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  •   Abraham Ribicoff

    Tuesday, February 24, 1998; Page A20

    The death the other day at age 87 of former senator Abraham Ribicoff was a reminder not just of a life constructively spent in public service but of a change in the nature and quality of national politics.

    Mr. Ribicoff was a congressman, the governor of Connecticut and secretary of health, education and welfare in the Kennedy administration before becoming a senator in 1962. But it was as a member of the Senate, where he served for 18 years, that he became best known -- and it was a different Senate then. The institution was clubbier, and hardly more progressive than today. The difference was of another kind. The place was not poll-driven; speeches were still quaintly meant to influence other senators rather than to win a mention on the nightly news. There was comity, an effort -- sometimes perhaps too much of one -- to work things out rather than score short-lived points, and in its way, we are disposed to think, even in some of its retrograde moments, the Senate was more serious.

    Mr. Ribicoff was an example of the forgotten style. Many issues concerned him -- welfare, for example, from his service in the administration. One was school desegregation. In 1970, southerners led by John Stennis of Mississippi were taunting northern liberals. The degree of racial separation in schools in northern cities was at least as great as in comparable cities in the South, they said. What difference was there? Mr. Stennis proposed a mostly symbolic resolution that North and South should thereafter be made to desegregate at the same speed. He meant to embarrass the northerners into retreating; Mr. Ribicoff took the floor instead to say, to the consternation of other liberals, that the Mississippian was right. "The North is guilty of monumental hypocrisy," he said, and voted with Mr. Stennis, whose resolution passed. Who can imagine such a moment of drama and bold declaration in the Senate today?

    Abe Ribicoff and the disappearing style of politics he represented both served the country well.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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