Conversations with Abner Mikva

Final Reflections on Chicago Politics, Democracy's Future, and a Life of Public Service

Sanford Horwitt

Foreword by Senator Dick Durbin

It was 1948 when Abner Mikva, fresh out of college, volunteered at the 8th Ward Democratic headquarters in Chicago. “Who sent you, kid?” the leery ward committeeman asked. “Nobody,” Mikva said, and the man informed him, “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.” That marked the beginning of Abner Mikva’s storied political career, which would take him to the Illinois Statehouse, the US House of Representatives, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, and the Clinton White House—culminating in a Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded by a young politician he had mentored, Barack Obama.

Around that time, eighty-seven years old and in declining health but as wise and wry as ever, Mikva sat down with his former speechwriter and longtime friend Sanford Horwitt for the first of the conversations recorded in this book. Separated by a generation, but with two lifetimes’ worth of experience between them, the friends met monthly to talk about life, politics, and the history that Mikva saw firsthand—and often had a hand in making.

“In my progressive Chicago household, as in many others, Abner Mikva was a political hero, a mensch. This beautifully written account of JudgeMikva’s far-reaching conversations with his longtime staffer and friend, Sanford Horwitt, is a deeply insightful and moving story of personal honor and pragmatic politics during a fraught period in our nation’s history.”

—David Farber, Roy A. Roberts Distinguished Professor, University of Kansas, and author of The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism

“Congressman, federal judge, White House counsel to Bill Clinton, mentor to Barack Obama—Abner Mikva served in all three branches of government and contributed to Chicago political lore by popularizing the phrase, ‘We dont want nobody nobody sent.’ Sanford Horwitt’s book offers an engaging, personal look at a figure whose career is essential for understanding liberal politics in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.”

—Edward McClelland, author of Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President

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Conversations with Abner Mikva lets us listen in as the veteran political reformer and unreconstructed liberal reflects on the world as it was, how it’s changed, what it means, and what really matters. Speaking in no uncertain terms, but with an unerring instinct for the comic, Mikva has something to say—and something well worth hearing—about his bouts with the Daley political machine, the NRA, and the Nazis who marched in Skokie. Whether recalling his work as a judge on civil rights, describing his days as White House counsel, decrying the most activist Supreme Court since the Civil War, expounding on our rigged political system, or assessing the Obama presidency, Mikva is eloquent, deeply informed, and endlessly interesting. And finally, in this intimate and unfiltered encounter, he remains an optimist, inspired and inspiring to the very end of a remarkable life of public service.

In 2016, at the age of ninety, Abner Mikva died on the Fourth of July.

About the Author

Sanford D. Horwitt is the author of Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky, His Life and Legacy and Feingold: A New Democratic Party.