Claiborne Pell / Democratic Party / Rhode Island Politics

Claiborne Pell – Parting Thoughts 1996


 Mr. PELL. Mr. President, as I approach the end of my sixth 
term in the Senate, I look back at the 36 years with wonder and awe at 
what we have passed through, but with some concern for the future of 
our institutions in the century ahead.
  My concern is rooted in apprehension that human nature may not be 
keeping pace with the means now at our disposal to influence opinion 
and effect change.
  A long range, telescopic view of our place in history puts this 
concern in perspective, particularly as we approach the end of the 
second millennium. The thousand years that began with a tradition of 
chivalry in dank Medieval castles, ends with a distinctly unchivalrous, 
albeit more comfortable, world community tied together by the instant 
miracle of electronic communication and jet flight, but overshadowed by 
the still lingering threat of mass destruction.
  Considering these extremes, I am led to reflect that the rules of 
human behavior in the conduct of public affairs have not developed as 
rapidly as the provisions for human comfort, or the means of 
communication--or indeed, of mass destruction.
  Sometimes, it almost seems, to paraphrase a common humorous 
expression, as though we should ``stop the world'' and let the human 
spirit catch up with technological progress. So now I ask myself what 
guidance can we give to those who follow that would help them, short of 
stopping the world, to reconcile the realities of the day with the 
realm of the spirit?
  When I came to the Senate in 1961, it was, in retrospect, a time of 
almost unlimited possibilities. Most of us were imbued with a rather 
exuberant mind-set conditioned by recent events. We had lived through 
the economic crises of the 1930's and we had survived the cataclysm of 
World War II, and in both cases it had been the dominant role of a 
strong central government which had saved the day. So it was not 
surprising that we brought with us a great sense of confidence in the 
role of government.
  We extended that faith in progressive government into many other 
areas, and I believe we did many good things in its name in the years 
that followed. I am very proud of the fact that I was able to play a 
modest part in these endeavors, particularly in the field of education.
  But hovering over us for the three decades that followed was the 
numbing specter of the cold war that tested our endurance and our 
nerve. It was in the peripheral engagements of the cold war, first 
Korea and then, most conclusively, in Vietnam, that the basic tenets of 
our commitment were put to the test. And in the latter event, they were 
found wanting in the minds and hearts of many of us.
  In retrospect, it may well have been the widespread disillusionment 
with foreign policy in the Vietnam era which sowed the seeds of a 
broader cynicism which seems to be abroad in the land today. And with 
it came an end to that sense of unlimited possibilities that many of us 
brought to public life.
  Many other factors have contributed to that current of cynicism, but 
primary among them, in my view, is the impact of the electronic media, 
particularly in its treatment of politics and public affairs. At its 
worst, it glorifies sensationalism, thrives on superficiality and 
raises false expectations, often by holding people in public life 
accountable to standards which are frequently unrealistic or simply not 
  Unfortunately, the rise of the electronic media has coincided with 
the coming of age of a new generation of Americans which is both 
blessed and challenged by the absence of the unifying force of a clear 
national adversary.
  I am reminded, in this connection, of Shakespeare's reference to 
``the cankers of a calm world and a long peace,'' referring to the age 
of Henry IV, when a temporary absence of conflict had an adverse effect 
on the quality of recruits pressed into military service. In our time, 
the sudden ending of the cold war removed what had been a unifying 
national threat, leaving in its wake a vacuum of purpose which I fear 
has been filled in part by the cankers of the electronic media.
  The result has been a climate which exploits the natural 
confrontational atmosphere of the democratic process by accentuating 
extremes without elaborating on the less exciting details. It is a 
climate which encourages pandering to the lowest levels of public and 
private greed, a prime example of which is the almost universal 
defamation of the taxing power which makes it virtually impossible to 
conduct a rational public debate over revenue policy.
  The times call for a renewed sense of moral responsibility in public 
service, and for service performed with courage of conviction. To be 
sure, this is not a new idea. One of my favorite political quotations 
in this regard is an excerpt from a speech by Edmund Burke to the 
Electors of Bristol in 1774:

       Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but 
     his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he 
     sacrifices it to your opinion.

  It must be noted that Mr. Burke was thrown out of office not long 
after making this speech, demonstrating a courage of conviction on his 
part and on the part of the electors as well. But he stands as a model, 
nonetheless, of the sort of selfless dedication to principle which must 
be brought to bear in the current climate.
  Beyond individual virtue, I believe we must strive in a corporate 
sense for a qualitative change in public dialog. If I could have one 
wish for the future of our country in the new millennium, it would be 
that we not abandon the traditional norms of behavior that are the 
underpinning of our democratic system.
  Comity and civility, transcending differences of party and ideology, 
have always been crucial elements in making Government an effective and 
constructive instrument of public will. But in times such as these, 
when there is fundamental disagreement about the role of Government, it 
is all the more essential that we preserve the spirit of civil 
  It has been distressing of late to hear the complaints of those who 
would abandon public service because they find the atmosphere mean 
spirited. They seem to suggest that the basic rules of civilized 
behavior have been stifled.
  They make a good point, although I hasten to say that this was not a 
consideration in my own decision to retire at the end of my present 
term. After more than 35 years, I have some to expect a certain amount 
of rancor in the legislative process. But I certainly agree that it 
seems to have gotten out of bounds.
  I say this with all respect for my colleagues in the Senate. They are 
wonderfully talented men and women, dedicated to serving their 
constituents and to improving the quality of our national life. I do 
not expect to have the good fortune again to work with such a fine, 
well-motivated and able group. But even this exceptional group 
sometimes yields to the virus of discontent which has infected the body 
  In 1995, before retiring from the Senate to become president of the 
University of Oklahoma, my good friend David Boren sent a letter to his 
colleagues lamenting the fact that ``we have become so partisan and so 
personal in our attacks upon each other that we can no longer 
effectively work together in the natural interest.'' It was a 
thoughtful warning that has meaning far beyond the U.S. Senate and 
applies to our whole national political dialog.
  The fact is that the democratic process depends on respectful 
disagreement. As soon as we confuse civil debate with reckless 
disparagement, we have crippled the process. A breakdown of civility 
reinforces extremism and

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discourages the hard process of negotiating across party lines to reach 
a broad-based consensus.
  The Founding Fathers who prescribed the ground rules for debate in 
Congress certainly had all these considerations in mind. We address 
each other in the third person with what seems like elaborate courtesy. 
The purpose, of course, is to remind us constantly that whatever the 
depth of our disagreements, we are all common instruments of the 
democratic process.
  Some of that spirit, I believe, needs to be infused into the 
continuing national debate that takes place outside the Halls of 
Congress. It should be absorbed by our political parties and it should 
be respected by the media, particularly in this era of electronic 
information. The democratic process is not well served by spin doctors 
and sound bites.
  Nor is it well served by blustering assertions of no compromise, such 
as those we heard in the wake of the 1994 congressional elections. 
David Boren had the temerity--and wisdom--to suggest that instead of 
holding weekly meetings to plot how to outsmart each other, the party 
caucuses in the Senate should hold two meetings a month to explore 
bipartisan solutions on pending issues. Again, it's another good idea 
which could apply to the national dialog.
  I would only add my own prescription for comity, which can be 
summarized in three simple rules:
  First, never respond to an adversary in ad hominem terms. In my six 
campaigns for the Senate, I have never resorted to negative 
advertising. The electorate seems to have liked that approach, since 
they have given me an average margin of victory of 64 percent.
  Second, always let the other fellow have your way. I have always 
found that winning an ally is far more important than getting exclusive 
credit. In politics, the best way to convince someone is to lead him or 
her to discover what you already know.
  Third, sometimes, half a loaf can feed an army. The democratic 
process is meant to be slow and deliberate, and change is hard to 
achieve. Very often, achievement of half of an objective is just as 
significant as achievement of 100 percent. And it may make it easier to 
achieve the rest later.
  In Government, as in all endeavors, it is the end result that 
counts--whether that result is half a loaf or more. Hopefully, an 
increase in comity and civility, together with renewed emphasis on 
moral responsibility, will result in a qualitative improvement in end 

  In that regard, I have been guided throughout my Senate career by a 
simple motto and statement of purpose. It is a mantra of just seven 

              translate ideas into action and help people

  There have been some days, to be sure, when neither of these 
objectives has been achieved, but week after week and year after year, 
I have found those words to be useful guideposts for a legislative 
career. They help one sort the wheat from the chaff.
  And they also are a constant reminder that our role is to produce 
results in the form of sound legislation, and not engage in endless and 
repetitive debate that leads nowhere. This is an especially hard 
prescription for the U.S. Senate, comprised as it is of 100 coequal 
Members, each representing a sovereign State. Everyone has a right to 
speak at length.
  But there are some limits. And a principal one is the Senate's rule 
that debate can be curtailed by invoking cloture, if three-fifths of 
the Members, or 60 Senators, vote to do so. It has been my general 
policy to vote for cloture, regardless of party or issue, except when 
there were very compelling circumstances to the contrary. Over my 
Senate career I have cost more than 350 votes for cloture, which may be 
something of a record.
  It should be noted that circumstances have changed greatly since the 
Senate imposed the cloture rule back in 1917. In those days, there were 
genuine filibusters with marathon speeches that often kept the Senate 
in continuous session for days, including all night sessions with cots 
set up in the lobbies. Nowadays, such displays of endurance virtually 
never occur, but at the very threat of extended debate, the 60-vote 
requirement is invoked to see if the minority has enough votes to 
prevail against it--and if they do, the pending bill is often pulled 
down and set aside.
  The 60-vote margin, which originally was set even higher at two-
thirds of those present, was designed to protect the minority's right 
to make itself heard, while still providing a vehicle for curbing 
debate. Only a super majority can impose limits. But as time and 
practice have evolved, the other side of the coin has revealed itself--
namely that a willful minority of 40 or more Senators can use the 
cloture rule to block legislative progress. Recent majority leaders of 
both parties have expressed frustration with the deadlocks that can 
  The ultimate solution, of course, might be to outlaw all super 
majorities, except for those specifically allowed by the Constitution--
such as veto overrides, treaty approvals and impeachment verdicts. 
Since the Constitution carefully provides for these specific 
exceptions, it might be assumed that the Framers intended that all 
other business should be transacted by a simple majority.
  I must hasten to say that while I find the logic of such an ultimate 
solution to be intriguing, I do not subscribe to it. As a Senator from 
the smallest State, I have always been sensitive to the fact that 
circumstances could arise in which I would need the special protection 
of minority rights which is accorded by the cloture rule.
  One possible solution which certainly bears future consideration is a 
compromise recently proposed by Senator Tom Harkin. Under his plan, the 
existing cloture rule would be modified by providing that if the three-
fifth is not obtained on the first try, the margin be reduced 
progressively on subsequent cloture votes on the same bill over a 
period of time until only a simple majority would be required to shut 
off debate. Such a plan would protect the minority but would do so 
within reasonable limits of time, after which the majority could 
conduct the business of the Senate.
  With reasonable reforms in the cloture rule, and with a new spirit of 
comity and civility along with a renewed sense of responsible public 
service, I do believe the Senate, and our institutions of government in 
general, can rise to the challenges of the new century. And in doing 
so, they hopefully will address more satisfactorily than we have done 
so far some of the truly compelling issues of our times--such as 
economic disparity and racial and social inequality.

  Over the years, I have thought time and again of the historical 
comparison between Sparta and Athens. Sparta is known historically for 
its ability to wage war, and little more. Athens, however, is known for 
its immense contributions to culture and civilization.
  In all that I have done over the past 36 years in the U.S. Senate, I 
have had that comparison uppermost in mind. I believe deeply that when 
the full history of our Nation is recorded, it is critical that we be 
known as an Athens, and not a Sparta.
  My efforts in foreign relations have been guided accordingly. I 
believe that instead of our ability to wage war, we should be known for 
our ability to bring peace. Having been the first and only nation to 
use a nuclear weapon, we should be known as the nation that brought an 
end to the spread of nuclear weapons. We should be known as the nation 
that went the extra mile to bring peace among warring nations. We 
should be known as the nation that made both land and sea safe for all.
  In particular, I believe that we should seize every opportunity to 
engage in multilateral efforts to preserve world peace. We should 
redouble our support for the United Nations, and not diminish it as 
some propose. We should not lose sight of the UN's solid record of 
brokering peace--actions that have consistently served U.S. interests 
and spared us the costly alternatives that might have otherwise 
  In education, I want us to be known as the nation that continually 
expanded educational opportunities--that brought every child into the 
educational mainstream, and that brought the dream of a college 
education within the reach of every student who has the drive, talent, 
and desire. We should always remember that public support for education 
is the best possible investment we can make in our Nation's

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future. It should be accorded the highest priority.
  In the arts and humanities, I want us to be known for our 
contributions, and for the encouragement we give to young and old alike 
to pursue their God-given talents. I want us to be recognized as a 
nation that opened the arts to everyone, and brought the humanities 
into every home. And here too, I believe government has a proper role 
in strengthening and preserving our national cultural heritage.
  Pursuing these objectives is not an endeavor that ends with the 
retirement of one person. It is a lifetime pursuit of a nation, and not 
an individual. It is always a work of art in progress, and always one 
subject to temporary lapses and setbacks. My hope, however, is that it 
is our ongoing mission to become, like Athens, a nation that is known 
for its civility and its civilization.



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