Friday, January 2, 2009

Claiborne Pell, Ex-Senator, Dies at 90

Stephen Crowley/The New York Times - Senator Claiborne Pell served six terms in office, until 1997.

Claiborne Pell, the quirky, patrician former senator from Rhode Island who created the college grant program that bears his name and wrote the legislation that established the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, died just after midnight Thursday at his Newport, R.I., home. He was 90.

Mr. Pell, a Democrat, was widely regarded as the most formidable politician in Rhode Island history; in six statewide victories over Republican opponents, he received an average of 64 percent of the vote.

36 years in the Senate. Another example of a wealthy person devoting himself to public service.

Mr. Pell was best known for devising legislation that created the program that has dispensed grants to tens of millions of poor and middle-class college students.

But his wealth is different than the Kennedys, say.

Mr. Pell’s vast family wealth was derived from an 18th-century royal charter of land from King George III of England ... His ancestors were the original lords of the manor in Pelham Manor, N.Y., lived among the old-money families in Newport. Five of his relatives have been elected to either the House or the Senate, including his father, a one-term representative from Manhattan’s old Silk Stocking District.

After winning his first Senate term in 1960, Mr. Pell, a Princeton graduate, sponsored the preparation of a large two-volume statistical report in 1963 that became the basis of the bill creating the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant, or BEOG, which provided financial aid for the needy to attend college.

I got BEOG grants, and they were very helpful.

Asked in an interview in 1996 how the programs came to be known as the Pell Grants, he wisecracked: “Because there was no Senator Beog!” In fact, the name was officially changed to Pell Grants in 1980 by his admiring colleagues in Congress.

Quirky, indeed.

Mr. Pell also was the author of the National Foundation of the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965. That legislation paved the way for the National Endowment for the Arts, which makes federal grants to artists and arts organizations, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, which channels federal money in literature, history, language and philosophy, among other fields.

Difficult to think of a country as large and wealthy as the United States not having the Endowments.

The creation of the National Endowment for the Arts did much over the years to foster avant-garde styles and techniques that made American artists renowned worldwide for work that Mr. Pell personally disliked.

“I don’t like abstract paintings,” he told an interviewer in 1996, saying he had no use for any artwork “more abstract than Picasso’s Blue Period.”

I agree with that judgement.

“I think that many of the grants made to artists by the endowment were mistakes,” he said, adding quickly, “But I’ll never intrude.”

Thank goodness for such politicans.

Mr. Pell vigorously opposed the war in Vietnam and sponsored a treaty banning nuclear weapons on the ocean floor. He became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1987, only to lose the post to Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina after the Republicans captured the Senate in 1994.

Mr. Pell, in his conduct of the Foreign Relations Committee, was sometimes criticized as insufficiently forceful. “If Claiborne has any weaknesses, he is too much of a gentleman,” Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware and now the vice president-elect, once said. To this characterization, Mr. Pell replied, “I am not confrontational by nature.”

But he also stood out for taking unconventional positions and staying with them. In contrast to almost all his Senate colleagues and to several administrations, he advocated an end to the isolation of Communist Cuba by the United States. He called for a policy of small steps toward normalizing relations with Cuba, an approach that later gained broader support.

Ahead of his time in so many ways, so often.

The Pells traced their New England ancestry to the 1700s and their wealth from vast land holdings in what is now Westchester County, N.Y. In Mr. Pell’s Senate office hung a painting of Vice President George M. Dallas, a great-great-granduncle who served from 1845 to 1849.

George M. Dallas was the nation's 11th Vice President, Serving under James Polk.

After attending private schools, including St. George’s School in Newport, Mr. Pell earned a degree in history at Princeton in 1940. Upon graduation, he went to Europe to help people persecuted by the Nazis and was twice detained. Four months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Coast Guard as a seaman. He served on convoy and did patrol duty in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean. He remained devoted to the Coast Guard, retiring from the Reserve in 1978 as a captain.

He went to Europe in 1940, to help Nazi victims. Amazing.

After 93-year-old Theodore Green, the grand old man of Rhode Island politics, retired from the Senate, Mr. Pell ran for his seat and was elected in 1960. Although clearly patrician, Mr. Pell had a pro-union record, and that, along with his unassuming manner, kept him in good standing with a predominantly blue-collar electorate that had voted Democratic since 1930.

John Chafee, who served as a Republican senator from Rhode Island, recounted a story for The Associated Press that became a favorite in descriptions of his colleague.

Mr. Pell was campaigning in Providence in 1972 when it began raining hard. He sent an aide to get him a pair of rubbers for his shoes, and when the aide returned, Mr. Pell asked in his formal manner of speech, “To whom am I indebted for these fine rubbers?”

“I got them at Thom McAn, Senator,” the aide answered, referring to the shoe store chain. Mr. Pell replied, “Well, do tell Mr. McAn that I am much obliged to him.”

Mr. Pell was an avid jogger, but he often wore a tweed sport coat when running, and he pushed for Congressional investigations into ESP and U.F.O.’s.

And when a campaign opponent once sneered at him for his patrician ways, branding him “a cream puff,” Mr. Pell responded by promptly obtaining the endorsement of a bakers’ union.

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