Remembering Sen. Pell, Quirky, Lacking Ego and With a Tolerance for All

Posted January 13, 2009 at 3:56pm

It was a fitting setting: an almost 300-year-old colonial church in the heart of Newport, R.I., on a frigid early January morning.

They came — almost 700 — to say farewell to a beloved politician. They were those who had touched his life and been touched by him. The elderly and the young, the beautiful people of Newport and the ordinary people of Rhode Island. The powerful in limos from Providence and a government plane from Washington; and the powerless, unemployed and with free time on their hands in this bleakest of Rhode Island winters.

They shared one bond — respect, affection, even love for this patrician, compassionate, quirky gentleman who had represented Rhode Island in the U.S. Senate for 36 years.

Five eulogists tried to explain the impact, the style and the contradictions of Claiborne Pell. There was an ex-president (Bill Clinton), a vice president to-be (Joseph Biden), the indefatigable Lion of the Senate (Edward Kennedy), a gifted young Senator who succeeded Pell (Jack Reed) and an eloquent grandson (Nicholas Pell).

They recounted his many legislative achievements (Pell Grants, the Arts and Humanities Endowments, Sea Grant Colleges, and a host of education programs and international treaties); they told the famous Pell tales (such as the Thom McAn story); they praised his style (courtly, decent, almost too accommodating); and they tried to explain the magic bond between this hugely wealthy Yankee and the multiethnic, blue-collar people of Rhode Island.

They were riveting and funny and eloquent and affectionate. They captured much of this remarkable and complex man.

But political Washington, burdened by stereotypes and demanding conformity, never really understood or appreciated Claiborne Pell.

To really understand this most unlikely of legislative giants, it is helpful to think about several qualities that made him unique as a politician:

1. Lack of ego. Pell had almost no ego. He had an inner compass that guided him to satisfaction or happiness but what others thought simply didn’t matter. As a legislator he was guided by the mantra: “Let the other man have your way.” He realized how many of your goals could be realized, if you didn’t care who got the credit.

It is ironic that his signature legislative achievement, college grants, bears his name. Some years after Basic Educational Opportunity Grants were created, a colleague, former Sen. Tom Eagleton (D-Mo.), created the name Pell Grants. Claiborne Pell squirmed and for years could not utter the new label. He thought it unseemly to have his name attached.

He had a fatalistic view of the media. Certainly he liked a flattering story, but he was untouched by the pans and critiques. My own history with him is instructive: In advance of his epic re-election campaign against John Chafee in 1972, his staff pleaded with him to at last hire a press secretary. He relented, but in a final interview before hiring me, he said: “I just think it is wrong to pay someone to get your name in the newspaper. If you deserve a story, it will happen; if you don’t, it won’t.” In the end he hired me anyway — but only through the campaign. He told me that, even if “we win, you’ll still be unemployed.” I took the chance and we worked together for 26 years.

2. Not a partisan. Claiborne Pell was a Democrat to his core, but he was not a partisan. To him, all 99 of his colleagues were his partners. As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, he was forced (by Republicans) to abandon the longstanding practice of a unitary, bipartisan staff, but he always regretted the move. (And though he relied on staff for expertise and ideas, he blamed them, too, for legislative conflict. He often said: “There are some staff who will fight to the last Senator!”)

As chairman of the Subcommittee on Education for much of his career, he always insisted that every piece of legislation the subcommittee reported be by unanimous vote. That meant the Democratic staff had to find a way to accommodate the wishes and whims of every Republican on the subcommittee. The practice sometimes made for unwieldy legislation, but it guaranteed Republican support for the basic goals he and the Democrats sought.

His bipartisan instincts were reflected in his Senate friendships: Some of his best work was done in partnership with Republicans such as Sens. Jacob Javits (N.Y.) and Robert Stafford (Vt.) and Jim Jeffords (Vt.), all friends, and, despite pressure from colleagues and staff to challenge Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) on the many issues on which they completely disagreed, he was always polite and accommodating (and even found issues of common ground, such as their agreement about self-determination for Tibet and their affection for the Dalai Lama).

3. A gentleman. His polite manner was widely recognized and generally admired, but few knew what a truly kind, decent and caring man he was to his staff. At his funeral, former staff arrived from across the country. With little notice but press coverage, they raced to somehow get to Newport by the time of the funeral. Some drove overnight. Many had not been in touch with him or each other for years.

It is difficult to completely express what a wonderful “boss” he was. Though he had high standards and always wanted quality and, especially, brevity, he was unfailingly forgiving. In 36 years, I think it is correct that no one was ever fired — he just couldn’t do it. To brash or impatient or combative staff, he counseled calm and patience and “the long view.” They went away fuming and frustrated and, in so many cases, as years went by they understood: It was his way, the Pell way.

He was kind beyond comprehension. As late-night sessions became commonplace, he would tell the staff “on duty”: “I’ll be fine; you just run along.” He was tolerant of every staff foible and deeply sympathetic at their hardships and illnesses and pain. Two of his staff were killed by drunken drivers, and he searched for a legislative method to toughen laws against drunken driving, a decade before it became fashionable. And, when my daughter was born, he authorized what must have been the first ever paternity leave in the Senate. He was skeptical and baffled why I would want to be home with an infant while my wife went back to work, but he went along.

4. Eccentric. Political Washington always fixated on his quirks and foibles, somehow always missing his sterling qualities and his mainstream accomplishments.

And, yes, he could be “different.” He cared little about niceties of dress. For his entire career he wore his father’s belt, a touching gesture except that his father was double his size and thus the belt circled his waist — twice. For years he kept — and wore — the gray broadcloth shirts issued to him when he enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1941. They lasted forever — and they had been free.

As an internationalist, he was devoted to tiny countries and states and thus was a stalwart friend to Taiwan, and Sikkim and Liechtenstein, and Tibet, usually to the annoyance of their larger neighbors.

Late in his career, he developed an interest in the paranormal and saw nothing wrong with encouraging some minor federal inquiries into those issues. As with so many things, his motivation was misinterpreted. He had no interest in flying saucers or extraterrestrials, just in matters of the mind beyond normal experience. (I was always startled at how many colleagues privately expressed similar interests, but refused to join him publicly.)

He passionately supported the United Nations, wanted the U.S. to adopt the metric system, thought we should have yearlong daylight saving time, and so many more.

Claiborne Pell led a remarkable, successful life; he was devoted to serving his constituents and his nation; and he always did it his way. And we are all in one way or another better that he lived and that he was always himself.

Thomas G. Hughes was a staffer for Sen. Claiborne Pell from 1971-97, most of that time as chief of staff.