Mikva could conjugate ‘democracy’

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We’ve seen the damage one man can do.

To the national discourse. To our county’s health, institutions, honor. To the value of truth itself, and the freedom Americans enjoy, the latest threat being the installation on Monday of a rigid far-right fanatic onto the U.S. Supreme Court, who for a generation will steer the country in a direction most of its citizens do not wish to go.

As the nation prepares to — maybe — spit out that one-man wrecking crew, Donald Trump, a timely reminder of the good one person can also do is having its Chicago premiere on WTTW Thursday: “Mikva! Democracy is a Verb,” an hour-long documentary on the life of Abner Mikva.

Mikva was the rare political figure to range across all three branches of government — legislative, judicial and executive. A liberal congressman from both the North and South sides. An appellate judge. And White House counsel for Bill Clinton.

Mikva began his career as a lawyer, then cut his teeth for a decade in the Illinois House of Representatives, where he became expert at a quality that today has reached low ebb: the art of reaching across party lines to get things done.

“People think, well, if you compromise, that means you don’t have any principles, you’re selling out,” Mikva explains in the film. “That’s not the way it works in a large society like ours. We ought to be able to find a way to compromise our differences, especially on the important issues.”

Power corrupts, and the program makes clear the Democratic machine of the 1950s through 1970s had its own cult of personality, devoted to Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. As U.S. representative from the 2nd Congressional District, Mikva was insufficiently deferential — we see him at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, denouncing “Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago,” while Daley leaps to object.

Mikva, punished by having his district remapped out from under him, moved to the 10th Congressional District in the Evanson/Skokie area — and won again.

Mikva was a staunch advocate of sane gun laws — we hear him calling for banning the manufacture, sale and ownership of handguns, a proposition almost shocking today.

We see the beginning of the NRA’s decline when it spends a million dollars trying, unsuccessfully, to keep Jimmy Carter from placing Mikva on the appellate court. There, in a reminder of the power of the bench, Mikva strikes down the military policy of cashiering personnel who come out as gay.

“America’s hallmark is to judge people by what they do and not by who they are,” Mikva wrote in the majority opinion. We can expect Supreme Court decisions to take an opposite tack.

Mikva leaves the security of federal judgeship to counsel Bill Clinton — a period the documentary quicksteps through. Soon he’s back in Chicago just in time to teach at University of Chicago and mentor Barack Obama.

Mikva’s final and perhaps most significant accomplishment is establishing the Mikva Challenge, a program teaching high schoolers how to be effective in the political system. Credit to his wife.

“They were talking about setting up an intern series, or a lecture series,” Mikva remembers. “And Zoe jumped in and she said, ‘That’s not what we want to be remembered by. We want to be remembered about getting people involved in politics and government, just as we got caught up from a young age.”

That’s important. With Republicans ceaselessly tearing away at government, to benefit the wealthy and undercut the immigrants and minorities who often benefit from effective programs, we need to remember the tremendous good government does. And to recognize the false patriotism of worshipping the flag and the military while despising the government being represented and protected.

We’re reminded that issues we grapple with today are nothing new. In 1972 Mikva argued for “an approach to law and order that didn’t ravage the Bill of Rights.” He also wishes the anti-choice U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde was “as militant in supporting kids after they’re born as he is in trying to get them born.”

Campaigning after Nixon’s downfall, Mikva, who died in 2016, said: “It’s not enough that public officials merely be above criminal behavior. The American people are entitled to much more.”

Yes, yes we are.

“Mikva! Democracy Is A Verb” premieres in Chicago at 8 p.m. Thursday on WTTW (Channel 11).

via Chicago Sun-Times

October 27, 2020 at 04:12PM

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