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In new book, liberal icon Abner Mikva reflects on his life – and big regret

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, author Sanford Horwitt, Federal Appeals Court Judge Merrick Garland at book party for Horwitt's book, "Conversations with Abner Mikva." Photo by Lynn Sweet.

In a new book about Abner Mikva, we learn what the Illinois liberal icon considered his biggest regret in a career that included posts in all three branches of government.

Mikva, the gold standard for integrity in the often dirty world of Illinois politics, died on July 4, 2016 at the age of 90. Mikva’s story about being turned away by a pol when he tried to volunteer brought us the famed line that the Chicago machine “don’t want nobody nobody sent.”

In the 1970s, Mikva made a pragmatic decision that turned out to be crucial in winning another congressional term. Years later, he realized it was a major misstep in his otherwise long life of impressive public service.

Mikva reflects on how he handled the political pressure when a small group of neo-Nazis wanted to march in Skokie in a new book, “Conversations with Abner Mikva: Final Reflections on Chicago Politics, Democracy’s Future and a Life of Public Service” by Sanford Horwitt.

Horwitt, Mikva’s former congressional press secretary and speechwriter, based the book on a series of monthly conversations he had with Mikva in the three years before he died, some at Valois Cafeteria, at 1518 E. 53rd St. in Hyde Park; others at The Bagel Restaurant, 3107 N. Broadway.

Mikva’s was a rare career touching the three branches of government –– from the Illinois House of Representatives, to Congress, to chief judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, to White House counsel under former President Bill Clinton.

Mikva was an inspiration and a mentor to generations of Democrats in Illinois and Washington.

Some were at a recent book party in Washington for Horwitt’s book at the home of Judy Woodruff, the PBS NewsHour anchor, and her husband, Al Hunt, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. Among those present were two Mikva protégés, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, a onetime Mikva law clerk who followed him to the Clinton White House, and federal Appeals Court Judge Merrick Garland, raised in Lincolnwood and in his youth, a Mikva campaign volunteer. Former President Barack Obama tapped Garland for the Supreme Court; GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell refused to consider the nomination, arguing that the next president should make the appointment.

Mikva’s congressional stints were in two distinct districts –– one anchored in Democratic Hyde Park, the other in what in the 1970s was GOP-leaning turf in the northern suburbs, which included the Democratic stronghold of Skokie.

Skokie then had a substantial Jewish population, including a significant number of Holocaust survivors. Skokie also had the most Mikva voters in his district.

As Horwitt writes, by 1977, “the battle lines were drawn: either you were on the side of the Nazis who claimed a First Amendment right to demonstrate in their Nazi uniforms or you were on the side of the Holocaust survivors.”

In the book, Horwitt recalled that he was horrified when Mikva told him in the midst of the controversy that he was going to write an article on “Why the Nazis should not march in Skokie,” since Mikva was a prominent First Amendment defender.

Mikva decades later told Horwitt, “I’ve thought about this often. I feel worse about the way I carried out my job in that instance than anything else that happened in fifty years of public life.”

He went on to tell Horwitt that he knew the “right position” was to let the Nazis demonstrate in Skokie, as painful as it would be. “But the political pressure was so heavy, not just political pressure in the sense of votes, but feeling like I wasn’t representing my constituency.”

The Nazis never demonstrated in Skokie. In November 1978, Mikva won re-election as Horwitt notes, “again by less than one percent. He won Skokie with 71 percent of the vote.”