Longtime liberal lawmaker, judge and presidential counsel Abner Mikva, a leading light of the progressive movement in Illinois and national politics, died on Independence Day at the age of 90. His passing symbolizes the end of an era in U.S. politics in general and in the Nation’s Capital in particular. And we are worse off for that development.
Mikva, political mentor of President Obama, came from a time when even if politicians and their constituents sharply disagreed about the direction the nation took, we and they shared a fundamental belief: That the man or woman on the other side, however misintentioned and misinformed, nevertheless had, as we did, the nation’s basic good at heart.
That era is gone.
Oh sure, we realize that not all eras of U.S. history are hunky-dory.
- Rancor over slavery before the Civil War culminated in at least one threatened assassination-of Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton-and one violent physical caning, by South Carolina’s Preston Brooks of Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner, both right on the Senate floor.
And outside the halls of Congress, there was “Bleeding Kansas,” John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, and the 1861 confrontation between pro-union Texas Gov. Sam Houston and his secessionist legislature, which forced him out of office. And that’s just for starters.
And then, as President Lincoln, another Illinoisan, said later, “The war came.”
Its ultimate casualty was Lincoln, murdered by John Wilkes Booth, a Southern radical.
- The Gilded Age (and beyond) was gilded with the Robber Barons’ rule and ruthless suppression of workers. Examples include use of Pinkertons in the Homestead Strike, calling in the Colorado National Guard to execute the Ludlow Massacre, and, of course, Haymarket.
- “That man in the White House,” FDR, was hated by his own class – the plutocrats and “malefactors of great wealth,” to use his cousin Teddy’s phrase – for his pro-worker programs.
Business and the right wing so reviled FDR that a cabal even schemed to launch a coup against the president in 1934. But the respected and conservative retired general they chose as their figurehead, Smedley Butler, was a constitutionalist. He blew the whistle on their plot.
Still, starting with the end of World War II – the years when Mikva started in politics and made his way through the Illinois legislature, the U.S. House, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for D.C. and as presidential counsel – there was a difference.
Politicians disagreed, but they and their constituents did not viscerally hate one another.
Mikva and Republican Sam Young ran close races in a classic “swing district” in Illinois. Both stuck to their principled but ideologically opposite stands, but neither detested the other.
Now politicians and constituents do. We don’t just disagree on politics, we question motives. Literally, each side doubts the other’s patriotism. That’s a polite description of hate.
Mikva came from before that hate began. So do some of the few congressional and executive branch veterans who try to work out agreements. They are Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. They are very few and far between. Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, are their antitheses. Those two are this era, taken to an extreme.
Political scientists and historians date the end of what is called “comity” in politics to the late 1980s. Even conservative scholars admit it disappeared with the Gingrich uprising that began in the House before the 1994 GOP takeover there. It has only gotten worse since.
That’s not good for Congress, that’s not good for government, that’s not good for us – including us in the labor movement – and that’s not good for the country. And Ab Mikva, in remarks months before he died, agreed.
(Full disclosure: The author of this Washington Window column, and his family, were longtime friends of Abner Mikva.)