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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In politics, you must have run across a lot of people with clay feet.

Frankly, one of the things that occurred to me as I began to realize that these people weren't perfect was that you could make a great contribution and do exciting things even if you did, occasionally, stumble. Perhaps Darrow was a classic example of that, but it was true of my political heroes as I got older. When I was growing up -- I can never forget this -- there was such a difference in the way people perceived their political leaders. I never knew that Franklin Roosevelt had a disability until he made his speech after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. Until that time, I had never seen pictures of him in a wheelchair. I had never seen pictures of him looking anything other than this hale and hearty enthusiastic president with a cigarette holder with a cigarette in his mouth. The idea of his having a major disability just never occurred to me.

Obviously our perception of leaders is different today. Is that a liability?

Yes, I think that it really is important to a society that they have their heroes. They can't just be figures of the past who are remembered for some great battle or for some unique particular thing. You have to have live heroes, heroes that are, if not seen, are at least heard about in a more personal way than just reading about them in history. It is not enough to be exposed to George Washington in grade school or Abraham Lincoln in high school. You have to have somebody that you can identify with in the here and now that makes the institutions that we are trying to preserve worthwhile.

Your first political office was in the legislature in Illinois. Illinois was a state that produced an extraordinary array of heroes for your generation -- Adlai Stevenson and Paul Douglas, among others. Did they inspire you? Did you know them?

Yes, both of them. As I indicated, I grew up in Milwaukee and I didn't come to Chicago until I started law school in 1948. Wisconsin had and still has an open political structure. The parties are very open and encourage people to come in. There is no patronage. If you walk by a party headquarters slowly enough, you might end up becoming county chairman before the night is over. But I had been told by friends and others, "Well, if you go to Chicago, you can forget about any political interests you have, because Chicago is a closed-party, closed-machine operation." I accepted that as the gospel. But when I came to start law school in 1948 and I came to Chicago, Adlai Stevenson was running for governor and Paul Douglas was running for senator. It just defied all the stories I had heard, that these two really fine candidates would be running for the two top offices in the state. I didn't know that the party bosses had decided that 1948 would be a losing year! It didn't matter who they put up; anybody that would help the assessor get elected and the sheriff get elected. They didn't care about the governor and the senator. I was overwhelmed by the idea that these two fine candidates were running.

One of the stories that is told about my start in politics is that on the way home from law school one night in 1948, I stopped by the ward headquarters in the ward where I lived. There was a street-front, and the name Timothy O'Sullivan, Ward Committeeman, was painted on the front window. I walked in and I said "I'd like to volunteer to work for Stevenson and Douglas." This quintessential Chicago ward committeeman took the cigar out of his mouth and glared at me and said, "Who sent you?" I said, "Nobody sent me." He put the cigar back in his mouth and he said, "We don't want nobody that nobody sent." This was the beginning of my political career in Chicago.

I did get to know both Stevenson and Douglas. Mikva and Senator Paul Douglas, 1966 They were political mentors of mine. Paul Douglas lived in my ward and was a neighbor, and while our careers in Washington didn't overlap in Congress, we remained good friends all through the years of his life. Adlai Stevenson, I still think, was one of the great wordsmiths of modern politics. I still quote frequently from his speeches, and I think he set the agenda even though he lost both campaigns for the presidency by rather substantial margins. He set the agenda for the things that we did in the sixties and seventies in terms of easing some of the Cold War tensions and ultimately ending the Cold War.

Both were really men of principles, of values, and we don't see much of that these days.

That's right, and both of them came into politics through the abnormal way. Adlai Stevenson -- the first office he ever ran for was governor of Illinois. He ran because the party expected to lose and he looked like he would be a good symbol. Paul Douglas was a university professor at the University of Chicago. He taught economics. He was just outraged by the way machine politics seemed to be working in Chicago, and he ran for alderman against the machine candidate and won, and that was the start of his political career. Both of them started out with principles -- they had ideas, they had visions of what they thought they could do and what the country could do, and they stuck by them. When Paul Douglas was first elected to the Senate, he said when he first came to the U.S. Senate he dreamed he could help restructure the world. He thought he could recreate the United Nations to make it more effective and do all these other things. When he left the Senate his main ambition was to try to save the Indiana dunes, because that, he realized, he could at least get done, and he did.

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