This Pell Tolled For Ordinary Americans

Published by New American Media, 1/​5/​09

Editor’s Note: Sen. Claiborne Pell might have been a blueblood, but when a flustered cousin set off the burglar alarm at his home, she realized his name worked like a charm with ordinary working-class folks as well. NAM contributor Eve Pell’s book, “We Used to Own the Bronx: Memoirs of a Former Debutante,” will be published in February by SUNY Press.

Senator Claiborne Pell, for whom the college-aid grants are named, died on New Years Day. Despite his inherited wealth and a well-earned reputation as a “quirky blueblood,” the predominantly blue-collar voters of Rhode Island took him to their hearts, electing him again and again for 36 years until he retired in 1996. Luckily for me, he was my very hospitable cousin.

When I visited Washington, I usually stayed at his family’s Georgetown mansion. Many years ago, on a weekend when he and his family were away, I was there for the wedding of a friend. But, returning to the house quite late, I set the burglar alarm as I had been instructed—and, because of an open window, caused instant pandemonium. A dreadful, insistent buzzing erupted—and refused to go off no matter how many ways I wiggled the key. The security company phoned; I was unable to supply the proper password. Though I finally managed to silence the alarm, in a matter of moments, two police officers banged on the front door. I envisioned being hauled off in a squad car by the two stern officers, a white man and a black woman. “The senator is in Rhode Island for the weekend,” I nervously told them, and, showing my driver’s license, explained that I was visiting from California. "Which senator?" asked the woman.

“Pell,” I replied. She smiled. “I went to college on a Pell Grant," she said and suddenly I was no longer suspected burglar. "Have a good evening," she said cheerfully as they drove off.

When I interviewed Claiborne in 1995 for a memoir about our family, he spoke of the principles that guided his political career and that of his father, who had appalled his upper-crust Republican pals by supporting Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

“Dad made me conscious that family decisions ought not to be based on financial gain, but rather to take responsible leadership in the community,” Claiborne said. “I could never understand, if you have three meals a day and a place to live, why try to double or triple what you have? So many of my Princeton classmates did that.”

The senator lived by an almost medieval knightly code, believing that the top part of society has an obligation to see that the middle and lower classes succeed as well. He wanted a position, he said, “where you can influence events so that people may be lifted up, not ground down, by history.”

So, in 1959, when Rhode Island had an open Senate seat, he decided to run for it, pooling his own money with large contributions from his wife and his father to finance the campaign. Despite not being endorsed by the Democratic Party, Claiborne trounced his opposition.

One distinguishing aspect of his Senate career was his staunch refusal to bend with prevailing opinion. He was pro-choice in a Catholic state, opposed the Vietnam war early on, and went to Cuba to meet Fidel Castro. He pursued oddball interests like extrasensory perception. But despite (or because of) his insistence on following his principles even when they were unpopular, he kept getting reelected. He developed a habit of walking alone--no aides, no cameras--through Rhode Island cities and talking with people to learn what was on their minds.

Over the years, he was a tireless worker for peace and engineered passage of a treaty outlawing nuclear weapons on the ocean floors. Besides the Pell Grants that have helped to send 54 million needy students to college, he sponsored legislation creating the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. When the Reagan administration secretly funded the Contra forces to overthrow Nicaragua’s elected Socialist government, Claiborne bucked prevailing opinion by referring to them as “our terrorists.” He was a gentle, relentless advocate for his causes—self-efffacing and non-confrontational, willing to compromise when he had to, and refusing to speak ill of his opponents.

But his style did not serve him well when he became chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where the ruthless Senator Jesse Helms outmaneuvered him time and again. Being a gentleman had its limitations.

Although his constituents sometimes disagreed with him or joked about his new-age ideas, they knew he was one politician who could not be bought and that he had their interests at heart. They enjoyed his eccentricities: the millionaire who wears his father’s old clothes and takes the bus; the elite club member who listens with deference to the humblest Rhode Islander on the street.

Let us hope that, with a new administration coming into office in a troubled time, more people will see their responsibility as Claiborne saw his: “Translate ideas into events, to help people.”