Abraham Ribicoff, 87, Dies
By Martin Weil
Abraham A. Ribicoff, 87, the son of an immigrant who went on to a long and admired career in public life as a U.S. senator from Connecticut, governor of his state and secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, died yesterday at the Hebrew Home in New York. He had homes in New York and Connecticut.
Sen. Ribicoff, a Democrat, left Washington in 1981 after three terms in the Senate; he practiced law in New York. He had Alzheimer's disease for the last six years but had continued to go to his law office until about a year ago, his wife, Casey, said last night.
The senator "was a remarkable man, a tremendous leader and wonderful friend," who "represented the best of public service," said his successor, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn).
Work as a teenager in a zipper and buckle factory and as a salesman of those products helped earn him the reputation of a self-made man. In more than 40 years in public life, which included stints as police court judge and state assembly member, he probably held as many titles as any U.S. public figure.
During this time, he built a reputation as an individualist who was guided by principle and at the same time as a practitioner of politics who knew the importance of balancing competing interests. One of his favorite phrases was said to be "the integrity of compromise."
One of the memorable and electrifying acts of his career came in 1968, when he took the podium at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago to speak for George McGovern, who was campaigning for the party's presidential nomination. The convention was held amid turbulent Vietnam War protests.
The uproar seemed to spread to the convention floor as Ribicoff spoke for McGovern, and on national television he stared directly down at Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and accused him of Gestapo-like tactics in suppressing the protest. Daley shouted back angrily from the floor, and the convention erupted in clamor. Ribicoff calmly held his ground in a moment of high drama.
Another of the landmarks of his career was his early and important support of the presidential ambitions of a senator from a neighboring state, John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, noted Ambassador Robert Strauss, a friend and former Democratic National Committee chairman.
In 1956, four years before Kennedy actually got the presidential nomination and well before many others had been attracted to his cause, Ribicoff and his close ally, Connecticut's Democratic chairman, John Bailey, put their weight behind him.
Abraham Alexander Ribicoff was born April 9, 1910, in a tenement in New Britain, Conn., into a family headed by a Polish Jewish immigrant who was a peddler and factory worker. The family was "really poor," Ribicoff once told an interviewer. As a youngster, he delivered groceries and sold newspapers.
After graduation, he worked for a year at a zipper and buckle factory in New Britain to earn money to attend New York University. After a year, the company sent him to manage sales in its Chicago office. While there, he took classes at the University of Chicago at the end of the work day and eventually was admitted to the university's law school without a college degree.
Returning to Connecticut, he began practicing law and quickly entered politics. In November 1938, he was elected to the lower house of Connecticut's legislature. Ten years later the Hartford area sent him to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Accounts from the period relate one of the incidents that enhanced his reputation as a man of principle: In 1950, he opposed a $32 million appropriation for a dam on the Connecticut River. The Cold War was on, and "the security of our nation . . . is now primary," he told constituents.
In 1952, he ran to fill a Senate vacancy but lost to Prescott S. Bush, father of President George Bush. He returned to law practice, but two years later, he ran for governor against John Davis Lodge. The contest was tight.
In an address to an Italian American group, he noted that there had been "whispers and rumors" about his ethnic background. And he spoke about the American dream. "Abe Ribicoff believes in that American dream," he said. "I believe it from the bottom of my heart, and your sons and daughters, too, can have the American dream come true."
In his Senate campaign, he had lost by 3,000 votes; this time he won by 3,200. As governor he was known for a vigorous highway safety campaign of rigid speed limit enforcement and for spearheading rebuilding efforts after disastrous flooding.
When Kennedy became president, he made Sen. Ribicoff HEW secretary. It has been reported that Ribicoff was offered the attorney general's post, but that he recommended that John Kennedy appoint his brother Robert.
After 18 months, he resigned and ran successfully for the Senate.
A prominent member of the Finance Committee, he was well-known for his work on that panel and in the international trade area, Strauss said. He also headed the Governmental Affairs Committee. He was known for backing auto safety standards, Medicare, education and environmental regulation.
He declared well in advance that he would not run for reelection in 1980, the year he reached 70.
"I've been around the track a lot," he told an interviewer five years ago. "I've had the best of the years, and I don't want a single year back."
Former Connecticut governor Lowell P. Weicker Jr., who served with Ribicoff in the Senate, lauded him as a man of courage who was never afraid to go out on a limb for what he believed.
"Abe Ribicoff did what he thought was right, and the devil take the consequences," Weicker said.
He was predeceased by his first wife, Ruth. In addition to his wife, survivors include a son, a daughter, a stepson; and six grandchildren.
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