Constable: Mikva film could inspire future 'nobodies'
In 1948, democracy was riding the high of defeating fascism during World War II. Adlai Stevenson II was campaigning for governor of Illinois. Paul Douglas was running for the Senate. And Abner Mikva was on the cusp of a political career that saw him serve in all three branches of the federal government.
"One night, on the way home from law school, I passed the 8th Ward regular Democratic headquarters, and I went in and I said, 'I'd like to volunteer for Stevenson and Douglas,'" Mikva says in a new documentary about his life.
The ward committeeman took a cigar out of his mouth and grumbled, "Who sent you?"
"Nobody sent me," Mikva told the committeeman, who immediately put the cigar back in his mouth and proclaimed, "We don't want nobody nobody sent."
In "Mikva! Democracy is a verb," director Bob Hercules tells the story of how Mikva, a son of desperately poor, Yiddish-speaking Ukranian immigrants who depended on welfare to live in Milwaukee, used his belief in democracy and the power of government to make American lives better.
Mikva, who died on July 4, 2016, at age 90, was elected to the Illinois House, represented Chicago and the suburbs in Congress, served as a federal judge, was hired as White House counsel, and played key roles in life-altering debates.
The world premiere of "Mikva! Democracy is a verb" will stream at siskelfilmcenter.org as part of Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center's "From Your Sofa" series from Friday through Sept. 24. You can watch for a $10 fee.
On Wednesday at 7 p.m., the film center will host a free Facebook live panel discussion, moderated by "Chicago Tonight" host Phil Ponce, with Hercules, political consultant David Axelrod, U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky and Mikva Challenge alum Schyler Travis. The film will debut on WTTW at 8 p.m. Oct. 29, five days before the presidential election.
"The film is coming out at such an important time because the film is about the importance of democracy," says Hercules, 63, a Peabody Award-winning filmmaker whose work has been shown on PBS, the Discovery Channel, IFC, the Learning Channel and other networks, "I feel he (Mikva) was way ahead of his time on many issues."
As a judge on the prestigious U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia, Mikva offered Barack Obama, then a law school student at Harvard, a job as a clerk, but Obama turned down him down to work on community organizing instead. Mikva later hired future Supreme Court Judge Elena Kagan as law clerk.
Obama, who frequently turned to Mikva for advice, presented Mikva with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honor, in 2014.
"Time and time again, what you see is somebody who not only knows what the right thing is but has the courage of his convictions to say, 'You know what. This is a fight worth fighting even if I don't think we're going to win,'" Obama says in the documentary.
As chief judge of the appeals court in 1993, Mikva wrote the opinion striking down a Clinton administration regulation banning gays from serving in the military. Mikva served as White House counsel for President Clinton in 1994-95.
Mikva served in the state House from 1956 to 1966. After Mikva beat the first Mayor Richard J. Daley's machine to be elected to Congress from the 2nd District on the city's South Side, Daley, who also ran the Democratic Party, had the district redrawn to freeze out Mikva. So Mikva moved to Evanston and, after one close defeat, won election in the 10th District, where he worked on issues with liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, such as Henry Hyde of the 6th District, which included much of DuPage County.
"He and Henry Hyde got along great," says lawyer Greg Kinczewski, who once volunteered with the Mikva Challenge and is executive producer of the film. "In a diverse society like ours, you've got to be willing to compromise to function. Mikva made a difference."
Mikva fought the NRA, supported civil rights, and, with his wife, Zoe, who died in 2019, started the Mikva Challenge program in 1997 to teach youth about civic leadership and public service.
Evanston Democrat Schakowsky says Mikva, the man "nobody sent," influenced her political career and so many others'.
"Literally thousands of young people now are going to know that somebody did send them," she says in the film. "I love that."