The Time I Should've Listened to Abner Mikva
Over the four decades I've been covering national politics, any all-star starting five of politicians would include Abner J. Mikva, who passed away on Monday at age 90.
Mikva was a Supreme Court clerk, Illinois legislator, member of Congress, federal appeals court judge, counselor to President Bill Clinton and mentor to a promising young Chicago community organizer named Barack Obama.
There are lots of tributes, starting with the president's, about his extraordinary achievements. If judgment and integrity were the coin of the realm, Ab Mikva was Bill Gates.
I want to relate several personal stories about this man of exceptional character.
He married my wife and me when he was on the court. Most Episcopal churches wouldn't have let a Jewish judge officiate. But the priest at Washington's St. Alban's Episcopal Church, Ted Eastman, who later became the bishop of Maryland, warmed to the notion and he and Ab devised the ceremony. Father Eastman was in white, Judge Mikva in black robes. Ab read from the Old Testament, Ted from the New Testament. It was fabulous.
The judge had one admonition: "When I marry people, they stay married." For more than 35 years we've followed his orders.
The next crisis was when my brother fell in love. His name was St. George Hunt -- it really was -- and hers was Suzi Robinovitz. Her Orthodox Jewish father spoke of disowning her. I sent them to Judge Mikva, who has a daughter who's a rabbi.
He spent hours advising them: Don't cut off relations no matter how bitter they seem. They'll probably come back when you have a child, so leave the door open. That's how it happened and many years of happiness ensued.
Some years later we spoke at an event on the Navy Pier in Chicago. At our table were Ab and Zoe Mikva and Mayor Richard M. Daley and his wife, Maggie.
A little bit of background explains why it could have been a bit touchy. As a young reformer, Mikva tried to get involved in Chicago politics. In one of the more famous Chicago stories, he went to a committeeman who asked him who sent him. When Mikva replied that nobody did, the pol said, "We don't want nobody nobody sent." The line became the title of a classic book about the reign of Daley's father, the legendary Mayor Richard J. Daley.
In the Illinois legislature and Congress, Mikva was a reform liberal who clashed with Daley and the Chicago Democratic machine. In the early 1970s, Daley arranged to change the borders of Mikva's Chicago district, forcing the congressman to seek office in the northern suburbs.
But times had changed and the son, Mikva felt, was different, stitching together a coalition that included minorities, gays and people with disabilities. "He's the best mayor in America," Mikva declared as the two exuberantly shared political stories.
Once I failed to heed Mikva's advice. In 2002, I traveled to Chicago to write a column on Rahm's Emanuel's first congressional race and had dinner with the judge. The best story in Illinois politics, he told me, wasn't Emanuel but a young African-American state legislator who could be president one day.
At the Democrats' Boston convention two years later, as Barack Obama gave that memorable keynote speech, I lamented, "Why the hell didn't I listen to Ab?"
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