Points By Drew Pritt

Claiborne Pell – Death of an Icon
January 2, 2009, 3:51 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

pellsIn an age when negative campaigns are the norm, one icon who consistently won against strong opponents, and yet never went negative, has passed away. Former U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) passed away after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. His death is the death of more than just a great legislator, but it’s the death of a dying breed of statesman and an icon. In 1960, Pell was seen as a wealthy dandy with an old New England Yankee family name. However, he was not seen as a likely successor when the patriarchal U.S. Senator Theodore Francis Green (D-R.I.), decided to retire. No one, that is, except Claiborne Pell himself. So while the statehouse pros snickered, and while his opponents—former Governor Dennis Roberts and former U.S. Attorney General J. Howard McGrath—sniped at each other, the pipe-smoking Princetonian Pell put together a campaign that produced fantastic results. Rhode Island’s immigrant minorities French, Italian or Portuguese, combined to form a significant voting bloc and Pell campaigned amongst them and spoke each of those languages fluently. In a state that is 58% Roman Catholic, the Episcopalian Pell carried the primary with a walloping 61% to Roberts’ 33% and McGrath’s abysmal 6%.

He easily through the years dispatched significant opposition. In 1966, it was former General Ruth M. Briggs. In 1972, then-Governor (and future Senate colleague) John Chafee. In 1978, it was James G. Reynolds, a future State Sentor, and in 1984, Barbara Leonard, a future Secretary of State, both who would use runs against Pell to get their start in electoral politics.

In 1990, his last election, he drew the opposition of U.S. Congresswoman Claudine Schneider. Initially polls showed it to be a close race. In the end, Pell won in his usual 60% of the vote range, banishing the once up and coming Schneider to the sidelines of politics.

Pell had a simple rule in politics. Don’t attack the other fellow. Keep a sense of humor. Do the unexpected.

When former Governor Roberts in their 1960 primary campaign, called Pell a “carpetbagger,” Pell fired back with full-page newspaper ads featuring his grand-uncle Duncan Pell, Rhode Island Lieutenant Governor in 1865.

In 1966 when retired General Briggs, a woman who had scaled a male-dominated institution to earn her status, decided to demonstrate her strength and called him a “creampuff,” Pell disarmed her attack and trumpeted the endorsement of the bakers union.

In 1978, Reynolds sneered that little Claiborne had been raised by a nanny. As a result, Pell trotted out a very nice old lady who made a very nice impression on voters.

Pell’s appeal with the voters was based as it was on the simple tool with which Pell disarmed opponents for decades, humility, humor, and honesty.

In the 1972 race with Chafee, the race was a more patrician affair. Both men were from wealthy New England families. Both were supporters of the arts and sciences. Chafee, in the year of the Nixon landslide, came the closest to knocking off Pell, winning 47%. Years later, as Pell’s colleague in the Senate,  Chafee had a story he roasted Pell with teasingly, and told with relish about Pell, that came  from that very ’72 campaign between the two of them.

Pell was campaigning in Providence when it began raining. Pell, who had a formal evening engagement, had forgotten his galoshes. An aide was dispatched and returned with a pair. In his very formal manner of speech, Pell asked the aide, “To whom am I indebted for these fine rubbers?”

Once the Senator was asked why the Pell Grant, a collegiate funding source that has been utilized by millions of college students, was named after Pell. The Senator retorted, “Because my dear man….there is no Senator BEOG!” For those less aware, the Pell Grant’s formal title is the Basic Education Opportunity Grant. In his tenure, Pell also worked to create and fund the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment of the Humanities. He was also active as an advocate for mass transportation initiatives, especially AMTRAK, and domestic legislation that was progressive.

In 1993, during the bitter confirmation battle over Roberta Achtenberg, a lesbian, as Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Pell stated that his daughter, Dallas, was a lesbian, and that he hoped that it would not be a barrier to federal employment for her.

Achtenberg became the first open member of the GLBT Community to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

When death finally came peacefully to this gentle giant, he was surrounded by his devoted wife of 64 years, Nuala, as well as his son Christopher, his daughter Dallas, five grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.

In seems as if Saint Matthew 25:23 was written specifically about Pell : “His Lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will set thee over many things; enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”

Eternal rest grant unto thy good and faithful servant, Claiborne Pell, O Lord and may perpetual light shine upon him forever.


1 Comment so far
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Your blog is so informative … ..I just bookmarked you….keep up the good work!!!!

Hey, I found your blog in a new directory of blogs. I dont know how your blog came up, must have been a typo, anyway cool blog, I bookmarked you. 🙂

Robert Shumake Paul Nicoletti

Comment by Robert Shumake

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