Abraham Ribicoff, cutting-edge politician, dies at 87

Abraham Ribicoff, Connecticut's first and only Jewish governor and one of its longest-serving senators, died Feb. 21 of heart failure in the Bronx. He was 87.

Many across the country mourned his passing and pondered a career symbolized by character and principle.

Ribicoff "believed in the American dream…the extraordinary life he led is a testament to the American dream," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), addressing the U.S. Senate. "[He] stood up and confronted and challenged those people who didn't believe in the American dream and were prepared to stimulate an effort against him because of his religion."

As a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ribicoff instituted a number of economic aid measures to Israel and attacked amendments intended to cut aid to Israel and the Middle East.

He also believed in the need for other allies besides Israel in the Middle East.

In 1978, as a U.S. senator and confidant to President Jimmy Carter, Ribicoff supported the sale of warplanes to Saudi Arabia despite the strong objections of the American Jewish lobby.

But Ribicoff also asked Egyptian President Anwar Sadat if he would meet with Israel "for a full discussion on how to achieve a real peace without preconditions."

Sadat was willing.

Ribicoff set other precedents. During the 1968 Democratic National Convention he gained notoriety for standing up to Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley.

While police struggled to subdue young anti-war protesters with tear gas, Ribicoff stepped to the podium to nominate George McGovern for the presidency.

Abandoning the prepared text, he looked directly at Daley and said, "With George McGovern as president of the United States we would not have to have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago."

Pandemonium erupted. Daley shouted epithets at Ribicoff, who said, "With George McGovern we would not have to have the National Guard.

"How hard it is to accept the truth," he added.

"Staring down Mayor Daley was not going to help him in the polls," Rosenbaum said of Ribicoff. "But he was not the type of man to ignore what was going on around him."

In a 42-year career, he lost only one election.

On the night of the 1954 election in which he first ran for governor, sensing anti-Semitism in the tight race between himself and incumbent Gov. John Davis Lodge, Ribicoff took to the airwaves.

"In this great country of ours, anybody, even a poor kid from immigrant parents, could achieve any office he sought, or any position in private or public life, irrespective of race, color, creed or religion."

He won by only 3,200 votes.

The late politician was born in a tenement to Samuel and Rose Sable Ribicoff, immigrants from Poland.

After graduating from the University of Chicago Law School, he worked as a lawyer.

He was elected to the first of two terms in the Connecticut General Assembly in 1938, and in 1941 became a judge.

In 1948, he was elected to the first of two terms in the U.S. House, and suffered his only campaign loss in a 1952 U.S. Senate bid against Prescott S. Bush, father of former President George Bush.

Among the first to recognize the political appeal of then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, he urged Democratic party leaders to nominate Kennedy as Adlai Stevenson's running mate in the 1956 presidential election.

"He hoped his achievements sent the same message to other ethnic groups, races and religions," Lieberman said.

After the 1960 presidential election, Kennedy offered Ribicoff the post of attorney general. He declined, but accepted Kennedy's offer to become Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.

He was elected to the Senate in 1962.

During his third Senate term, Ribicoff immersed himself in the Mideast peace process.

Despite criticism from Jews throughout the country — not just for his support of the sale of F-15 fighters to Saudi Arabia, but also for swaying Senate votes to win approval of the sale — he stood by his staunch support of Carter's Israeli-Egyptian peace process.

"I think it illustrates…how he did things," said Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who served as Ribicoff's chief of staff in 1975-76. "He didn't take polls. He made decisions on what he thought was right."

In 1979, Ribicoff announced that he would not seek a fourth term, saying, "After 45 years in active politics, I realize that too many people stayed one term too long. A person should leave when he is at his peak of power in Washington and with his people at home."

Judge Jon. O. Newman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit worked closely with Ribicoff.

"He was an authentic public servant," said Newman, who was Ribicoff's principal staff person for many years. "He regarded holding office as a higher calling.

"He looked, spoke and carried himself with dignity…and that enabled him to forge tremendous relationships across political and international lines."

He was also on the cutting edge, Newman said, and "identified issues long before they became popular."

He pointed to Ribicoff's promotion of federal aid to education and welfare reform as early as the 1960s.

He was also the first to give such people as Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader a public forum.

"Nader was just a kid, and Ribicoff gave him a chance to speak," said Newman.

After retiring from the Senate in 1980, Ribicoff worked at a New York law firm.

His struggle with Alzheimer's disease was disclosed in 1997.

Blumenthal cites Ribicoff as a role model.

"He was an incredible mentor and model for me personally, and for many other young people," said Blumenthal. "He showed me that people in public life can adhere to the highest standards of integrity…and still be successful."