Clinton Names 3rd White House Counsel : Presidency: Abner J. Mikva assumes the overall responsibility for policing Administration ethics and trying to contain damage of Whitewater probe.


President Clinton Thursday appointed liberal federal judge and former Illinois congressman Abner J. Mikva to be his third White House counsel, plunging the respected 68-year-old jurist into a stew of ethical controversies.

Clinton called Mikva a “man of uncompromising integrity and judgment” who will assume a position of critical importance in the Administration, which is facing scrutiny not only over the handling of the Whitewater controversy but over the ethics of Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy.

Mikva replaces another gray eminence of capital law and politics, Lloyd N. Cutler, 76, who served in the White House post for six months after the clouded departure of Clinton’s first counsel, Bernard Nussbaum.


Mikva is leaving a lifetime position as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, to which he was appointed by former President Jimmy Carter in 1979. White House officials said that he would take his judicial retirement pay rather than a White House salary in compensation. His retirement benefits are roughly $150,000 a year; the White House counsel’s job pays $125,000.

He is considered an unapologetic liberal on the bench as he was during his 10-year tenure in the House, supporting abortion rights, gun control and the right of gays to serve in the military. He is an unwavering foe of the death penalty.

In announcing the appointment in a brief Rose Garden ceremony, Clinton said: “With his new post, Judge Mikva will have served his country now in all three branches of our national government. I expect that his broad experience, his deep understanding of our country, our people and our institutions will make him an extremely valuable member of the White House team.”

Mikva, with a bow to Cutler, said: “I am aware that I have a very big pair of shoes to fill and that you are the most important client that a lawyer could ever dream of serving, Mr. President.”

Mikva brings to a troubled White House decades of experience in partisan politics as well as 15 years of service on the most politically charged of the 12 federal appeals courts.

Most important, said Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), a longtime friend and former roommate of Mikva’s, the new White House lawyer “brings a sense of perspective. He has enough years on him--like Lloyd Cutler--to look at these things with some balance.”

Mikva’s political and judicial judgment will be tested early and often as he assumes overall responsibility for policing Administration ethics and trying to contain the damage of the Whitewater investigation into the Clintons’ business dealings in Arkansas. His long friendships with conservatives and Republicans might serve the White House well as these partisan issues are played out.

He also will inherit an independent counsel investigation of Espy, whose acceptance of free travel to sporting and social events from two large agricultural concerns may have violated federal conflict-of-interest laws or ethics regulations.

In addition to the independent counsel inquiry, Cutler has asked the Office of Government Ethics to determine whether Espy violated non-criminal ethics standards. Cutler on Thursday also issued an edict prohibiting Cabinet officers and other presidential appointees from accepting travel or lodging from companies doing business with their agencies, even if those gifts are reimbursed.

Cutler, who accepted a temporary appointment as counsel in April, will stay on until Mikva formally assumes his post on Oct. 1. The job does not require Senate confirmation.

Mikva, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, got his start in politics in 1948 as a volunteer in the progressive campaigns of Illinois Democrats Paul Douglas for U.S. senator and Adlai Stevenson for governor.

It was in the 1948 campaign that Mikva heard the immortal words of a Chicago ward pol: “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.”

As recounted in a 1979 oral history of Chicago politics, Mikva walked into the 8th Ward Regular Democratic Organization headquarters to enlist as a volunteer.

“I came in and said I wanted to help,” Mikva recalled. “Dead silence. ‘Who sent you?’ the committeeman said. I said, ‘Nobody.’ He said, ‘We don’t want nobody nobody sent.’ Then he said, ‘We ain’t got no jobs.’ I said, ‘I don’t want a job.’ He said, ‘We don’t want nobody that don’t want a job.’ ”

After graduating with honors from the University of Chicago Law School in 1951, Mikva clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sherman Minton and practiced law in a small Chicago firm.

In 1956, Mikva won election to the Illinois House, where he served 10 years, earning a reputation as a feisty progressive independent, like his good friend and roommate, now-Sen. Simon. He taught and practiced law in Chicago and then came to Washington to represent Chicago’s north side in Congress. He resigned in 1979 to take the federal court post and has served there continuously for nearly 15 years.

Profile: Abner J. Mikva

Background on the new White House counsel:

* Age: 68

* Hometown: Milwaukee, Wis.

* Education: Received his law degree from the University of Chicago in 1951.

* Career highlights: Elected to U.S. House in 1968, serving the Chicago-area for five terms; appointed by former President Jimmy Carter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in September, 1979; became chief judge of that court in January, 1991.

* Personal: Married to Zoe, a Washington businesswoman, three daughters.

Sources: Who’s Who in American Law, White House Press office.