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Washington, D.C. Life Fellow, Honorable Abner J. Mikva

November 25, 2014, Fellows in the news, The Chicago Tribune

President Barack Obama on Monday bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, to 18 recipients including Meryl Streep, Stevie Wonder and Chicago's Abner Mikva.

Mikva, 88, a former Democratic congressman and federal judge who was White House counsel under Bill Clinton, once tried unsuccessfully to hire Obama as a law clerk and ended up schooling him in Chicago politics.

Mikva, who walks with a cane and has macular degeneration, said the honor was the "greatest thing that ever happened to me."

His taught law at the University of Chicago the same time Obama did but said he no longer can read books and listens to e-books on his iPod.

The former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., was not short on opinions when he spoke after the honors ceremony, which was attended by the vice president, the first lady and other dignitaries.

Mikva said Obama was "well within his power" in his use of executive authority to enact changes to immigration policy. The president is visiting Chicago on Tuesday to discuss that move.

"This is prosecutorial discretion," Mikva said. "Presidents have been exercising that since the first pardon. And also there's no way Congress can have the standing to sue him, which they'll find out."

Mikva was in the House from 1969 to 1973 and 1975 to 1979 and on the bench from 1979 to 1994. He said he rarely speaks to Obama now but would urge the president to exercise as much executive power as he can, in areas including the environment. "I think he realizes that this Congress will never do anything that will extend his legacy," Mikva said.

He chuckled at a miscue Monday, when his name card read, "Mivka," the same name the late Mayor Richard J. Daley had for him. "My medal is spelled right — that's all I care about," he said.

He remembered that Obama was not much of an orator during his unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2000, but when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004, he "could have taught Martin Luther King elocution."

He said he would like to see Obama become the U. of C.'s president after his term in the White House ends.

During the ceremony, Obama recounted the story about Mikva during the 1940s when he went to a local ward office and confronted the insular world of Democratic politics. He was asked: "Who sent you?"

Mikva answered, "Nobody," and was told: "We don't want nobody nobody sent."

"That's Chicago for you," Obama said.

Of the other honorees, Obama said he was 10 or 11 years old he bought his first album, and it was one of Stevie Wonder's. "Don't get Michelle going about Stevie," he quipped.

On Streep, Obama said: "I love Meryl Streep. Her husband knows it. Michelle knows it. There's nothing either of them can do about it."

Other recipients included Ethel Kennedy, TV newsman Tom Brokaw and actress Marlo Thomas, who lived in Winnetka for five years after her 1980 marriage to talk show host Phil Donahue.

Six of the medals were awarded posthumously, including honors to three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, killed in Mississippi in 1964 while registering African-American voters.

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