Abner Mikva died July 4 at the age of 90 after a distinguished political career that took him from Chicago to Congress before President Jimmy Carter nominated him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, where he served for 15 years.
For my 86-year-old grandfather, Jerry Bauman, Mikva has an additional distinction. He was a regular customer at Grandpa’s grocery and liquor store, International Liquors, at 100 North Carolina Ave. SE.
In his 30 years behind the counter, Grandpa got to know some of Washington’s prominent inside-the-Beltway figures, including Reps. Gus Hawkins (D-Calif.) and John Jenrette (D-S.C.), and NPR’s Nina Totenberg. Mikva, Grandpa said, used to come to the store to buy milk and vermouth.
“He was outgoing. He could have been a friend if I wanted to pursue it. He made it feel like we were talking man to man. He was not talking down to me,” Grandpa recalled.
Long before I was interested in politics, I learned Abner Mikva’s name from my Grandpa’s repeated assertions that Carter would have nominated the judge to the Supreme Court had Carter not lost his re-election bid in 1980.
Aunt Nancie sometimes helped Grandpa in the store. She remembers Mikva encouraging her to pursue a degree in criminal justice.
“[He] asked me about what was being taught in my law classes,” she said. “He was very friendly. I don’t even think he wanted much from the store. Mainly he came out to walk his dog, Davey.”
In addition to selling liquor and food, Grandpa also sold lottery tickets, something Mikva opposed because he said that lotteries hurt the poor.
“Yes, it is hard for poor people,” Grandpa said, “but their very widespread number playing was their only chance of getting rich. I thought the fact that he said he was against the lottery showed me that he wasn’t afraid to say that he was against something that I was doing. He’s the kind of guy that even if he disagreed with you, he’d say it in a nice way.”
Perhaps the most character-revealing conversation the two had was when Mikva told Grandpa of the time in 1965 when, at the request of President Lyndon Johnson, Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg gave up his seat to become the ambassador to the United Nations.
“And he [Mikva] said, ‘Well, when the president asks you do something, you do it.’”
As my grandfather, a longtime Silver Spring resident, reflected on Mikva’s liberal politics, he made mention of the judge’s Ukranian-born parents as a source of his compassion.
In Mikva’s later years, he served as an adviser to up-and-coming Chicago politicians like Rahm Emanuel and Barack Obama, who awarded Mikva the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014. Obama credits Mikva with encouraging him to pursue public service while in law school.
I wasn’t there during those earlier days on North Carolina Avenue, of course. But I can imagine that Grandpa, being the never-met-a-stranger type of guy he is, and Mikva, with his down-to-earth nature, must have had some lively conversations.
For a few minutes each week, one of the most powerful judges in the District took time to talk to a regular person trying to do right by his family. But maybe Mikva was just a regular person, too. Grandpa says, “Politicians are just people like everyone else.” Perhaps we could all relate to each other better if we took that to heart.