Abraham Ribicoff


Abraham Ribicoff was born in New Britain, Connecticut, on 9th April, 1910. Ribicoff's parents were Jewish parents from Poland.

Ribicoff obtained degrees from New York University and the University of Chicago in 1933. Ribicoff, a member of the Democratic Party, served two terms as a representative to the Connecticut House of Representatives (1938-1942). He also served two terms as a police court judge in Hartford, Connecticut.

In 1948 Ribicoff was elected to the US House of Representatives. Although he was defeated in his 1952 bid for the US Senate, he was elected Governor of Connecticut and served two terms (1955-61).

Ribicoff was a supporter of John F. Kennedy and in 1961 was appointed as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. In this post he advocated programs such as Medicare, Youth Fitness and Equal Employment Opportunity. A few months after resigning from the Cabinet in 1962, he was elected to the Senate, and then reelected in 1968 and 1974. In the Senate, Ribicoff promoted consumer protection legislation, pollution controls and aid to cities.

Ribicoff was concerned by corruption in Congress. For example, the Suite 8F Group also did very well out of the escalation of the Vietnam War. They formed a new company called RMK-BRJ to obtain these contracts. This included Halliburton who took over Brown & Root in 1962. These contracts included building jet runways, dredging channels for ships, hospitals, prisons, communications facilities, and building American bases from Da Nang to Saigon. RMK-BRJ did 97% of the construction work in Vietnam. The other 3% went to local Vietnamese contractors. Between 1965 and 1972 Brown & Root (Halliburton) alone obtained revenues of $380 million from its work in Vietnam. Ribicoff attempted to expose this scandal. He claimed that millions was being paid in kickbacks. An investigation by the General Accounting Office discovered that by 1967 RMK-BRJ had “lost” $120 million. However, GAO never managed to identify the people obtaining these kickbacks.

While in the Senate he served on the committees on Government Operations and on Governmental Affairs. In 1968 Ribicoff created great controversy by accusing Chicago Mayor Richard Daley of using "Gestapo" tactics at the Democratic National Convention. An opponent of the Vietnam War, Ribicoff supported George McGovern during his presidential campaign.

In 1981, Ribicoff retired from the Senate and took a position as special counsel to the New York law firm of Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler.

Abraham Ribicoff died in New York City on 22nd February, 1998 and was interned at Cornwall Cemetery, Connecticut.

Primary Sources

(1) Christopher Dodd, Tribute to Senator Abraham Ribicoff (23rd February, 1998)

Even when he himself was not touched by the sting of discrimination, he acted to do what was right. In 1956, a young Senator from Massachusetts was mentioned as a possible Vice Presidential candidate. Ironically, many Catholics, mindful of the discrimination that still existed against them, questioned whether America was ready for an Irish Catholic in the White House after what had occurred to Alfred Smith in 1928.

Abe Ribicoff, speaking to the Irish Catholic leadership of the Democratic Party, took exception.

I never thought [he said] 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 (of Vice President).

In no small measure, Mr. President, it was Abe Ribicoff's faith - faith in his country and faith in a candidate that propelled John Kennedy to the Presidency just a few years later.

Once again, Mr. President, in 1976, questions were raised about whether a southern Governor and a born-again Baptist believer could serve as President of the United States. Without a moment's hesitation, this Connecticut Yankee said yes. Judge the man, judge his ideas, but do not judge his personal faith.

Abe Ribicoff lived most of his professional life at the highest, most austere and auspicious levels. He knew his share of Governors, of Senators, of Presidents. But lest we forget, Mr. President, he also knew struggle. He knew hardship growing up among the shops and mills of New Britain, CT. And he knew discrimination and he knew defeat, having lost his first campaign in the Senate by a slim margin.

But even as he rose to the very top of public life, he never forgot about those that he served. He knew that all principles are in the end empty letters and hollow rhetoric if they are not connected to people's lives. The instrument of Government, the laws of the land mean little if they do not help ordinary citizens surmount obstacles and obtain their noblest aspirations.

At a time when Medicare was described as 'socialism,' Abe Ribicoff knew that it embodied the obligation of a compassionate society to care for its elderly. When some called civil rights laws an affront to 'States rights,' he knew that they could make the promise of equal justice a reality for millions of Americans. When others said that a Governor and a Senator should not spend his time fussing about highway safety, he knew that a tough approach to speeding and drunk driving would save lives and spare families immeasurable grief and sorrow.

(2) Martin Weil, Abraham Ribicoff, Washington Post (23rd February, 1998)

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...

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.