Abner Mikva’s most famous story goes something like this: in the midst of his years as a law student at the University of Chicago, Mikva went to a local Democratic ward office to volunteer his services for the likes of Adlai Stevenson and Paul Douglas. The ward committeeman asked Mikva who he was sent by. And when Mikva replied that he’d simply come on his own volition, the man sneered, “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.”
Mikva spent the next 60 years fighting against that political culture of cronyism—first as a lawyer, then as a politician, judge, and counsel to President Bill Clinton. Over the course of his career, Mikva never strayed too far from Chicago, Illinois, his political home. He died there on Monday, July 4 at the age of 90.
Born in Milwaukee to Jewish immigrant parents from Ukraine, Mikva and his parents spoke Yiddish in the home. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps during WWII, but the war ended the day he was set to be deployed. He attended the University of Wisconsin on the GI Bill before moving on to Chicago.
Over the next few decades, Mikva was a formidable force in Chicago and Illinois politics, often acting as a foil to Mayor Richard J. Daley. According to a profile in The University of Chicago Magazine:
He made enough of a splash to be named “Best Freshman Legislator” by the reporters in Springfield. Later in his Springfield career, he authored comprehensive reforms of the state mental-health and criminal codes.
“We were known as the Kosher Nostra,” says Illinois Appellate Court Justice Anthony Scariano, who shared an apartment with Mikva and longtime U.S. Senator Paul Simon when all three were young state legislators. “Most of our guys were Jewish, and I guess I was the only one who could lay claim to the Nostra part.”
He spent ten years in the Illinois House of Representatives before he moved up to Congress, where he served from 1969-1973 and 1975-1979. In ’79, Jimmy Carter nominated him for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, a position he would hold until 1994. During his time on the bench, Mikva struck down the original Pentagon ban on gays serving in the U.S. Army (a decision that would be overturned). He also served with jurists such as Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He also found time to appear in a cameo in the movie Dave (1993), a fantastic political comedy. At the conclusion of his judicial tenure, he briefly served as legal counsel to Bill Clinton, but after an exhausting two years, he resigned, and moved on to teaching at the University of Chicago Law School.
In 2000, Mikva met Barack Obama during his failed congressional bid. He would serve as a mentor to Obama; Mikva told The Jerusalem Post that Obama had “a yiddeshe nishama,” while Obama, who once presented Mikva with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, said the following in a statement: “He saw something in me that I didn’t yet see in myself, but I know why he did it—Ab represented the best of public service himself and he believed in empowering the next generation of young people to shape our country.”