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Abraham A. Ribicoff, 87; Senator Known for Role at '68 Convention

February 23, 1998|JANET HOOK and RICHARD T. COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Abraham A. Ribicoff of Connecticut, the son of impoverished immigrant parents who put himself through school working in a buckle factory and went on to become a governor, a senator, a Cabinet secretary and one of John F. Kennedy's earliest supporters, died Sunday at the age of 87.

Ribicoff had suffered from Alzheimer's disease and died in a nursing home in New York City.

A pragmatic liberal Democrat who played such a stalwart role in Kennedy's drive for the White House that he was offered and turned down the position of attorney general before it went to the president's brother Robert, Ribicoff fought for civil rights, federal aid to education, the creation of Medicare and tough enforcement of laws against drunk driving during more than four decades in public life.

In the annals of American politics, however, his name forever will be associated with the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and Ribicoff's nationally televised clash with Mayor Richard J. Daley.

At the height of the violent confrontation between police and antiwar protesters on the city's streets, Ribicoff took to the convention podium to nominate South Dakota Sen. George McGovern for president, declaring that with a candidate who opposed the war in Vietnam, "We wouldn't have to have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago."

At his feet on the riotous convention floor, the nearly apoplectic figure of Daley was captured by television cameras, his fists waving, his voice drowned in the din, but his lips moving in an unmistakably obscene denunciation of Ribicoff.

"By giving voice to the sentiment of people in the streets, he became a minor hero," Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, said of Ribicoff. "But he was not a radical by any means. He was a sturdy, durable liberal very much in the philosophical tradition of Hubert H. Humphrey, though without Humphrey's flair and national scope." Ribicoff unsuccessfully opposed Humphrey's nomination at the 1968 convention.

Ribicoff "was somebody who contributed to the development and strengthening of the Democratic Party of the 1950s and 1960s," Baker said.

Both of Connecticut's present senators, Democrats Christopher J. Dodd and Joseph I. Lieberman, praised Ribicoff's legacy.

Dodd, noting that Ribicoff had nominated him as his successor when he retired in 1980 after three terms in the Senate, said Ribicoff "worked tirelessly to improve the lives of people from all walks of life." Lieberman recalled that Ribicoff, during his 1954 campaign for governor, used the then-new medium of television to answer an anti-Semitic smear by defending "the American dream" and the chance it had given him.

Abraham Alexander Ribicoff was born April 9, 1910, in a New Britain, Conn., tenement, the son of poor Polish-Jewish immigrants. After graduating from high school, he got a job in a factory making buckles and zippers to help pay for college, eventually putting himself through the University of Chicago law school as the company's Midwest representative.

In what has now become something of a rarity, Ribicoff became a politician who worked his way up through the ranks as a state legislator, a police court judge and member of Congress, before winning two terms as governor of Connecticut, becoming secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the Kennedy administration before moving to the Senate.

Kennedy so appreciated Ribicoff's tireless support, which dated from the Massachusetts senator's unsuccessful bid to become Adlai Stevenson's running mate in 1956, that he offered him the Justice Department post.

Ribicoff turned the offer aside, however, saying the fact that he was Jewish would complicate the politically sensitive task of prosecuting school desegregation cases in the South, said historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

Instead, Ribicoff accepted the post at HEW (now the Department of Health and Human Services) and pushed hard for an array of social programs, including the creation of Medicare--ultimately approved by Congress in 1965, after Lyndon B. Johnson became president following Kennedy's assassination.

Ribicoff was frustrated by the bureaucratic struggles of HEW and chafed under the restraints imposed on a Cabinet member. He resigned in 1962 to run for the Senate.

The fact that Ribicoff had Alzheimer's disease was disclosed in 1997, three years after former President Reagan revealed he suffered from the disease. His wife, Casey, said in a later interview with The Times that she received enormous support from Nancy Reagan.

"You can't begin to understand what living with this is like unless you do live with it--day in, day out," Casey Ribicoff said. "I don't know what I would do without Nancy."

Ribicoff is survived by his wife, a son, a daughter and a stepson.

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