Local Features
8:07 am
Mon October 24, 2011

Washington could use a man like Claiborne Pell

PROVIDENCE, RI – John F. Kennedy once said that Claiborne Pell was the most unelectable man in America. Kennedy obviously underestimated both Pell and Rhode Island's support for a man who never lost an election in nearly 40 years in the U.S. Senate.

Everyone of a certain age in our cozy state has a yarn about Pell's quirks. So here's mine: On my first day as a reporter in the Providence Journal's old West Warwick office back in the mid-1980s, I looked out the window, astonished to see the man who was soon to become chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee walking alone into a Laundromat in the seen-better-days village of Artic.

He was wearing a threadbare suit, an ancient Brooks Brothers shirt with a seriously frayed collar, a nondescript necktie and shoes that needed a shine. I followed Senator Pell into the laundry and introduced myself as the dryers whirred and suds filled the windows in the washing machines. He extended a bony right hand to me and weakly clasped my outstretched hand.

``So senator, what are you doing here today. I'm new to the paper and I didn't know you would be coming to town,'' I stammered.

``Oh, no reason. I'm just on one of my walkabouts,'' said Pell quietly, turning to greet a woman folding a pile of children's clothing into her basket.

It was vintage Pell, a man who rode RIPTA buses through the toughest neighborhoods in the state, peering through thick tortoise-shell glasses to meet and greet one and all. Now comes Journal reporter G. Wayne Miller with a fascinating biography of Pell that chronicles both his eccentricities and his voluminous achievements. Miller's Pell is a figure from a distant era, a Victorian man raised in a milieu of inherited WASP wealth, the well-placed phone call, summers in Newport, prep schools, Ivy colleges and European sojourns.

Miller takes us to a time when Americans believed that those who reaped society's benefits should share in its defense. Thus, Roosevelts, Kennedys, Bushes and Pells volunteered for World War II combat.

Despite the best efforts of his influential father, a confidant of FDR, Pell's poor eyesight kept him from an officers' spot in the Navy. So Princeton graduate Pell enlisted in the Coast Guard, an experience that would expose him to men who came from less fortunate circumstances. After working on the margins of politics for a few years, Pell decided in 1960 to run for U.S. Senate. Proving his friend John Kennedy stunningly wrong, Pell upset a former Democratic governor, becoming the first Rhode Island candidate ever to win a primary over an endorsed statewide candidate.

Pell was an idealistic man from the generation that believed anything was possible in America. His foremost achievement was the Pell grant program, a result of his decades-long campaign to make college affordable for all citizens, regardless of income. Government, for Pell, was a vessel to expand opportunity to all citizens.

Intensely focused on foreign affairs, Pell was an early critic of the country's ill-fated adventure in Vietnam. An internationalist, he was a believer in the institutions erected after World War II to promote peace, especially the United Nations and NATO.

In six Senate races, Pell never ran a negative ad. ``Never respond to an adversary in ad hominem terms,'' was his motto.

He was a believer in compromise. ``Sometimes half a loaf can feed an army,'' said Pell. ``The democratic process is meant to be slow and deliberate, and change is hard to achieve. Very often achievement of half an objective is just as significant as achievement of 100 percent. ``In politics the best way to convince someone is to lead him or her to discover what you already know,'' said Pell.

Isn't it sad that there aren't more like Claiborne Pell in today's Washington?

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