Public servant Ribicoff always let needs, not polls, dictate agenda

March 02, 1998|By Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- When Abe Ribicoff died the other day at 87, everyone recalled the dramatic confrontation between him and Mayor Richard J. Daley at the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.

It was a special moment in political history -- two leaders of the Democratic Party shouting at one another with a genuine anger that politicians rarely display in public. Reporters in the press section that night, seated only a few feet away, will never forget the episode.

At the podium, Ribicoff, delivering a nominating speech for George S. McGovern, was outraged by the conduct of the Chicago police who had beaten and gassed young demonstrators against the war in Vietnam. Looking down at Daley, he said, "With George McGovern as president of the United States, we wouldn't have these Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago."

Outraged by the public rebuke, Daley, making a megaphone of his hand, screamed back with obscenities, as did other Illinois delegates around him. But Ribicoff would not back down. "How hard it is to accept the truth when we know the problems facing our nation," he responded into the microphone as boos rained down from galleries packed with Daley workers.

A political anomaly

The moment was so vivid because it was so real, not the product of some calculation based on focus groups and opinion polls. XTC But in a political career that spanned almost half a century as a state legislator, congressman, governor of Connecticut, senator and Cabinet member, Ribicoff left a legacy far more important to

politicians today who are so paralyzed by caution.

He was, above all, a politician willing to take chances and lead rather than wait for a reading of the popular will.

He displayed that leadership in the 1950s when he took a prominent role in promoting John F. Kennedy for the presidency at a time when most Democratic powers feared that the country would not accept a Roman Catholic in the White House. He urged his colleague from New England to seek the vice presidential nomination in 1956 and, when that fell short, to campaign for the presidency. Long after the fact, he used to marvel that it took a Jew to persuade Catholics one of their own could be accepted.

In turn, Kennedy offered Ribicoff the prized appointment as attorney general. But Ribicoff urged the president to appoint his closest confidant, his brother Robert, and accepted instead designation as secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Ribicoff had to resign as governor to take the post, a decision he later regretted, and after 16 months in the Cabinet, he resigned and went home to run for the Senate, where he served three terms before his retirement in 1981.

Ribicoff's greatest contribution to American politics was, however, his uncanny ability to recognize issues that government needed to address. And if the voters rewarded you with their support for taking the lead, so much the better.

As governor, he understood the need to take early and firm action to improve highway safety, with the result that Connecticut soon earned a deserved reputation for being tough on speeders and drunken drivers.

A consumer advocate

As a governor and a member of the Senate, he also was among the first politicians to recognize a growing although undefined demand for a wide variety of consumer protections. And he was again one of the first, if not the first, to sense the growing concern in the electorate about the threats to the environment posed by industrial pollution.

Within the political community, he gained a reputation for his sixth sense in spotting promising young politicians and the issues that needed attention. Reporters who knew him found they rarely came away from a breakfast conversation without having gained some new insight.

Throughout his time on the national stage, he managed to combine a generally consistent commitment to liberal causes with the tough pragmatism of an urban Democrat, thus giving him credentials across the many constituencies of his party. Many of his colleagues used to shake heads in sorrow because they were convinced, probably correctly, that the country would not accept a Jew on the national ticket. But if Ribicoff shared their regrets, he never indicated as much publicly.

In any case, by the time he had retired at 71, Abe Ribicoff had demonstrated that a politician could succeed by leading rather than waiting for the latest polls.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 3/02/98

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