It was 1948 when Abner Mikva, fresh out of college, volunteered at the 8th Ward Democratic headquarters in Chicago. “Who sent you, kid?” the leery ward committeeman asked. “Nobody,” Mikva said, and the man informed him, “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.” That marked the beginning of Abner Mikva’s storied political career, which would take him to the Illinois Statehouse, the US House of Representatives, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, and the Clinton White House—culminating in a Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded by a young politician he had mentored, Barack Obama.
Around that time, eighty-seven years old and in declining health but as wise and wry as ever, Mikva sat down with his former speechwriter and longtime friend Sanford Horwitt for the first of the conversations recorded in this book. Separated by a generation, but with two lifetimes’ worth of experience between them, the friends met monthly to talk about life, politics, and the history that Mikva saw firsthand—and often had a hand in making.
1. How long did you know Abner Mikva? How did you meet?
We met in 1974 as the Watergate scandal was unfolding. We were both in a place where we didn’t want to be: Mikva was only temporarily—he hoped–practicing law while starting his campaign to get back to Congress after having lost a close race in a new suburban Chicago district. I was an assistant professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago but wanted to be doing something political. I volunteered in Mikva’s campaign, stuffing envelopes on Thursday afternoons but soon becoming a full-time volunteer and then Ab Mikva’s press secretary and speech writer when he returned to Congress. He was my inspiring friend for 42-years until his death on the Fourth of July, 2016.
2. When did you first have the idea to work on Conversations with Abner Mikva?
I heard that Mikva’s health was declining, and I wanted to talk with him– before it was too late–about his fascinating, inspiring political and legal journey and his unvarnished end-of-life insights about our country, then and now. As a writer, I saw parallels between the story I wanted to write about our monthly conversations and the book “Tuesdays with Morrie.”
3. Can you describe your process of writing? How long did you spend working on the book?
The book is based on monthly conversations Ab Mikva and I had over three years, the last conversation shortly before his death. The conversations, all tape recorded, were mostly at Chicago eateries, including the legendary Valois Cafeteria in Hyde Park where Mikva mentored a young state senator, Barack Obama. I started writing while we were still talking and completed the first draft three months before Ab died. I read it to my friend who by then couldn’t see a butter dish across the table. The version that Ab heard was about 90 percent of the final manuscript. After his death, I spent six months fine-tuning the manuscript, adding material from our final conversations and updating some sections after Donald Trump’s unexpected election.
4. What was the most challenging aspect of writing about your old friend?
To a significant extent, the book is an Abner Mikva memoir which captures the remarkable public life of a gifted liberal icon and brilliant man of unquestioned integrity. But I also have a presence in the story because the narrative is based on our conversations. Often Ab’s reflections, including his regrets, provoked me to examine and re-consider my ideas and shortcomings. I learned a lot. But I wanted to keep the focus on Ab Mikva so that our conversations and the narrative would be much more about him, not me.
5. In Conversations, you write “Abner Mikva saw death coming but not Donald Trump.” How do you think he would respond to the election and current status of the Trump administration?
Days before he died, Ab and I had our last, brief conversation. He told me he couldn’t wait for the Republican convention to start. It was three weeks away. “I’m afraid Trump may self-destruct before the convention,” he laughed weakly. I told him that the Republicans were probably stuck with Trump. “I think they are, too” he replied. “And it couldn’t be better.” He envisioned a resounding Hillary Clinton victory. Ab Mikva had become a big fan of Hillary’s despite their sometimes-rocky relationship when he was Bill Clinton’s White House Counsel and despite his support of Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. Ab thought Hillary had learned from her mistakes, was a true liberal at heart and had a chance to be a transformative president. Perhaps she would have re-nominated Ab’s friend and protégé, Merrick Garland, to the Supreme Court. So, Ab would, first, have been hugely disappointed by Hillary’s loss and the lost opportunities for a progressive agenda and, second, appalled by virtually every aspect of Trump’s leadership and administration—Trump’s incessant lying and disregard for the traditional independent role of the Justice Department and judiciary; the flood of right-wing judicial nominees. especially Trump’s picks for the Supreme Court; the president’s attacks on immigrants and a free press; tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, and so on. Ab had already lamented the decline of the Republican Party so he would not be surprised that Republican leaders, with few exceptions, have become Trump enablers. But even with Ab’s multitude of health problems, I am certain he would be doing everything he could to restore our faith in American democracy if he were still with us–and hopeful that the disastrous Trump years will be followed by a democratic reform agenda that he and I discussed.
6. You illustrate how Mikva was a true believer in the lofty possibilities of American democracy. What would you consider the two or three most important lessons learned by reading the book?
In our representative democracy, we as citizens must often trust elected officials to make good decisions for the general welfare. Mikva learned an early lesson that I hadn’t quite considered before he told me about it. On a train ride from Chicago to Springfield in 1957 when he was about to begin his first term in the state legislature, another rookie legislator asked a group of Springfield veterans what it took to be a really good legislator. “Guts,” they answered in unison. And Ab said to me some 60 years later, “I’ve never forgotten it. I still think the first criterion for public officials is guts.” But Ab also learned early in his legislative career, when he became an outspoken leader for gun control in the 1950s, that courageous leadership alone was not enough. Political change comes most often from the bottom up, driven by voluntary, powerful citizen organizations.
7. Mikva might be most well-known for identifying and nurturing the talent of Barrack Obama. What do you think he would consider his greatest professional achievement?
Mikva was proud of the role he played in helping to mentor young Obama and seeing him elected first to the U.S. Senate and then as president. And he took pride in his own legislative achievements and one of his judicial decisions. But he was most proud of two other parts of his legacy: the inspiring model he provided for unquestioned honesty and integrity throughout his public service career, and his leadership, with his wife Zoe’s, in establishing and nurturing the nonpartisan Mikva Challenge. The Mikva Challenge over the last 20 years has become one of the country’s leading youth civic education organizations, providing high school students, especially low-income students of color, with opportunities to make their voices heard on issues that are important to them and their communities—and, in the process, they learn lifelong skills of how to be effective citizens in a democratic society.
8. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?
A young person who does not vote and is already cynical about government, politics and politicians.
In our troubling times, widespread cynicism is understandable but not tolerable if we are going to restore our endangered democracy. After Abner Mikva’s lifetime of civic engagement, from volunteering in political campaigns as a young man to serving at the highest levels of government, he remained idealistic and hopeful. “[H]is moving story of personal honor and pragmatic politics [comes] during a fraught period of our nation’s history,” writes professor David Farber. That is why it’s timely and important—and why the book is dedicated to Democracy’s Next Generation.