A Tribute to Claiborne Pell, Rhode Island’s Gentle Giant
January 2, 2009
To appreciate the late Senator Claiborne Pell, you have to understand a few things about Rhode Island and its politics. Rhode Island may be the smallest state, but it recently ranked first in a survey of journalists for most corrupt state (in the last two decades as chief justice, a governor and mayors of three of its largest cities have been convicted). Despite this, Rhode Islanders expect their representatives in Washington to rise above that, which is how blue blood Claiborne Pell came to represent blue collar Rhode Island in the Senate for 36 years.
Washington never quite understood Claiborne Pell’s bond with Rhode Islanders. The measure of this bond is summed up by an attack ad his opponent ran against him in his last campaign which began, “We all love Claiborne Pell.” I have spoken with people who met Pell during his first campaign when he ran as an outsider against two former governors, and he impressed them because he was genuine and he listened to them.
Pell cemented that bond over his 36 years in the Senate (14th longest in history) because Rhode Islanders knew he was on their side. The Senator’s mantra was “translate ideas into action and help people” which he did through a record of accomplishments that include the creation of Pell Grants, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the National Endowment for Arts, Amtrak and the Rhode Island Sea Grant program which has made Rhode Island a center for oceanographic research. Rhode Islanders were proud of Senator Pell because of these many accomplishments but also for the vital role the former diplomat played in foreign policy as a critic of unwise foreign engagements in Vietnam and Nicaragua and arms control measures such as the Sea Bed treaty ending nuclear testing on the ocean floor, for which he was an early advocate.
Pell’s connection with Rhode Island also may be because he understood the power of simple gestures. I was an early volunteer for his 1978 reelection campaign and my family was amazed that fall when the Senator called to thank me. Gestures like this or welcoming Rhode Island students studying in Washington to his beautiful Georgetown home for an annual September barbecue are why his opponents conceded that Rhode Islanders loved him.
Washington also did not appreciate Pell’s keen understanding of politics. As President-elect Obama reminded everyone after he won the Iowa caucuses by out-organizing his opponents, organizations are what win elections. Pell built a formidable organization in Rhode Island that included the state’s top political talent. His Rhode Island office was led by the former mayor of one of the state’s largest cities who had a Carvillesque understanding of Rhode Island politics. I have been active in politics for thirty years, but half of what I have learned in politics I learned through Senator Pell and his team.
I believe Claiborne Pell is more relevant today than ever, as President-elect Obama tries to usher in a post-partisan era. In his farewell speech, Pell lamented the hyper-partisanship that had eroded civility in the Senate stressing that members must remember that “whatever the depth of our disagreements, we are all common instruments of the democratic process.” Pell offered three simple rules — never attack your opponent personally, “always let the other fellow have your way,” and that “half a loaf can feed an army” since in the democratic process achievement of half of an objective is just as significant as achievement of the ultimate objective and makes it that much easier to do so.
Pell’s final words in the Senate expressed his hope “that it is our ongoing mission to become, like Athens, a nation that is known for its civility and its civilization” and not solely for its military might like Sparta. With Claiborne Pell’s death, Rhode Islanders have lost their gentle giant and the nation has lost a distinguished public servant who did more to make us a modern Athens than any other man of his era.
I had the privilege of working on the Senator’s 1978 campaign and as an intern in his Rhode Island and Washington offices through 1984. I owe a great debt to the Senator and his team and would not be where I am today were it not for them. My heartfelt condolences and prayers go to the Senator’s lovely wife Nuala, his family and staff for the loss of this great man.