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Editorial: Abner Mikva’s shining example of public service

President Barack Obama is shown in 2014 as he presented Abner Mikva with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Mikva, a former congressman, Illinois legislator, federal appellate judge and presidential adviser, died Monday. | Associated Press file photo

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Abner Mikva was excited about public service all his days, and he wanted you to be excited, too.

He wanted all of us to get involved, to jump into the fray, never waiting on an invitation. To Ab Mikva’s thinking, nobody was a nobody that nobody sent. Everybody was a somebody. We could send ourselves.


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Judge Mikva, who died on Monday at age 90, lived his life in just that way. He pushed his way into politics as a young man, back when Chicago was dominated by a powerful Democratic machine, and he was undeterred by cynics who said it was a corrupt and dirty business. He knew better. Public service is honorable if you are honorable, and he would be honorable.

As a state legislator, congressman and federal appellate judge, he was exceedingly honorable — and effective. In his later years he became an adviser to the president, Barack Obama, whose career he had helped launched years before.

We would be happy at any time to celebrate the life of Judge Mikva. He was one of Chicago and the nation’s best. But his example of public service is of particular importance at this moment, when the public is enamored of a candidate for president, Donald Trump, who actually brags that he has never been a politician or held public office or really in any way served the public good.

As if, in the modern world’s first democracy, a record completely devoid of public service should be a point of pride.

Judge Mikva knew better. He and his wife, Zoe, established the Mikva Challenge in Chicago precisely to counter this sort of thinking. The Mikva Challenge is devoted to inspiring and training young people of all colors and backgrounds to be our nation’s future public leaders.

“The people who have the greatest stake in our democracy are often the ones with no connections to back them up,” says the Mikva Challenge mission statement.

Abner Mikva lived a life of public service. May his story inspire others to do the same.

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