Abner Mikva brought his sharp legal advice and principled worldview to all three branches of government — he was a congressman, federal judge and presidential adviser. He stood up to Richard J. Daley, for years, and managed to survive hizzoner’s efforts to destroy him.
And if that weren’t enough, if giving legal advice to Bill Clinton and encouraging Barack Obama to try for the White House weren’t enough, Mr. Mikva, who died of cancer at age 90 on Monday, was also the young man who tried to volunteer to help the Democrats in 1948 and was told by a ward heeler: “We don’t want nobody nobody sent,” coining the immortal distillation of political cronyism.
“That’s Chicago for you,” said Obama, remembering the phrase when he awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mr. Mikva in 2014. The president called Mr. Mikva “one of the greatest jurists of his time,” someone who “helped shape the national debate on some of the most challenging issues of the day.”
Obama on Tuesday issued a statement saying Mr. Mikva “believed in empowering the next generation of young people to shape our country. Ab’s life was a testament to that truth. … Like so many admirers, I’ve lost a mentor and a friend.”
After Mr. Mikva left government, he and his wife Zoe formed the Mikva Challenge, in 1997, an organization that helps young people start out on careers in government and civic life, reminding them that public service is still a noble profession.
“Abner Mikva was always my North Star for integrity, independence and progressive values,” Sen. Dick Durbin said in a statement Tuesday. “In an era of cynicism and disappointment, Abner’s record of public service was proof that the good guys can win without selling their souls.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel worked with Mr. Mikva in the Clinton White House. But on Tuesday, he remembered working a precinct for him years earlier.
“When my mother was a precinct captain, my first election as a volunteer was for Ab Mikva. Ari and I used to go door-to-door for him when my mother was handling precincts,” Emanuel said.
“Then, you fast-forward to the Clinton White House when I was senior adviser. Ab was White House counsel. It’s a testament to Ab Mikva’s talent, skill and intellect that he’s one of the rare individuals who worked in every branch of government. … It’s a testament to what everybody uniformly saw as a person of talent, a person of character and a person who is always in pursuit of justice. It was an honor to call him a friend.”
Abner Joseph Mikva was born in Milwaukee, the child of Ukrainian immigrants, four days after a lifelong friend and future high powered lawyer, Newton Minow, was born in the same hospital.
“He was a dear friend,” said Minow, who spoke with Mr. Mikva a few days ago. “He called to, basically, say good-bye. It’s still a shock … he was a strong liberal voice.”
Mr. Mikva’s parents were on welfare, and 80 years later he remembered the shame of receiving books stamped ‘Property of Milwaukee County Outdoor Relief Society.’
He served in World War II, as navigator on a B-24 Liberator in the Army Air Corps, then came to Chicago to go to the University of Chicago Law School. He edited the Law Review. One day in 1948, energized by the candidacy of Paul Douglas, Mr. Mikva presented himself at the 8th Ward Regular Democratic Organization headquarters.
“I came in and said I wanted to help,” Mr. Mikva told historian Milton Rakove. “Dead silence. ‘Who sent you?’ the committeeman said. I said, ‘Nobody.’ He said, ‘We don’t want nobody nobody sent,’ a phrase Rakove took for the title of his oral history of Chicago politics.
That was the same year Mr. Mikva married Zorita “Zoe” Wise.
Mr. Mikva graduated in 1951 and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sherman Minton, then returned to Chicago to practice labor law in the law firm of Arthur Goldberg, himself a future labor secretary and Supreme Court justice.
In 1956, he won a seat in the Illinois House, despite the opposition of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, who disliked reformers. Mr. Mikva roomed with future senator Paul Simon and future Illinois Appellate Court Justice Anthony Scariano.
“We were known as the Kosher Nostra,” Scariano told the University of Chicago magazine in 1996.
He also chaired a commission that investigated a 2003 fire at a Loop high-rise, in which six people died. Among other things, that commission recommended that all high-rise commercial buildings be equipped with sprinklers.
Mr. Mikva was elected to Congress in 1968 and served four terms, but not consecutively. After his district was redrawn — the rumor was, at Daley’s urging — Mr. Mikva ran on the North Shore, and lost, in 1972, then won in 1974 representing a district in Evanston.
In the House, his assignments included serving on the Judiciary Committee, where he established a strong record in favor of civil rights and against the Vietnam War, and for sane gun policy, which drew the continuing wrath of the National Rifle Association.
In 1979, Jimmy Carter appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, despite the NRA spending six months and $1 million lobbying against his confirmation.
He became chief judge in 1991. He wrote some 300 opinions, among the most significant one in 1993 involving a midshipman who had been thrown out of Annapolis because he was gay.
“The Constitution does not allow Government to subordinate a class of persons simply because others do not like them,” Mr. Mikva wrote.
He was long considered a strong candidate for the Supreme Court, but was thwarted by a string of Republican presidents. By the time Clinton was in office, Mr. Mikva was, by his own assessment, “too old, too white, too male, and too liberal” to be nominated. He did, however, rise to the highest court in the land in the movies, playing the Chief Justice who administers the presidential oath of office in the 1993 political comedy “Dave.”
He also tried to hire a Harvard law student named Barack Obama as a clerk, but was rebuffed, because the young man actually thought he could go to Chicago and run for public office, an idea Mr. Mikva, like so many, scoffed at, thinking, “Boy, has he got a lot to learn,” as Mr. Mikva told the Sun-Times earlier this year. “You don’t just come to Chicago and plant your flag, and say, ‘Here I am!'”
Mr. Mikva retired from the bench to be Clinton’s legal counsel in 1994, serving for a year, defending the administration’s actions at Waco and Ruby Ridge, but resigned after a year, returning to Chicago for a post at the University of Chicago Law School.
Clinton issued a statement, saying Mr. Mikva’s “fine mind, legal and political skills, and passion for social justice helped make our nation a better place over the course of his long career in public service.
“From his early days in Chicago politics to his years on Capitol Hill and the federal bench, he never wavered in his commitment to civil rights and civil liberties,” the former president said. “I will always be grateful he chose to put his considerable gifts to use as White House Counsel during my presidency.”
There will be a private family funeral and burial, according to the Mikva Challenge, with a public memorial in early August. Details will be posted on the organization’s website. The family invites friends to make a donation to the Ab and Zoe Legacy Fund at Mikva Challenge in lieu of flowers.
Survivors include his wife Zoe, and, in Minow’s words, “his greatest pride,” three daughters, Mary, Rachel and Laurie, and seven grandchildren.
Contributing: Lynn Sweet, Fran Spielman, Stefano Esposito