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Steinberg: Political icon Abner Mikva tells all at 90

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Abner Mikva turns 90 Thursday. To mark the milestone I took the revered Chicago icon who made his mark on all three branches of government — former congressman, retired federal judge and White House counsel — to lunch last week.

How does it feel to be 90?

“It’s going to be kind of a shock,” he said, using the future tense with a lawyerly precision. “I keep thinking of all the good reasons why I should be happy about it…. I’ve already given up all the things I really enjoy: golf, tennis, sex, poker. There’s nothing left to give up in the 90s.”

I get the golf, tennis and sex part. “But why poker?”

“I have macular degeneration,” he said. “I can’t see the cards. I love the game.”

Mikva used to fly in just for the Washington Post’s poker game.

He said his favorite Washington figure to work with was Bill Clinton.


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“He was very charming,” said Mikva, who stepped down from his federal judgeship to become White House counsel.

“Very nice to work for. We first met when he was confirming I was going to be hired. He said to me, ‘I’ll never lie to you.’ And he didn’t. The only time I know he lied was after I was out of the White House, when he got involved with Monica Lewinsky,” Mikva said.

“And even then I believed him, because I had forgotten the geography of the the Oval Office. I knew the Oval Office, and his den had peepholes for his secretary and Secret Service to look in. I knew he wouldn’t fool around. His private secretary was very strict Christian, and he would not have embarrassed himself in front of her. I forgot about that little pantry between his den and the Oval Office. Sure enough, that’s where he did his mischief.”

When you’ve sailed into waters such as these, with a man as frank and forthcoming as Mikva, it’s best to keep quiet and just listen. But I had to ask: why did Clinton dissemble under oath?

“What people forget is that she seduced him,” Mikva said. “How does a 22-year-old kid seduce a 48-year-old man? She had an incredible figure. She had large breasts. She caught his eye. She showed him her new bra. You say, ‘How can the president of United States not understand he’s being seduced?’ When you have the hormones of Bill Clinton, you can forget anything.”

Despite Clinton’s lapses, Mikva said, “he was the second-smartest president I ever knew.”

Which led to the smartest, Barack Obama.

“Barack was an incredible campaigner,” Mikva said. “One of these achievers, an incredible competitive spirit. I tried to hire him as a law clerk when he was at law school. I had a Harvard clerk at the time, a year ahead of Barack, and she said he was really great: president of Law Review. So I said tell him I’d like to have an interview with him.

“I got back the message: No, he wasn’t going to interview. So I said to her, ‘He’s one of those uppity blacks that wants to clerk for a black judge or something?’ She said, ‘No, he wants to go back to Chicago and run for public office.’ I did not know he had any background in Chicago at all. I thought, ‘Boy, has he got a lot to learn.’ You don’t just come to Chicago and plant your flag, and say, ‘Here I am!’”

Mikva was born in Milwaukee on Jan. 21, 1926, four days after another future high-powered lawyer was born in the same hospital: Newton Minow.

“He and I grew up together,” Mikva said. “His parents owned a laundry, quite successful. His mother owned real estate. She owned the house we lived in. I was very embarrassed because we were on relief — welfare. In Milwaukee, welfare recipients got no cash. Everything was in-kind. They paid the rent. Picked up your food in a grocery wagon. Books were stamped ‘Property of Milwaukee County Outdoor Relief Society.’ A very embarrassing time in my life, a very humbling time. It bothered me that Newt knew. He never said anything about it.”

“I never knew Abner was on welfare,” said Minow, who turned 90 on Sunday. “Our lives have followed an extraordinarily similar pattern. We each went to law school; he went to University of Chicago, I went to Northwestern. Each law school recommended us for a clerkship at the Supreme Court, for Justice Sherman Minton. I went for an interview, Justice Minton said, ‘Just yesterday, I did pick a guy, Milka, Mifka ….’ I said, ‘Mikva,‘ he said, ‘That’s it!’ I called Abner and told him he got the job. A few months later, there was a position vacant under Chief Justice Vinson. So I got that one, and called Abner and said, ‘I did better than you.’”

Each man has three daughters: Minow’s all became lawyers; Mikva’s, two lawyers and a rabbi.

Another similarity is each man is associated with a famous phrase. Mikva, for when he stopped into his Hyde Park ward headquarters in 1948 and tried to volunteer for Adlai Stevenson. “Who sent you?” the ward heeler asked, and Mikva admitted nobody had, drawing the classic Chicago reply: “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.”

And Minow, of course, as head of the Federal Communications Commission, is credited for deeming television “a vast wasteland.”

There is so much more about Mikva — I haven’t mentioned his being the navigator on a B-24 Liberator, or urging Obama to run for president — that even as lunch was wrapping up I was looking forward to talking with him again. We laughed for an hour. I mentioned that I first met Minow at a party for Ethel Kennedy.

“Ethel is a marvelous person,” Mikva said. “She and I got the Medal of Freedom last year. You’re supposed to get six tickets, and I wheedled my way into eight, because I wanted my kids and grandkids to be there. Ethel comes in, there must have been 20 Kennedys behind her. I said, ‘Ethel, how’d you get all those tickets?’ She said, ‘Chutzpah.’”

Chutzpah. Don’t turn 90 without it.

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