Abner Mikva Receives Presidential Medal of Freedom

“I stopped by the eighth ward Democratic headquarters on the way home from law school one night and said, ‘I’m here to volunteer for Stevenson and Douglas.’ The quintessential Chicago ward committeeman took the cigar out of his mouth, looked at me, and said, ‘Who sent you?’ I said, ‘Nobody sent me.’ He said, ‘We don’t want nobody nobody sent.’ That was the beginning of my career in Chicago. But I did get involved in the campaigns anyway, and obviously I remained interested in politics.” 

– Abner Mikva

By Karys Blakemore

On November 24, 2014, ΦBK member Abner Mikva, known as, “the Zelig of the American legal scene,” received a Presidential Medal of Freedom. One of 19 recipients, Mikva was awarded this prestigious medal, considered the highest civilian honor in the nation, because he is a “dedicated public servant who has served with distinction in all three branches of government.”

Mikva, now 88, grew up in Milwaukee, a place that he considered to have a very open and accessible political scene. According to Mikva, “If you walk by the [Milwaukee] party headquarters slowly enough some night, you can be county chairman before the night is over.” When he first moved to Chicago in 1948 to begin attending law school, however, he noted that Chicago’s political sphere was much more difficult to infiltrate. It was there that Mikva was so famously told, “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.” Despite these early experiences in Illinois, Mikva never gave up his interest in politics and government.  

After graduating from law school at the University of Chicago, Mikva worked for a brief time as a law clerk in Washington. This job quickly gave way, however, to the first break in Mikva’s political career; he seized the opportunity to run for the Illinois House of Representatives, eventually winning a seat in the district in which he had lived while attending school. Mikva remained in the Illinois state legislature for roughly ten years before running for the U.S. House of Representatives and winning two terms (1969 to1973 and 1975 to 1979). 

Mikva’s inspiring career spans across not only the legislative, but also the judicial and executive branches of federal government. In 1979, for example, Mikva became a judge on the U.S. court of appeals for the District of Columbia under strict appointment by Jimmy Carter. Then, in 1994, Mikva retired from his position as judge and accepted a place as White House counselor under the Clinton administration. In this position, Mikva was responsible for the policing of the administration’s ethics, his prior knowledge of and experiences in government making him well-suited for the job. In fact, Clinton declared Mikva to be a “man of uncompromising integrity and judgment.”  

Mikva is considered an unapologetic liberal and known for the strong and unwavering political stances to which he has stayed true through the entirety of his career; he is a staunch supporter of gun control, abortion, and the rights of homosexuals in the military.

Mikva has also utilized his talent and political knowledge to educate; he has taught law at Northwestern University, the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois. Interestingly, Mikva joined the faculty at Chicago Law in 1995, thus becoming a colleague of none other than Barack Obama, who taught there from 1992 to 2004. This introduction soon led to a strong friendship between the two which lasts to this day. 

Though Mikva is now retired from teaching, he still remains active in the academic world; he is currently head of a commission that investigates the admission of students to the University of Illinois due to political connections. This latest accomplishment is yet another example of Mikva’s dedication to bettering American society and fairly representing its people. 

Karys Blakemore is currently a senior at George Mason University majoring in Russian and Eurasian Studies and Spanish as a foreign language. She became a member of Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year. George Mason is home to the Omicron of Virginia Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.