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Claiborne Pell: Story of an Uncommon Senator

Quirky. Odd. Dilettante. 

Those are some of the words used to describe the late Claiborne Pell, who came to the Senate in 1961 and stayed until 1996.

Biographer G. Wayne Miller confirms all of those epithets in “An Uncommon Man: The Life & Times of Senator Claiborne Pell,” while making clear that across nearly four decades in the Senate, Pell was an uncommonly effective legislator.

“Quirky” was the word employed by Vice President Joseph Biden in a eulogy for Pell in 2009, and it certainly fit.

But calling Pell “quirky” or “eccentric” was not necessarily intended as a slight. Biden, certainly, had the utmost respect for Pell. After Biden’s first wife and young daughter were killed in a car accident in 1972, the year Biden was first elected to the Senate, Pell was among those who took the young man from Delaware under his wing.

He also played a key role in the establishment of one of Biden’s favorite federal agencies: Amtrak.

Miller, a Providence Journal writer since 1981, admits in the book’s acknowledgements that he never planned to write a full-length biography of Pell.

That changed after the Senator’s widow, Nuala, called Miller in the summer after her husband’s death to inquire about his interest in writing a biography, with access to her records.

The result is a 356-page examination of one of the more eclectic Senators of the 20th century.

A liberal Democrat, Pell epitomized the New England patrician politician of another era, more Henry Cabot Lodge than Pawtucket pol.

Born in New York, he was a regular in Newport, where his wealthy family (his father served one term in the House) had
summered for a century.

His wife was heiress to the A&P fortune.

They used the family wealth to spend astronomical sums on advertising for his first primary and general election campaigns in 1960, Miller writes, including paying for a 12-page supplement to a September edition of the Journal, the largest newspaper in the state.

Despite his patrician mien — or maybe because of it — Rhode Island’s blue-collar Democrats re-elected Pell time and again. 

Never a natural campaigner, Pell might not have had much of a connection with the state’s ethnic voters, Politics in America noted in 1990, but he could communicate with them in the languages of their fathers: He spoke Portuguese, Italian and French.

Miller quotes a local union leader at the time of Pell’s first Senate election saying his members supported Pell because “There is something in this aristocrat, something in his heart, that our people know by intuition.”

Certainly, by most definitions, Pell was anything but just another rich white guy.

The book explores his interest in the possibility of life on other planets and his employment of an investigator of
paranormal activity.

“Pell was not averse to psychic possibilities,” Miller writes. “There might be government use for such powers, he believed — and even if not, inquiry into unconventional possibilities of the human mind appealed to his intellectual curiosity and to the longing he still felt for his father,” who died in 1961.

As a legislator, Pell is best remembered for his stint as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1987 to 1995 and for his work in establishing direct aid to college students, which became known as Pell Grants.

Miller is particularly adept at illustrating Pell’s role in foreign policy, beginning with the young Senator’s initiation to U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Pell accompanied Democratic leader Mike Mansfield on the 1962 trip to the country that led to the Montanan’s famous refusal to express confidence in the South Vietnamese government.

“Pell initially had supported [the Kennedy] White House policy,” Miller writes. “He initially believed, as did Mansfield and most other Congressmen of the time before so many troops were on the ground and losses had mounted, that the United States had strategic interests in Southeast Asia.”

Pell became more engaged in the issue as the years progressed and the war intensified, including a secret 1967 meeting with Mai Van Bo, a North Vietnamese official, in Paris. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs William Bundy and others in the Johnson administration opposed the meeting.

Nonetheless, Pell later briefed President Lyndon Johnson on the conversation.

The Paris trip revealed another aspect of Pell’s personality: For all of his wealth, he was tremendously frugal, and he expressed regret that the unofficial nature of the meeting barred him from expensing the trip.

Beyond foreign policy, the book’s discussion of Pell’s legislative achievements is often less colorful than its treatment of political accomplishments and personal anecdotes, but it is a valuable resource for understanding the markers that define Pell’s career.

While Pell spent much of his time engaged in foreign policy debates, his name has come down to the current generation for making it easier for students with far less money than himself to go to college.

As Miller tells the story, Pell’s
namesake achievement almost never made it into law. 

The idea of the college grant program had popular support. But the legislation became mired in an unrelated fight about race relations.

House Members attached a rider to Pell’s higher education bill in 1972 to bar federal funding of forced busing to achieve desegregation. 

Miller details the intricate deal-making of the House-Senate conference committee and the eventual compromise on the busing language that would delay enforcement of court orders until 1974, thus freeing Pell’s legislation.

Pell went on to be re-elected five times and to serve as Foreign Relations chairman, where he clashed repeatedly with North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms.

During his last term in office, Pell was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, news that became public in April 1995. He opted to retire.

Miller writes that in announcing his retirement, Pell said that while he felt “strong, healthy and sharp,” that “there is a natural time for all life’s adventures to come to an end.”

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