Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Tuesday Forgotten American Blogging: Abraham Ribicoff

Abraham Ribicoff was one of the Democratic Party's leading lights during the 1960s and 70s. A Senator from Connecticut, Ribicoff was one of the most progressive voices in the Senate, fighting for reforms at every corner and attacking injustice across the United States.

Born in 1910 New Britain, Connecticut, Ribicoff grew up in a tenement slum. He worked from the time he was a small boy, delivering groceries and selling newspapers. Ribicoff, a Jew, managed to work around the quota systems so dominate in pre-World War II American colleges and graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1933, even though he had never earned an undergraduate degree. He soon turned from the law to politics and won his first race to serve in the Connecticut legislature in 1938. He was a strong New Dealer and continued to promote progressive politics throughout his long and distinguished career. He entered the United States House of Representatives in 1949 and served for two terms. In 1952, he ran for Senate but lost to the Republican candidate Prescott Bush. Nothing was ever heard from the Bush family again...

He built upon his defeat, becoming the first Jewish governor of Connecticut in 1955, leaving the post in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy named Ribicoff Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. Ribicoff was an early and vocal supporter of Senator Kennedy and it was a good position for him, as he had shown himself a leader on issues of public health and welfare during his political career. Ribicoff only served in the post for a year. Prescott Bush was retiring from the Senate and Ribicoff wanted the post he had lost ten years earlier. He won the 1962 election and served in the body until 1981.

It is during these nineteen years that Ribicoff made his name. He quickly became a leader on Progressive concerns. He chaired the Senate committee that hauled in the president of General Motors after it was discovered that GM hired women to seduce Ralph Nader in order to discredit him after the publication of Unsafe at Any Speed, as well as sending detectives to follow him. He was a friend of South Dakota Senator George McGovern and it was his support of McGovern that made his name nationally known. As many of you no doubt know, Ribicoff was speaking at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago to support McGovern. Of course, the 68 DNC was dominated by the way Chicago Mayor Richard Daley dealt with the thousands of antiwar protesters outside--by having his police beat the hell out of them. Ribicoff said in front of a national television audience, "If George McGovern were president, we wouldn’t have these Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago." The cameras focused on Daley who could be seen mouthing, "Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch."

I'm a bit unclear as to whether Ribicoff had presidential ambitions. He wrote a lot of books, suggesting that at the very least he thought he had something important to say for the American people. On the other hand, he quickly rebuffed George McGovern when he was tapped to replace Thomas Eagleton for the VP slot. Perhaps he simply recognized a sinking ship when he saw one. Incidentally, another person McGovern was interested in was Ralph Nader, which would have been weird to say the least.

Ribicoff spoke to a national audience on many of the issues he cared about. His book, The American Medical Machine (1972), discussed the difficulties average Americans faced in dealing with the American medical system. He concluded, "But if we want to make medical care a right in this country, a right in fact as well as in principle--and that is what our goal ought to be--then we have only one choice. We must move as quickly as possible toward a federally financed program of national health insurance. The program should establish a system of universal entitlement, one program for the entire nation. It should be open to everyone without exception and have no restrictions on the medical services that are covered or the length of time a person may receive the medical treatment he needs." Damn right.

Ribicoff published another book in 1972, America Can Make It!, which has chapters on many of the issues Ribicoff fought for throughout his career--school integration, housing problems, and welfare and poverty issues. In it, he discusses standing up for unpopular issues, especially concerning desegregation. In 1970, Mississippi Senator John Stennis proposed an amendment to a bill stating that the entire nation should be treated equally on school desegregation. That is, that if the South was going to have to have desegregated schools, the almost equally segregated northern schools should have to change too. Of course, Stennis proposed this hoping that the federal government would get out of the business of desegregation period, but Ribicoff called him on it. Ribicoff agreed that the North needed to desegregate and surprisingly gave his support to the Stennis Amendment. He argued that racism was a nationwide problem and that the entire nation needed to deal with it. He was pilloried in the press and by civil rights groups because the amendment was sponsored by Stennis. But you know what, Ribicoff was right. As we have seen in the 37 years since Ribicoff's stand, northern schools remain extremely segregated. The majority of northerners did not want their students going to school with black kids. Ribicoff knew that this was wrong and it is wrong.

Ribicoff was by no means perfect of course. He was a major supporter of the Shah for one thing and sharply attacked the Iranian Revolution. Attacking the Iranians was certainly bipartisan during the Hostage Crisis and for good reason, but the U.S.' relationship with the Shah, while advantageous at the time, has certainly hurt us in the long run and Ribicoff's vigorous support was a major part of this. He also made a terrible choice by hiring a young Joe Lieberman as an intern, thus launching this charlatan into his sickeningly moralistic and ego-driven political career. But who could tell this would happen at the time?

Ribicoff struggled with Alzheimer's Disease at the end of his life, but managed to work at his law office until only a year before he died in 1998.

Like so many of the people I've discussed lately in this series, there is no biography of Ribicoff. Frankly, I haven't been able to find out as much about the man as I had hoped. Again, here is a very important figure in mid-late 20th century American politics and no one has written anything on him. Odd.