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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Advice to Students

When you entered politics, it was a world occupied by, from your political perspective, people like Adlai Stevenson, Paul Douglas. The Civil Rights Movement was very important in the legislation that you were a part of. What would you advise students today? What is your message to them about going into politics?

The first thing is to do it. I look back on the things I've done and I wouldn't trade any of them for all the tea in China. I can't think of any way you can spend your time and efforts and use your talents that is more satisfying in the long run than being active in government, being active in politics.

The example I used to give is, if I have a point of view about something, if I care about something, if I care about the environment, if I care about gay rights, if I care about how much it costs to go to the University of California these days, I can complain to my wife, who may or may not be listening, Maybe I can complain to my children if they are small enough and haven't made up their minds, and that's it. The result of all that complaining is that I can hear myself talk but not have much impact. But if you get elected to a legislative position, you can get up and say, "I speak for 500,000 people." Now they may or may not all agree with you, but you've got a forum where people are going to hear you. You've got the House of Representatives or the Congress where you can speak, and other members of Congress who also represent those large numbers of people, who will be listening. It will appear in the Congressional Record. If you learn how to say it in a newsworthy way, it may be picked up by the press or by television. You've just leveraged your point of view to make it heard by and hopefully influence a lot more people than you are ever going to be able to do just complaining to your family or just writing a letter to the editor.

That is true of appointed office as well. Your ability to make a difference, your ability to make things happen, is monumentally increased the more you are involved in government and politics. So unless you are completely happy with the way things are, if you've got something that you don't like, there is no better way of changing it then to get involved in politics.

One of the things that is missing today is civility. The ad hominem attacks that result. Abner and Zoe Mikva with Bill and Hilary Clinton, 1995 How should students relate to that phenomenon? Because it's a very compelling reason not to do what you mentioned.

I would say that in this immediate here and now, I would find politics a lot less appealing than I did then, because of this lack of civility. But we are a cyclical country; we didn't have much civility during the Civil War. Some of the names that President Lincoln was called by the Northern press, let alone by the Southern press, are incredible. We've used invective before in politics. Then we somehow find ourselves out of this craziness, and start treating each other as fellow citizens again. I think that cycle is beginning to turn. I think that some of the really shrill extreme voices in our political arena are beginning to be shut down. Some of them are losing, some of them are running out of voice, some of them are running out of money. Whatever it is, I think that we are going to be in for a more civil period in the future than we have seen these last few years. In any event, students and others can change it. I'm not a big pacifist and I'm not a turn-the-other-cheek person, but I've found that I can get most of the places I want to go by treating other people in a civilized manner, and that I can't out-shout most of the shouters and I certainly can't outfight most of the fighters. So civility is an end in itself. I found that having a reputation of being civil and being a nice guy is not a bad way to get to where I want to go. You don't have to give up your ambitions to do what you want to do, or to be what you want to be, simply by deciding you won't out-shout the next person to get there.

So how should students prepare, if they buy into your argument? What should they study? What experience would you advise as a prelude to politics?

I think they should study the institutions. Whatever particularly behooves them. I thought my choices made sense, and I still do. Law school is great way to prepare you for both the adversarial process and the civil process of negotiating and compromising that is called for in politics. But there are other institutions and institutional studies that are equally important. Political Science certainly. Reading about and learning about the historical events of these various government institutions and means of governance that we've used in the past, both federal, state, and local. Some of the most useful and interesting people I served with in the Congress and in the state legislature were people whose training had been in religious schools. Jesse Jackson is a very active, involved, effective political figure, and he's a product of the University of Chicago Divinity School.

If part of what they study is our conversation, and they had an opportunity to look at your distinguished career, what lessons might they draw from it?

I don't know what lessons. The one thing, a choice that you have to make relatively early in life is, "Do you perceive the earning of a lot of money, the accumulating of a lot of resources, as an end in itself?" If you do, then politics is not the way to go. Now, there are some people who have accumulated a lot of resources and have used those resources to influence public opinion. I'm thinking of people like George Soros and Ted Turner and Ross Perot. That is a way to get influence. I think it's the hardest way, and I find its interesting that Ross Perot has never been able to get himself elected dogcatcher, let alone to an office where he has a real forum. The only forum he has is the one he can buy. So I think that if that's the reason they made all that money, then they would have been better off trying to find their way directly into a politically career.

Early on, I think, people have to decide: "Do I want to be the richest person in my class, the richest person in my community?" Then eschew politics. Don't go into government. That's not where you are going to make money. I would hope that the public official's pay is commensurate with the minimum needs of the family, the need to educate children and so on. But even that's not guaranteed. Certainly, you will never get out of there with any money. But if you want to look back and say, "I had fun doing what I was doing. I wasn't grinding away all the time making rich people richer, or figuring out how many widgets I could make in an hour," then politics is a great way to go. I had a lot of fun in all these years.

Judge Mikva, thank you very much for joining us today and sharing these experiences and these reflections with us.

Well, thank you, I enjoyed being here.

Thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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