After losing big in a 2000 race for Congress, a young state senator and law professor named Barack Obama needed to mend fences.
One of the places where he got his political mojo back was a monthly discussion group hosted by Ronald Miller in the Loop offices of Miller Shakman & Beem.
Not just anyone can attend the Public Affairs Roundtable.
The people sitting around the table at lunchtime include some of Chicago's most prominent lawyers, professors and community leaders. It's invite-only — and each month, Miller decides who'll be on the list.
Miller first encountered Obama at one of the Hyde Park politician's fundraisers, which had been organized by Abner Mikva, a former congressman and judge as well as a former member of Miller's law firm.
"There were 20 people, tops, including Barack and Michelle," Miller said. "I listened to him speak for about a half hour and … answer questions for about a half hour. I turned to my wife and I said, 'This guy is amazing.' "
And so, Miller decided Obama would be a fine addition to the roster of thinkers hashing out important issues at his roundtable. Obama found himself surrounded by a who's who of Chicago liberals.
David Remnick's 2010 book "The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama" describes what those sessions were like: "Obama would talk politics with Abner Mikva, David Axelrod, Newton Minow, Don Rose, Bettylu Saltzman and various other Democratic activists. Obama wanted to re-establish himself as a Democrat independent of the Daley circle and organization, but also as someone who would not wage an overtly anti-Daley race."
But Miller's roundtable meetings aren't just a place for schmoozing over sandwiches. They're an exchange of ideas.
"It's a small enough grouping that meaningful conversations can come from it," Miller said.
When Obama was a roundtable regular, he asked questions and eventually got his chance to be a featured speaker at one luncheon.
"He always impressed me as being a super intelligent person," Miller said.
Leading the conversation
Miller, who will turn 80 in September, is semiretired, spending most of his work hours on pro bono cases. He also serves on the National Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union's advisory committee. But Miller has no plans to step back from his work running the roundtable anytime soon.
"As long as I am healthy, I plan to keep doing these things," said Miller, who is celebrating his 50th anniversary this year with Miller Shakman & Beem.
The Public Affairs Roundtable has become an institution since Miller organized the first meeting in December 1995.
He's hosted 136 meetings since then, with speakers such as the late Sen. Paul Simon, author Alex Kotlowitz and Bill Gates Sr., co-chairman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The father of the Microsoft tycoon spoke about the importance of philanthropy and preserving the federal estate tax.
"Those present were clearly engaged and knowledgeable," Gates said recently, responding to questions by e-mail. "He obviously enjoys attracting a bunch of well-informed lawyers to the discussion."
Newton Minow, a senior counsel at Sidley Austin who served in the Kennedy administration and played a key role in organizing presidential debates, is a regular at Miller's roundtable — and he's also been the featured speaker.
"I attend whenever possible because the conversation is always enlightening, congenial and stimulating," Minow said. "Ron combines exceptional intellectual curiosity with lots of charm — a perfect host and moderator. Ron begins the session by introducing everyone, including their backgrounds and activities. He does this without notes and astonishes all of us by doing it all accurately — even when there are as many as 50 participants."
Before Miller made his introductions at the Jan. 11 roundtable, about 30 people milled around in the Miller Shakman & Beem conference room, chatting: "We've seen each other before." … "Happy new year to you!" … "Doing any pro bono work?"
Attendees filled their plates with sandwiches, potato salad, coleslaw and brownies, tossing the suggested donation of $10 into a collection basket. One especially generous audience member slipped in a $100 bill.
The topic of discussion that month was the Chicago mayoral race with political consultant Don Rose and former WTTW reporter Rich Samuels offering their observations. It didn't take long for the questions to start.
"I think we're going to end up with Rahm," said Adele Simmons, vice chairwoman of Chicago Metropolis 2020, referring to Rahm Emanuel — who was the leading candidate at the time and has since become the mayor-elect. "I'm interested in hearing what our panelists think he'll be like as mayor."
"Rahm is the ultimate pragmatist," Rose said. "I don't know where his moral center is."
Jim Alter — a businessman and the father of writer Jonathan Alter — piped in with a self-deprecating remark. "I've got a very simple mind — probably the simplest in the room," he said.
Alter said he didn't see any way Emanuel could lose the election. "I can't conceive of anyone else beating him."
Miller jumped in with a question for everyone. "Is there anyone in the room who's willing to raise their hand, who thinks Rahm won't be the mayor?"
Not a single hand went up. People around the room chuckled.
At one point, Samuels wondered aloud how the new mayor would deal with the issues facing the Chicago Public Schools. One of the guests sitting at the table was the acting CEO of CPS, Terry Mazany, so he joined in the conversation.
"I'm trying to get us to shift from putting blame and shame on failing schools," he said.
A month later, some of the same people showed up in Miller's conference room for the next roundtable, but the February and January crowds weren't identical. Sometimes special out-of-town guests show up. New York Times columnist Gail Collins and retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens recently sat down at the table during visits to Chicago.
Miller invites different people each month from a list of about 300 names, depending on who he thinks will be interested in the topic. "It's a gestalt," he said.
He knows he risks offending people by not including them. He once ran into a lawyer who didn't get invited to a session. "Ron, I want to talk to you," the lawyer said. "What did I do wrong?"
"You didn't do anything wrong," Miller said. "Start your own." That is to say, start your own discussion group.
David Axelrod, who recently stepped down from his role as Obama's senior adviser, has spoken five times at Miller's gatherings, beginning in 1996, when the roundtable was just a few months old.
At that session, Axelrod was amazed to see the guests walking into the room: Mikva, Minow, Dawn Clark Netsch and others. Miller said Axelrod turned to him and said: "My God. You've got all my idols here!"
The last time Axelrod spoke was in December 2006, when everyone wanted to know which candidate he was going to work for in the 2008 presidential election. He said he received offers from Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.
"But I'm putting both of them off," he said, according to Miller's recollection. "A small group of us are trying to get Barack Obama to run for president."
Many people in the room seemed to be amazed that Axelrod believed this young, relatively inexperienced senator had a realistic shot at the White House. But Axelrod was insistent.
"This country is so divided politically," he said, according to Miller. "I don't know where we're going unless we can find someone who can bring the parties together and is transformational."
Other noteworthy speakers over the years have ranged from Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman to the founder of Second City, comedy guru Bernie Sahlins. And when former Alderman Leon DePres turned 100 years old in 2008, he celebrated it with an appearance at the roundtable, where he faced a mock trial for all of the trouble he'd caused the city's political machine over the years.
Author and former Chicago Tribune journalist R.C. "Dick" Longworth, who has spoken to the group four times, said he attends frequently — and not just to hear the speakers. He also looks forward to the questions and comments.
"You have some terrific legal minds around the table," Longworth said. "The audience is interesting."
A forum for ideas
While Chicago has other forums and lecture series, Miller sees the Public Affairs Roundtable as unique. It's a high-caliber discussion because of the roster of speakers and guests, the relatively small size of the group and the wide range of topics, Miller said.
On Feb. 15, University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone spoke about the increasingly conservative bent of the U.S. Supreme Court. The guests who attended to hear Stone included several active members of the bench — Illinois Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis, U.S. District Judges Marvin Aspen and Milton Shadur — as well as retired Illinois Appellate Justice Warren Wolfson, who is now interim dean at DePaul University College of Law.
Stone recounted the time he went to dinner with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
"He said, 'I just apply the law. I don't have hard cases,' " Stone said.
According to Stone, Scalia said he doesn't sweat over decisions the same way Justice Anthony Kennedy does, because Scalia is more certain about what the law means.
"Scalia really believes this," Stone said. "And that should be scary to you."
Clearly, Stone is not too keen about the theory of "originalism" promoted by Scalia and other conservatives. But what's a good alternative? That's what Stone was trying to define, and he came to the Feb. 15 roundtable group seeking some help.
Stone said he is formulating a new statement of purpose for the American Constitution Society, where he serves as chairman of the board of directors. Formed a decade ago, the group aims to be a liberal counterweight against the Federalist Society, an influential conservative group.
Stone said the American Constitution Society needs to put together a clear, concise explanation of how judges should read the Constitution. His working phrase is "principled constitutionalism." Stone read a draft statement to the group assembled in Miller's office, asking for their feedback.
"The principles enshrined in the Constitution do not change over time," he said, reading from the draft. "But the application of those principles must evolve as society changes and as experience informs our understanding."
Stone was speaking to a largely sympathetic audience. Miller's roundtable guests tend to be liberal — which is probably to be expected, given Miller Shakman & Beem's history of supporting civil rights cases and other liberal causes. After listening intently to Stone's draft statement, some of the guests said he hadn't quite nailed it.
"The phrase you said most often was 'principled constitutionalism.' That doesn't cut it," said Alex Polikoff, a lawyer known for his long legal battle against housing discrimination in Chicago.
"I agree," Stone said. "If anyone has anything better, I'll give them a hundred bucks."
Former Illinois comptroller Netsch interjected, "I'm not sure it tells me what the relationship between the legislators and the courts should be." But after some back-and-forth discussion, she smiled and told Stone, "Good try!"
After the session wrapped up, Netsch said she enjoys attending the roundtable.
"It's a chance to talk about a serious subject, with someone leading the way," she said. "A lot of people here get ideas." And besides, she added with a laugh, "It's fun!"
Miller's desire to spur these conversations reflects his lifelong interest in serving the public. Although most of his billable hours over his half-century at Miller Shakman & Beem were devoted to matters such as negotiating deals for hotel owners, Miller said he always set aside time to represent clients who couldn't afford to pay for legal help.
"I was raised in the Depression and our family had very little money, to put it mildly," Miller said. "I could see there were a lot of needs in the less-privileged people that were not being addressed. … My parents never got past the early years of high school. I saw the law as a tool to improve people's conditions."
Miller has been bringing together people to talk since he was in the Army in the 1950s.
Based in Frankfurt, West Germany, as a reporter for an Army newspaper, Miller arranged events similar to the roundtables he hosts today. Back then, Miller presented speakers such as the German anti-Nazi theologian Martin Niemöller at gatherings of an Army general's top staff.
"I was having a lot of fun doing it," Miller said. "I was learning a lot."
Flash-forward a few decades. In 1995, Miller was having trouble scheduling a couple of lunch dates. He planned to have lunch with lawyer John Clay, who was head of the Public Interest Law Initiative. He also tried to set up a lunch with the Rev. Robert Strom, a community organizer.
When scheduling separate lunches didn't work, Miller asked, "Why don't the three of us have lunch together?"
When the three of them sat down for lunch at Binyon's their conversation wandered across local, national and global issues.
Miller recalled saying, "You know, the only time people ever get together for an enjoyable discussion is at lunch."
So he suggested creating a similar forum for a bigger group of lawyers and other people involved in public affairs.
And thus, the Public Affairs Roundtable was born. After meeting at other locations, the roundtable has been at Miller's law firm since 2001. Miller said his initial mission for the group was modest: "Hoping to accomplish something — or at least have fun trying."
Miller said it's hard to pinpoint any specific changes that have taken place in Chicago or the nation as a result of conversations at his roundtable. But he said the group elevates the discussion on important issues.
After his February appearance, Stone called it "a great opportunity to explore ideas with leaders of the Chicago legal community." Stone has spoken at the roundtable a few times and attended a few other sessions.
"Ron is obviously an energetic, enthusiastic, curious and stimulating person," he said. "He is an activist, in the sense that he wants to make ideas happen. I find that a most extraordinary trait."
Miller said he's been told that he's a "connector."
Author Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the concept in his book "The Tipping Point." Connectors know a lot of people, Gladwell explained in his book and "their ability to span many different worlds is a function of something so intrinsic to their personality, some combination of curiosity, self-confidence, sociability and energy."
That seems to be an apt description of Miller, judging from Longworth's observations of his friend.
"Ron Miller knows everybody," Longworth said. "He really does. He has a talent for friendship and can draw on a very interesting bunch of people. I think he loves people. He'll just go up to people and say, 'Hi. I'd like to know you.' "