Abraham A. Ribicoff

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The Honorable
Abraham A. Ribicoff
Abraham ribicoff.jpg
United States Senator
from Connecticut
In office
January 3, 1963 – January 3, 1981
Preceded by Prescott Bush
Succeeded by Christopher Dodd
4th United States Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare
In office
January 21, 1961 – July 13, 1962
President John F. Kennedy
Preceded by Arthur Flemming
Succeeded by Anthony J. Celebrezze
80th Governor of Connecticut
In office
January 5, 1955 – January 21, 1961
Lieutenant Charles W. Jewett
John Dempsey
Preceded by John Davis Lodge
Succeeded by John Dempsey
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Connecticut's 1st district
In office
January 3, 1949 – January 3, 1953
Preceded by William J. Miller
Succeeded by Thomas J. Dodd
Personal details
Born Abraham Alexander Ribicoff
(1910-04-09)April 9, 1910
New Britain, Connecticut, U.S.
Died February 22, 1998(1998-02-22) (aged 87)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Nationality American
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Ruth Ribicoff (desc.)
Lois Ribicoff
Religion Judaism

Abraham Alexander Ribicoff (April 9, 1910 – February 22, 1998) was an American Democratic Party politician. He served in the United States Congress, as the 80th Governor of Connecticut and as President John F. Kennedy's Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. He was Connecticut's first and to date only Jewish governor.

Early life

Born in New Britain, Connecticut to Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants from Poland, Abraham A. Ribicoff, a factory worker, and Rose Sable Ribicoff, he attended local public schools. His relatively poor parents valued education and insisted that all his earnings from part-time boyhood jobs go toward his future schooling. After high school, he worked for a year at a nearby factory of the G. E. Prentice Company in order to earn additional funds for college. He enrolled at New York University in 1928, then transferred to the University of Chicago after the Prentice Company made him the Chicago office manager. While in Chicago, Ribicoff coped with school and work schedules and was permitted to enter the university's law school before finishing his undergraduate degree. Still a student, he married Ruth Siegel on 28 June 1931; they would have two children. Ribicoff served as editor of the University of Chicago Law Review in his third year and received an J.D. cum laude in 1933, being admitted to the Connecticut bar the same year. After practicing law in the office of a Hartford lawyer, he set up his own practice, first in Kensington and later in Hartford.

Political career

Now interested in politics, he began as a member of the Connecticut state legislature, serving in that body from 1938 to 1942. From 1941 until 1943 and again from 1945 to 1947 he was judge of Hartford Police Court. During his political career Ribicoff was a protégé of powerful Democratic state party chairman John Moran Bailey.

He was elected as a Democrat to the 81st and 82nd Congresses serving from 1949 until 1953. During that time he served on the Foreign Affairs Committee (a position usually reserved for members with more seniority) and generally proved to be a loyal supporter of Truman administration foreign and domestic policies. Generally liberal in his outlook, he surprised many by opposing a $32 million appropriation for the construction of a dam in Enfield, Connecticut, arguing that the money was better spent on military needs and foreign policy initiatives such as the Marshall Plan.

In 1952 he made an unsuccessful bid for election to fill a vacancy in the United States Senate, losing to Prescott Bush.

After returning to his legal practice for two years, he ran for governor against incumbent Republican John Davis Lodge, winning the election by a little over three thousand votes. As governor (1955–1961), Ribicoff soon faced the challenge of rebuilding his state in the wake of devastating floods that occurred in the late summer and fall of 1955, and he was able to lead bipartisan efforts to aid damaged areas. Ribicoff then successfully argued for increased state spending on schools and welfare programs. He also supported an amendment to the state constitution that enabled local municipalities to have greater governing powers. Easily reelected in 1958, Ribicoff had by now become active on the national political scene. A longtime friend of Senator John F. Kennedy, Ribicoff had nominated his fellow New Englander for vice president at the 1956 Democratic National Convention and was one of the first public officials to endorse Kennedy's presidential campaign.

When Kennedy became president, Ribicoff was offered his choice of cabinet posts in the new administration. He reportedly turned down the position of attorney general, fearing that as a Jew he might create needless controversy within the emerging civil rights movement, and instead chose to be secretary of health, education and welfare (HEW). Although he did manage to secure a revision of the 1935 Social Security Act that liberalized requirements for aid-to-dependent-children funds from Congress, Ribicoff was unable to gain approval for the administration's medicare and school aid bills. Eventually he tired of attempting to manage HEW, whose very size made it, in his opinion, unmanageable.

He was finally elected to the United States Senate in 1962, replacing retiring incumbent Prescott Bush by defeating Republican nominee Horace Seely-Brown with 51% of the vote, and served in the Senate from January 3, 1963, until January 3, 1981.

Initially a supporter of Lyndon B. Johnson's programs, Ribicoff eventually turned against the Vietnam War and the president's management of it, believing that it drained badly needed resources away from domestic programs.

In addition Ribicoff was allied with Consumer Advocate Ralph Nader in creating the Motor Vehicle Highway Safety Act of 1966 which created the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The agency was responsible for many new safety standards on cars. These standards were questionable because up until then, the emphasis had always been put on the driver.

  • "The driver has many faults. He is negligent; he is careless; he is reckless. We understand that... I think it will be the millennium if you will ever get a situation where the millions and millions of drivers will all be perfect. They will always be making errors and making mistakes." (U.S. Senate 1965-66)

At the 1968 Democratic National Convention, during a speech nominating George McGovern, he went off-script, saying, "And with George McGovern as President of the United States, we wouldn’t have to have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago." Many conventioneers, having been appalled by the response of the Chicago police to the simultaneously occurring anti-war demonstrations, promptly broke into ecstatic applause. As television cameras focused on an indignant Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, lip-readers throughout America claimed to have observed him shouting, "Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch." Defenders of the mayor would later claim that he was calling Ribicoff a faker. Ribicoff spent the remaining years of his Senate career fighting for such liberal issues as school integration, welfare and tax reform, and consumer protection.

During the 1972 Democratic National Convention, Ribicoff turned down George McGovern's offer of the Democratic vice-presidential nomination, which eventually went to Senator Thomas Eagleton.[1] After the withdrawal of Eagleton, McGovern asked Senator Ribicoff (among others) to take Eagleton's place. He refused, publicly stating that he had no further ambitions for higher office. McGovern eventually chose Sargent Shriver as his running mate. That year, following the death of his wife, he married Lois Mell Mathes, who became known as "Casey", in 1972.[2]

During his time in the Senate he was chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Government Operations (94th and 95th Congresses) and its successor committee, the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs (95th and 96th Congresses).

Future U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman worked in Ribicoff's Senate office as a summer intern, and met his first wife, Betty Haas, there.

Later life

In 1981, Ribicoff retired from the Senate and took a position as special counsel in the New York law firm of Kaye Scholer LLP and divided his time between homes in Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut and Manhattan.

Having suffered in his later years from the effects of Alzheimer's disease, he died in 1998 at the Hebrew Home for the Aged at Riverdale in The Bronx, New York City and is interred at Cornwall Cemetery in Cornwall, Connecticut.[3]


  1. Help Wanted New York Times, Aug. 28, 2008
  2. Grimes, William (August 26, 2011). "Casey Ribicoff, 88, Senator’s Widow and a Style Leader". The New York Times. p. A20. 
  3. "Abraham Alexander Ribicoff". Find Grave. Retrieved September 19, 2012. 

Further reading

  • Ribicoff, Abraham in American National Biography, American Council of Learned Societies, 2000.

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
Arthur Sherwood Fleming
U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare
Served under: John F. Kennedy

January 21, 1961 – July 13, 1962
Succeeded by
Anthony J. Celebrezze
Preceded by
John Davis Lodge
Governor of Connecticut
Succeeded by
John N. Dempsey
Preceded by
Samuel J. Ervin
North Carolina
Chairman of Senate Governmental Affairs Committee
Succeeded by
William V. Roth, Jr.
United States Senate
Preceded by
Prescott Bush
U.S. Senator (Class 3) from Connecticut
Served alongside: Thomas J. Dodd, Lowell P. Weicker, Jr.
Succeeded by
Christopher Dodd
United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
William J. Miller
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Connecticut's 1st congressional district

1949 – 1953
Succeeded by
Thomas J. Dodd