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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 383

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This is the grave of Abraham Ribicoff.

Born in New Britain, Connecticut to Polish Jewish immigrants in 1910, Ribicoff’s parents were deeply committed to educating their children. Rather than send young Abe into a lifetime inside the factories where his father worked, they had him work and save money for college. He started at NYU in 1928 and then transferred to the University of Chicago when his employer he worked for to pay for it was so impressed by his work they transferred him to that city to be an office manager. He then got a law degree at Chicago which he started even before completing his bachelor’s degree. He was editor of the University of Chicago Law Review in 1933, graduating that year. He was admitted to the bar in Connecticut and started his own law practice.

Ribicoff was far more interested in politics than the law though. He won a seat in the Connecticut state legislature in 1938 and served two terms. He became close to leading Connecticut Democratic Party bosses and with their support, he was elected to Congress in 1948, after serving in various statewide positions over the previous few years. At this point in his career, he was primarily a Cold War liberal. He got a seat on the Foreign Relations Committee and was a big supporter of Truman’s New Deal ideas and the Marshall Plan. He even opposed a dam in his home state because he thought the money could be better spent on fighting communism overseas. Deeply ambitious, he ran for Senate in 1952 to replace the deceased Brian McMahon, but lost to Prescott Bush.

Ribicoff returned to his law practice, but only until he could get back into politics. That happened in 1954, when he won a tight race to be governor. He won a lot of accolades for his adept work at rebuilding the state after the 1955 floods. He governed as a strong liberal, supporting greater spending on welfare and education programs and played a key role in granting the state’s cities greater self-governance. He won reelection in 1958 and then became a big supporter of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign. In fact, Ribicoff had long supported Kennedy and pushed him to fight for VP slot on the 1956 ticket headed by Adlai Stevenson. There lots of nervousness among Catholic leaders in the Democratic Party. Ribicoff later remembered saying, “I never thought I’d see the day when a man of the Jewish faith had to plead before a group of Irish Catholics about allowing another Irish Catholic to be nominated for the position.” Estes Kefauver won the slot, but Kennedy was a rising star and Ribicoff was there all the way.

JFK repaid him by offering him the position of attorney general, but he turned that down, thinking that a pro-civil rights Jew would cause greater headaches for the administration than it was worth. Instead, he took the position of Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. He hoped to push for a muscular HEW that would create what became Medicare, greatly expand Social Security, and engage in many other programs. But he found real support for his plans to not be a high priority and the agency a pain to govern. So in 1962 he ran for the Senate and this time won. He would serve three terms.

Although initially a Cold Warrior, Ribicoff had transitioned to a Great Society liberal. He hadn’t given up on a strong national defense and received criticism from Israeli advocates for his belief that the U.S. should sell arms to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as Israel. So initially he was a big supporter of Lyndon Johnson and his programs, which of course included the Medicare and Medicaid that Ribicoff had fought for at HEW. But he also left some of that Cold War mentality behind. He became an early skeptic of the Vietnam War after initial support, seeing it was going south rapidly, and was very disappointed when Johnson began to divert attention, political capital, and resources away from the domestic sphere and toward the war. So he began to speak out against the war. He and Johnson were soon alienated. Ribicoff turned to outside allies, especially Ralph Nader. I know people hate Nader today and there are good reasons for that, but we can’t forget all the great work he did earlier in his career. Ribicoff and Nader teamed up to create the National Highway Safety Act of 1966, which also brought the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration into existence, which moved toward greater safety standards on cars, a desperately needed thing. It’s almost comical to remember how utterly unsafe cars were in the 1960s. The flaming Pinto was a real thing! He had always been interested in these issues. Even as governor, he had pushed pioneering laws about drunk driving, way too tolerated in these decades, as well had the police enforce speed limits more than any other state in the nation. Connecticut gained a national reputation as the one state where you best not speed.

Ribicoff is probably most remembered today for going double barrel at Mayor Daley during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Nominating George McGovern for the presidency, Ribicoff stated, as the Chicago police were beating up protestors outside the convention hall, “And with George McGovern as President of the United States, we wouldn’t have to have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago.” The audience cheered. The cameras panned to Daley, in the front row, whose mouth sure looked like he was screaming back “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch, you lousy mother-fucker, go home.” Daley later claimed he said “faker” not “Jew” but I for one do not believe this for a second.

McGovern offered the VP slot in 1972 to Ribicoff, but he turned it down and Thomas Eagleton briefly got it instead, but, alas, that was a disaster like every other part of the McGovern operation. Instead, he focused his work on the Senate, fighting for integrated schools, welfare programs, tax reforms, and consumer protection. He decided to not run for reelection in 1980. In his last act as senator, he saw the nomination of Stephen Breyer as a federal judge through the Senate at a time when he was at the back of the queue before Reagan took office. He spent his last years as a senior lawyer and Washington insider. He was also the co-chairman of the 1988 Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which recommended the closure of 17 military bases. He died in 1998 after suffering from Alzheimer’s in his last years.

Abraham Ribicoff is buried in Cornwall Cemetery, Cornwall, Connecticut.

If you would like this series to cover other people discussed in this post, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Richard Daley is in Alsip, Illinois and Prescott Bush is in Greenwich, Connecticut. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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