WC attended law school at Northwestern University Law School. On three occasions, Abner Mikva, who was between his two periods of service in the U.S. House, came and spoke to the law school. Even though he was a graduate of arch-rival University of Chicago Law School and, worse still, a professor there.
WC went to the first lecture because his roommate dragged him along; frankly, WC wasn’t that interested in Chicago Daley Machine politics. But that first lecture turned out to be something more interesting: how can a lawyer be ethical while participating in deeply unethical party machine politics? Mikva had wonderful insights, at a time when U.S. Attorney James “Big Jim” Thompson was busily indicting dozens of long-term Chicago politicians. He was a terrific presenter, too.
The second presentation came just after half a dozen Cook County judges were indicted and plead to bribery. Mikva addressed how Illinois might get a more honest, ethical and effective judiciary. His presentation was topical, humorous (“What do you do when half of your county judiciary are charged with crimes?”) and insightful.
The third presentation was done with fellow “Kosher Nostra” Northwestern Professor and politician Dawn Clarke Netsch. The focus of that talk was the exploding Nixon Watergate scandal, and specifically the production of the Nixon tapes. About two-thirds of the way through the lecture, the news broke that Nixon had caved and would provide the tapes. Mikva’s riposte to the news – “I had no idea we’d be this effective.” – brought down the house.
On all three occasions, Judge Mikva made himself available afterwards for questions and conversation with his law student audience. After the Nixon tapes program, he took a handful of law students, includig WC, to Gino’s East, where we talked, drank beer and munched great deep dish pizza until the place closed at midnight.
Abner Mikva served four terms in the U.S. House – three more after WC was in law school – and later became a Judge and then Chief Judge of the D.C. Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, likely the most powerful judicial position in the U.S. after the U.S. Supreme Court. And then he served as Senior Counsel to President Bill Clinton.
He is one of the very few persons in recent U.S. history to serve in senior positions in all three branches of the U.S. government: eight years as a member of Congress, fifteen years as a federal appellate judge and two years an White House Counsel.
Judge Mikva was a passionate gun control advocate (the NRA spent more than $1 million lobbying against his nomination toe he bench), and was an early defender of gay rights. He hired future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan as a law clerk and mentored President Obama. With his wife, he co-founded the Mikva Challenge, which works to involve inner city youth in politics. He was awarded a richly deserved Presidential Medal of Freedom by his former mentee, President Obama, in November 2014. WC counts himself lucky to have had a chance to interact with this extraordinary man.
Infamously, Judge Mikva, as a law student, tried to volunteer for the Adlai Stevenson campaign in Chicago, at the Eighth Ward Regular Democratic Organization:
“Who sent you?” the committeeman asked.
“Nobody,” he replied.
“Well,” the committeeman said, “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.”
R.I.P. Abner Mikva, a scrupulously honest man and an inspiration to us all.