Mikva: "We Need a Cheerleader-in-Chief"

Mikva speaking with Dean Schill

Congress needs to compromise, President Barack Obama should be a better cheerleader-in-chief, and Americans need to vote more and complain less. That’s what alumnus Abner J. Mikva, ’51, a former congressman, federal judge, and White House counsel, told the audience during this year’s Benton Lecture, “Why You Don’t Like Your Government.”

“In this last election, people voted their dislike of government with their feet — they stayed home,” said Mikva, the 2014 recipient of the University of Chicago's Benton Medal for Distinguished Public Service. “Last year the Senate passed some 76 bills dealing with important, substantive matters: immigration, tax reform, the environment. The House did not take up any of them. Instead, they attempted 40 separate times to repeal Obamacare.”

And Obama, whom he predicted would “go down as one of the truly great presidents,” should be doing more to rally Americans during this time of national malaise.

“Part of the job of the President of the United States … is to keep the people in an upbeat mood about their government,” Mikva said. “And indeed, when you look at Franklin Roosevelt’s four terms in the White House, much of his time was spent telling people that they had nothing to fear but fear itself. And when the election came around, there hadn’t been that much improvement in the economy, the unemployment rate was still very, very bad — but he won reelection handily simply because he made people feel better about their government. We don’t have that kind of cheerleader-in-chief, and we haven’t had one in some time.”

Despite the nation’s woes, the November 17 talk came during a particularly good month for Mikva. Last week he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. He was one of three University of Chicago alumni recognized; his Law School classmate Patsy Takemoto Mink, ‘51 — a 12-term U.S. Representative from Hawaii who was the first woman of color elected to Congress — received the award posthumously. Physicist Mildred Dresselhaus, PhD’58, was also among the high-profile group of 19 recipients that included Tom Brokaw, Meryl Streep, Stevie Wonder, Stephen Sondheim, and Marlo Thomas.

“Not bad for a guy from Milwaukee,” joked Dean Michael H. Schill as he introduced Mikva and his talk, which was held just a week after the White House announced who would receive the medals. Schill, the Harry N. Wyatt Professor of Law, went on to praise Mikva’s long career in public service, which included serving as Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, White House counsel for President Bill Clinton, a five-term congressman for Illinois, and senior director of the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic.

During his talk, Mikva, 88, reflected on the electoral polarization, legislative gridlock, and general antipathy that have characterized American views on government in recent years, adding that cable and the Internet have played a big role in compounding negativity.

Still, he ended on a positive note.

“I remain an optimistic liberal,” he said. “We’ve gone through these cycles before. We’ve had the Know Nothings, and the “do-nothing” Congress of 1948, and we’ve gone through the Vietnam crisis, and Watergate, and we’ve come out of every one of those somewhat stronger — with people feeling the way they should about their government: that it is indeed the best system we can devise.”

Watch Abner J. Mikva receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama on November 24, 2014. He can be seen at the 32-minute mark. Immediately after he receives the award, Mink's daughter is shown accepting the award on behalf of her late mother.