UPDATE: Abner Mikva, the legendary congressman, judge and presidential adviser, died Monday, July 4, in Chicago at age 90. This column ran Jan. 16, 2015.
CHICAGO — In his first address as governor, Bruce Rauner spoke directly to the people of Illinois — and anyone from anywhere who has been reluctant to do business in Illinois because of insider deals and cronyism — when he said, “I’m nobody that nobody sent.”
With that pithy turn of phrase — a double negative that over the years has embodied the spirit of Chicago’s Democratic Machine — he labeled himself as an outsider untainted by the politics of clout.
Well, governor, when I called the prominent judge who made that bit of Chicagoese famous, he told me he’d appreciate a hat tip the next time you steal his most famous line.
“It’s not copyrighted, but he could have at least given attribution,” Abner Mikva, 88, said with a laugh. “I hope he steals some of my good ideas, too. You know, that just proves that most time people give a good line, and it’s not that they deliberately attribute it to themselves, they just don’t realize where they read it or where they heard it.”
Rockford Register Star editor Chuck Sweeny wrote that the “nobody” line must have alluded to “the well-known book on machine politics in Chicago, 'We Don't Take Nobody (that) Nobody Sent' by University of Illinois at Chicago professor Milton Rakove.”
But it was Mikva, the former congressman, federal judge and law professor who this year was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, who first shared that line when recounting the 1940s encounter with an 8th Ward committeeman in Chatham that was the beginning of his political career.
Here’s how the story goes:
“On the way home from law school one night in 1948, I stopped by the ward headquarters in the ward where I lived,” Mikva said in a 1999 interview.
“There was a street-front, and the name Timothy O'Sullivan, ward committeeman, was painted on the front window. I walked in and I said, ‘I'd like to volunteer to work for [Adlai] Stevenson and [Paul] Douglas.’ This quintessential Chicago ward committeeman took the cigar out of his mouth and glared at me and said, ‘Who sent you?’ I said, ‘Nobody sent me.’ He put the cigar back in his mouth and he said, ‘We don't want nobody that nobody sent.’ This was the beginning of my political career in Chicago.”
On Thursday, Mikva told me that was a defining moment in his life that led the Milwaukee native to love Chicago as if he were a native.
As for Rauner’s decision to paraphrase his words, Mikva said he’s fine with that.
Rauner “probably doesn’t even realize where he heard it first,” he said. “I guess Gov. Rauner described himself as the recipient of that lin, not the one that said that. I hope that his sentence structure is a little better than that. … But I hope he has some liberal ideas and is going to govern the state in a liberal way.”
Mikva said he too would like to see Illinois politics become more open to people.
“I would love to see the political system be so open that nobody ever needs to get sent,” he said. “I’m involved in the Mikva Challenge. My wife and I founded it. And our aspiration is that high school kids can be the nobodies that nobody sent, to be involved in politics and feel empowered to make a difference in politics.
"If that’s how Rauner feels, and he shares my view that everybody was so empowered, that’s great. I’ve finally found something we can agree upon.”
Mikva, who turns 89 on Wednesday, said he’s eased into a slower life “with no heavy lifting” by spending a lot of time reading, being social with a few luncheon groups and staying involved in the Mikva Challenge. The recent Medal of Freedom awardee said his daughter plans to have a special stand made for the award as a birthday gift so he can “stand it up and look at it once in a while.”
“Because, you know, my wife won’t let me wear it to bed,” he said with a laugh.
Mikva said turning 89 will be a special milestone.
“That used to be a magic number in Illinois. When we had cumulative voting, the size of the House of Representatives was 177. And you need a constitutional majority to pass any bill, so the magic number was 89. We used to tease people who became the 89th vote on a controversial measure that they were aspiring to be a judge or run for mayor or something. So I’m gonna be magic No. 89.”
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: