On a lovely late-summer night in 2008, Abner Mikva and I stood with Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky in front of an elaborate stage that had been erected at Denver’s Mile High Stadium. In a few minutes, they would join a boisterous crowd of Illinois Democrats who had come to cheer for the young lawyer and legislator Mikva had mentored across many long and sometimes difficult years of personal and political progress.
Mikva was overjoyed. He would have been willing to sit in any seat in the stadium in order to celebrate the nomination of Barack Obama for the presidency. But, as anyone who knows anything about the remarkable relationship between these two men will tell you, Obama wanted Mikva close to him in moments of struggle and triumph.
Mikva, the great reformer and civil libertarian who died Monday at age 90, was among the first prominent figures in Chicago to recognize the potential of the young Harvard Law School graduate who settled in the city and began to forge a political career in the 1990s. When Obama presented Mikva with the Medal of Freedom in 2014, the president said, “He inspired the next generation, including me.”
The inspiration was mutual.
Before Barack Obama was born, Abner Mikva was fighting to forge a politics in which an Obama presidency might be possible. A native of Milwaukee, born when the city was governed by Socialist Mayor Dan Hoan, Mikva was the son of Jewish immigrants who spoke Yiddish at home. The family lived on relief during the Depression, and Mikva—who trained for the Army Air Corps during World War II—went to college on the GI Bill. He ended up at the University of Chicago Law School and was drawn to politics. But the Democratic machine was not interested.
“As a University of Chicago student, Abner Mikva stopped by the local Democratic headquarters and asked to volunteer. I love this story,” recalled Obama. “A committeeman asked, ‘Who sent you?’ And Ab said, ‘Nobody.’ And the committeeman said, ‘We don’t want nobody nobody sent.’ That’s Chicago for you,” President Obama recalled several years ago. “Despite that abrupt dismissal, Ab went on to devote his life to public service—reformed Illinois’s criminal code, defended free speech and consumer rights; in 1993, struck down the Pentagon’s ban on gays in the military. He was overturned on that one—but history proved him right.”