of more than two hundred prospective candidates. In nominating Mikva, Carter was returning to the old tradition of elevating members of Congress to the federal bench. After eleven years on the court, Mikva became the court's chief judge.  While on the bench, Mikva attempted to hire a young Harvard Law School graduate as a legal clerk.  The young lawyer turned him down.  His name was Barack Obama.  Later on, the two became friends.  In 2008, Mikva was one of the initialsignatories on a website called “”

During his first congressional stint in Washington, Mikva brought his family with him to Washington. During his second tour of duty, Zoe and their three daughters remained in Evanston, where Mrs. Mikva continued teaching school. With Mikva's elevation to the federal judiciary – and with their daughters now grown – Zoe Mikva moved once again moved to Washington, taking a job with the Advocacy Institute, a Washington‑based group that helped community groups organize.  Daughters Mary and Laurie both became attorneys, and Rachel, as previously noted, a rabbi.

The United States Court of Appeals is quite often a stepping‑stone for appointment to the Supreme Court. In the past two generations, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyar have all made that transition. The closest Mikva got was portraying “Supreme Court Justice Abner J. Mikva” in the 1992 Kevin Cline comedy “Dave,” in which he administers the presidential oath of office to the Vice President, played by Ben Kingsley.  The film also had such notables as Chris Matthews, Robert Novack, “Tip” O’Neil and Senator Paul Simon playing themselves.     Realizing that he was “too old, too white, too male, and too liberal” to ever be named to the Supreme Court, Mikva shocked his colleagues by announcing his retirement in August 1994, in order to become President Clinton's White House Counsel. In assessing this development, the New York Times noted that Clinton had selected a man who would likely be “the most scholarly White House Counsel of the modern era.” Mikva remained at the White House for a little more than a year, being replaced in September 1995 by Vice President Al Gore's chief of staff, Jack Quinn. During his year as White House Counsel, Mikva was faced with the Whitewater hearings and “Travelgate,” the first major scandal in the Clinton White House. News of his retirement led conservative columnists to claim that he had seen how much trouble the President was in and decided to bail out. “Not so,” said Mikva. “It's just time to retire and spend some time with my family, write a few books, and teach a course or two.”

Mikva’s retirement proved to be anything like he had imagined.  For years, he was the Schwartz Lecturer and Senor Director of the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic at the University of Chicago.  Together with wife Zoe, they founded the “Mikva Challenge,” a philanthropic organization which “inspires Chicago high school students to participate in elections and civic activities, develop leadership skills and delve into complicated issues of public policy that affect their lives.”

In 1999, Mikva was the subject of a wide-ranging interview by Harry Kreisler of Berkeley’s Institute of International Studies.  Asked what the differences were between his years in Congress and the then-current political atmosphere, Mikva responded:

You cannot hate your opponents if you are going to sit down and work out an agreement with them.  You have to respect them.  You have to have some measure of trust in them.  And you have to appreciate that they are coming into the process with the same good motives as you are.  If you assume that they are evil incarnate, that they are doing the work of the devil, it’s pretty hard to cut a deal.      

In summing up the career of Judge Mikva, a man who had distinguished himself as a legislator, jurist and White House insider, the New Republic’s Morton Kondracke wrote, “Abner Mikva is different from many other liberals because he doesn't only love mankind; he loves individual people, too.” Indeed, Ab Mikva was a throwback to a better, more congenial time; an era where political enemies could put policy ahead of partisanship and together, forge compromises without forsaking principles.

Rest in peace Judge . . . you did well by doing good.

Copyright ©2010, 2016 Kurt F. Stone