Abner Mikva Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Politics, Values and the Separation of Powers: Conversation with Abner Jay Mikva, former congressional representative from Illinois, former appellate judge, former counsel to the president; 4/12/99 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Background

Judge Mikva, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you, Mr. Kreisler, I am glad to be here.

Let's talk a little about your background and how you got started. What were the most important influences your parents had on you?

My parents were immigrants; they had immigrated from the Ukraine shortly before, during World War I. They came over from the little towns on the Polish - Ukrainian border; they were called shtetels, predominantly Jewish villages. My father was very much influenced by the revolutionary forces that were then going on in Russia. Ukraine was part of Russia at the time. The revolution hadn't yet occurred, but it was on the verge. So he came over to this country with strong anarchist and atheistic tendencies. So the household was not religious. My grandparents were very religious, [especially] my grandfather. But my father thought that religion was the "opiate of the masses." So I never had any formal religious training of any kind. My grandfather would sneak me into the synagogue sometimes when my father wasn't looking. I never learned Hebrew. I learned Yiddish, because that was the language of the household, but I never learned Hebrew. One of the ironies of life is that I have a daughter who is a rabbi. I'm sure her grandfather, my father, would not be totally pleased with the idea that his granddaughter turned out to be a rabbi.

Did your parents, or your mother in particular, encourage you to seek an education?

Yes, education was the absolute driving force in their attitude toward me. I was the only son. My sister was allowed to finish high school and was expected to go out to work. As far I was concerned, I was the prodigal son and they expected me to go to college. In fact, when I called my mother to tell them that I had become engaged to my wife, the first question my mother, who hadn't even met my wife yet, asked was, "Does that mean you're not going to go to law school?" I said, "No, Mom, I'm going to law school."

Were you educated in the Chicago public schools?

No, in the Milwaukee public schools; I grew up in Milwaukee, the product of a socialist mayor during most of time I was growing up. The mayor during all the years I was growing up was a man named Dan Hoan, who -- I just saw in a ranking -- was just considered one of the ten best mayors in American history.

So what drew you to politics? Was it the example of this mayor or your father's anarchism?

Well, both. My father was very much involved in complaining about the Establishment. For instance, I was a great admirer of Roosevelt since I can remember. My father thought that Roosevelt had sold out to too many of the established interests. As a result, there was a lot of conversation about Roosevelt and the New Deal, about labor unions. My father was a strong believer in unions because he perceived them to be a force for change. So, I was interested in labor unions, and that is how I ended up being a labor lawyer when I finished law school.

What books did you read as a young person that stuck with you?

I remember reading a lot of Dickens. I don't know how I hit on it as early as I did. I remember being very excited about Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. I seem to remember reading them even before high school. I was an avid reader and maybe I did. I read a lot of biographies. I was fascinated with reading about great people and how they got great. I had this image that everybody could be a Horatio Alger. All you had to do was want it bad enough and you could have these spectacular careers. One of the things that influenced me to go to law school was to read the somewhat fictionalized biography of Clarence Darrow written by Irving Stone. That just seemed such an exciting way to spend your life.

A lawyer of the people?

A lawyer of the people who could take on these heroic causes and win them. I found out, sadly, later on, reading some other Darrow biographies, including his autobiography, that it wasn't quite as simple as Stone made it, and that it wasn't all this great uplifting noble career that Stone had made it out to be. Indeed, a recent biography gave an even more grim picture of Darrow's clay feet.

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