Abner Mikva’s foray into public service over 60 years ago has become part of Illinois folklore and the stuff of legends.
The year was 1948 and Mikva, then 22, was an earnest law student at the University of Chicago. He also was inspired by the reform politics of Illinois native sons Adlai E. Stevenson II, a former Democratic governor and twice a presidential candidate, and Paul Douglas, another Democrat who became one of the state’s most celebrated U.S. senators.
At that time, however, both men were running in tough political campaigns, which prompted Mikva to walk into his local ward office in Chicago and offer to volunteer on the Democratic Party’s behalf.
“Who sent you?” grumbled the ward committeeman.
“Nobody,” Mikva replied.
“We don’t want nobody nobody sent,” the committeeman scolded.
In that instant, one of Illinois’ most celebrated catchphrases was hatched.
So was Abner Mikva’s public service career. Undaunted, he forged over six decades a distinguished career in government, serving five terms in the Illinois House, a decade in Congress, 15 years as a federal judge and as White House counsel to President Bill Clinton.
Now he considers the “nobody nobody sent” story as a badge of honor.
“That’s my trademark. My hashtag,” Mikva chuckled recently.
But Mikva said he considers it even a greater honor to have received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President Barack Obama awarded Mikva the nation’s highest civilian honor in November. Fellow recipients included Ethel Kennedy, Tom Brokaw and Meryl Streep.
“[Abner Mikva] went on to devote his life to public service,” Obama said at the presentation. “[He] reformed the Illinois criminal code, defended free speech and consumer rights…and inspired the next generation, including me.”
Mikva was touched by the honor, which in the past was awarded to some of his judicial heroes, including Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and Federal Appellate Judge Patricia McGowan Wald.
“It was very much the most exciting day of my life,” he said. “It’s the nation’s highest civilian award, and I was honored to be in the company of others who have received it.”
It was the capstone on a career of an independent Chicago Democrat who won a seat in the Illinois House in 1956 without the blessing of the Daley Machine, and joined Paul Simon, then a fellow state representative, in fighting for reforms.
Mikva lobbied for open-housing laws and uprooted corruption in the state welfare system. He also championed reforms to the state criminal and mental health codes.
Mikva participated in key congressional reforms during the Watergate era. And as a federal appellate judge he issued several opinions defending free speech and consumer rights, and helped overturn the Pentagon’s ban on gays in the military.
Even in retirement, Mikva continued his record of service, most recently chairing a state panel that investigated how politically connected students gained admissions at the University of Illinois.
“I think Abner Mikva’s presence on that commission gave it the imprimatur of legitimacy, said Christopher Kennedy, outgoing chairman of the U of I’s Board of Trustees, which implemented the commission’s proposals. “His recommendations allowed the board to look forward and not backward.”
Mikva also is trying to influence the next generation of public servants through the Mikva Challenge, a non-profit organization he and his wife, Zoe, help run to inspire students to get involved in government.
Students in Chicago Public Schools serve as interns, volunteer for political campaigns and establish school councils to discuss issues of government and democracy.
“It’s restoring not the old-fashioned civics that I had in high school, but action civics,” Mikva said. “The more kids get involved in government, the more they learn how government really works, the more they’re going to really be influential in future government decisions.”
“Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was to inspire another generation of Illinoisans to participate in public affairs in our state and country,” said Kennedy. “He taught us that politics can be an honorable profession, that it can help and not hinder.”