Within a span of eight days, July 4 through July 12, we lost two men we could not afford to lose. One, the first, was Abner Mikva; the other was John Brademas. I served in Congress with both men and came to know and admire them even though both were well-left-of-center Democrats (Brademas was the Democratic Whip, the second most powerful position in the House) and I was a senior member of the House Republican leadership. That alone says something about them: both were highly intelligent and highly productive but their inevitable partisanship was untainted by the kind of nastiness that too often pervades the Congress today.
But what distinguishes them from many others who served is what they did after leaving Congress. As somebody who has remained publicly active since leaving the House, I’ve been asked a number of times to speak to groups of departing members of Congress (some retiring, some leaving involuntarily) and to reassure them that there is, indeed, “life after Congress”. It’s sometimes a tough sell because for public officeholders, work life is all-consuming: there are no off days.
For Mikva and Brademas, there were precious few off days after they left Capitol Hill. Both left impressive marks in Congress (especially Brademas, who was a major player in education reform) but even bigger marks in the days afterward. Ab Mikva went on to become a respected law professor, federal judge, and White House counsel. Ab and I co-chaired a Constitution Project initiative to spell out when it was appropriate – and, more important, inappropriate – to seek constitutional amendments to advance policy preferences.
John Brademas took another route. He served longer in Congress than either Mikva or myself (22 years), championed public education, and led the fight to create the new National Endowment for the Arts. John and I came together in the early years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency when he, a key Democratic leader, and I, who had chaired, at Reagan’s request, his campaign’s policy task forces, both opposed the new Administration’s planned cutbacks in education funding. When Brademas left the House, he became president of New York University and transformed it into a major learning center.
It would be unfair to say that there are no such men or women in Congress today – that remains to be seen – but if there are, they are few. I subscribe to the belief that there is no such thing as “a leader”. There are instead ordinary men and women who see a need and step forward to exercise leadership (it’s a verb thing, not a noun: an action, not a knight on a white horse). John Brademas, the son of a Greek immigrant restaurant owner and an elementary school teacher, and Abner Mikva, the son of often-unemployed Jewish immigrants, saw needs and did what their hearts told them needed to be done. It was a sad week: America can little afford to lose men like these.