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The Life and Times of an Uncommon Man: Sen. Claiborne Pell

October 20, 2011

Sometimes greatness in Rhode Island politics comes clothed in unconventional garb. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay ponders the life of   the late Sen. Claiborne Pell, the subject of a new biography by G. Wayne Miller.

John F. Kennedy once said that Claiborne Pell was the least electable 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 Oxford 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.

Entitled “An Uncommon Man: The Life and Times of Senator Claiborne Pell,” 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.

The strongest part of the Miller’s book is his portal into the pre-World War II atmosphere of  the WASP upper crust that ran the country. He accomplishes this with a  detailed depiction of Pell’s formative years. The young Pell is seen as a sensitive, sometimes sickly young man who stayed close to both his mother and father, despite their divorce. He was a dutiful boy who learned young to navigate the tricky shoals of   relationships in his complicated family. Miller pretty much says that this aspect of Pell’s boyhood would help forge the man who avoided confrontations and emotional blow-ups in his adult relationships with colleagues and staff.

If  Miller’s work has a weakness, it is a less-than-sophisticated window into both Rhode Island politics and the U.S. Senate. The way to get Republican John Chafee to wince when he was alive was to mention his 1972 defeat at the hands of Pell.  Chafee, a former governor and  Secretary of the Navy, began the campaign more than 25 points ahead of Pell but was soundly beaten by the Democrat. That nationally-watched race just never comes alive in this book.

Pell’s role (in tandem with his close friend Edward M. Kennedy) in helping Rhode Island’s large Portuguese community bring family members to the U.S. during a change in immigration laws in the mid-1960s is glossed over. And Miller makes one glaring error; he states that Pell’s 1984 GOP opponent, Barbara Leonard, would never rebound from her defeat. “Like all but one of Pell’s opponents, her political career was over for good.’’

That isn’t true; Leonard would win election as secretary of state in 1992, defeating Democrat Kathleen Connell. And the significance of  Pell’s 1960 Senate upset is underplayed; it was a harbinger of the breakdown of the authority of political parties, ushering in an era of celebrity and self-financed candidates and the burgeoning of `outsider’ political aspirants. Pell paved the way for such self-financed candidates as Bruce Sundlun and Donald Carcieri.

Rhode Island political cognoscenti will wish there was more in the book about Pell’s relationships with such colleagues as John Pastore, who hailed from a poverty-stricken background on Federal Hill and was the first Italian_American elected to the U.S. Senate.

The author does a better job describing Pell’s final campaign in 1990, when he vanquished Republican U.S. Rep. Claudine Schneider, a popular congresswoman from the state’s 2nd District. Miller relies heavily for this section on some insightful political writing by ProJo scribes M. Charles Bakst and John Mulligan, who is now a one-man Washington bureau for the newspaper.

That said, Miller’s book is a well-written and incisive view into a world that is a misty memory, reminiscent of Scott Fitzgerald novels, Gilded Age Newport and debutante balls. One of the strengths of Miller’s style is the way he paints contrasts. In our time  of vowel-less text messages, Miller takes us to an era when people wrote long, revealing letters, from which he quotes generously.

Miller brings us back 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 far  less fortunate circumstances.

After working on the margins of politics for a few years, Pell, who had never won election to any serious post,  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.

As Vice-President Joe Biden said at Pell’s funeral, “He didn’t have a great deal in common, I suspect, with many of his constituents in terms of background except this: I think Claiborne realized that many of the traits he learned in his upbringing – honesty, integrity, fair play-they didn’t only belong to those who could afford   to embrace the sense of noblesse oblige. He understood, in my view, the nobility that lives in the heart of every man and woman regardless of their situation in life. He understood that the aspirations of the mother living on Bellevue Avenue here in Newport were no more lofty, no more considerable, than the dream of a mother living in an apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant.’’

Miller doesn’t stint on pointing out Pell’s unconventional flights into ESP, the paranormal and explorations into life after death. Pell had hoped to reunite with his beloved father, Herbert Pell, in the afterlife. And the book does a fine job in pointing out the political asset that was Pell’s wife, Nuala Pell, who survives him as one of Newport’s grand dames. Nuala Pell is that rare well-born political wife who was at home with both the Bailey’s Beach Club swells and the blue collar  beer crowd  at the Italian, Portguese and Irish ethnic clubs that were once de rigueur stops on the Rhode Island campaign circuit.

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.

Pell was also an important promoter of  nuclear disarmament, ocean research, rail travel, the arts and education.

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.

To the end, Pell would hold Rhode Island dear. “I know I will miss more than anything the people of Rhode Island, whom it has been my very real pleasure to serve all these years. They are a fine, caring people who put their trust in me…tolerated my eccentricity and gave me great affection,’’ he said in a farewell speech.

Pell’s best friend in the Senate was a Republican, Sen. Jacob Javits of New York. “Comity and civility, transcending differences of party and ideology, have always been crucial elements in making government an effective and constructive instrument of the public will,’’ said Pell, when he announced he would not be a candidate for reelection in 1996.

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

Scott MacKay’s political commentary runs every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at the `On Politics’ blog at


4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 21, 2011 10:17 am

    Great piece, Mr. MacKay. Although I don’t understand why you didn’t mention the Treaty on the Prohibition of the Emplacement of Nuclear Weapons and other Weapons of Mass Destruction on the Sea-Bed and the Ocean Floor and in the Subsoil Thereof. I think it was his single favorite achievement;-)

  2. Marie Hennedy permalink
    October 21, 2011 11:12 pm

    Thank you, Scott, for reviving here and now the spirit of a great man.

  3. October 24, 2011 6:30 pm

    Nice piece and great memories. Claiborne Pell is the best thing to tie one’s Rhode Island anchor to.


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