Monday, January 05, 2009

Claiborne Pell, 90

I was sad to hear that Senator Pell died while I was on vacation. He was a literal "good guy" who gave an unknown 25-year old novice an interview for a project that eventually became my documentary feature film Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die? From John Mulligan's obituary in the Providence Journal:
He was a onetime Foreign Service officer whose lifelong goal, the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, became a disappointment once he attained it. But as a dogged generalist who was happy to till a legislative field for years be fore it bore fruit, Pell scored lasting achievements. Cases in point were his campaigns against drunk driving, and for federally subsidized railroads.

He was a man who had a national college scholarship -- the Pell grants -- and a local bridge -- the Pell Bridge spanning Jamestown and Newport -- named for him, plus honorary degrees and international decorations running to the dozens. But Pell never outgrew a devotion to his late father that went beyond the filial.

The gaunt son wore the stout father's belt -- wrapping it around his waist several times to keep it properly cinched -- and decked his Capitol office with such mementoes as the sepia-toned photo of Navy Secretary Franklin D. Rosevelt, New York Gov. Al Smith and New York Democratic Chairman Herbert C. Pell.

The only child of Herbert Claiborne and Matilda (Bigelow) Pell, Jr., Claiborne deBorda Pell was born on Nov. 22, 1918, into a family whose forbears included fighters on both sides of the American Revolution, five members of Congress and a vice president (George M. Dallas, who served under President James K. Polk from 1845 to 1849).

Pell's father represented Manhattan's silk stocking district in the House from 1918-20. As President, Roosevelt appointed him minister to Portugal and Hungary.

His father's work gave Pell a front-row seat on history and shaped his ambitions. They were on hand, for example, to hear London applaud Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler. The future senator drew particular inspiration from Herbert Pell's little-noted efforts on behalf of Jews in flight from pre-war Nazi Germany. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Herbert Pell was instrumental in the establishment of both the Sosua colony for Jewish Refugees in the Dominican Republic, and a 1944 UN Resolution asking that crimes against stateless persons or any individuals because of their race or religion be included as a war crime, since such acts are against the "laws of humanity." (USHMM 1994, 33)]

The family summered often in Newport, moving there permanently when Claiborne was nine. He received his early education at St. George's School there and studied at Princeton during what he later called ``the last of the F. Scott Fitzgerald days.''

Young Pell ran cross country, played on a rugby team that won the Intercollegiate Championship and graduated cum laude in 1940. He later took a masters degree in fine arts at Columbia.

After graduation, Pell worked as a roustabout in the Oklahoma oil wells. Then he made his first sally into foreign affairs as a private secretary at the American Legation in Portugal. After the war broke out, Pell drove trucks in the effort to carry emergency supplies to prisoners of war in Germany. He was arrested several times by the Nazi government.

Four months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Pell enlisted in the Coast Guard as a ship's cook. He saw duty in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean before he contracted undulant fever and was sent back to the Newport Naval Hospital. There he met his future wife, Nuala O'Donnell, a fellow Newporter whose great-grandfather had founded the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company.

Pell played bit parts in the opening scenes of the Cold War, watching the tanks of Soviet occupation roll into Czechoslovakia and clerking for the creators of the United Nations in San Francisco. As a senator, Pell could always produce a well-thumbed blue copy of the U.N. charter from his jacket pocket. Pell's tour in the Foreign Service included assignments to the consulate in Genoa, Italy and the State Department's Baltic Bureau.

In 1951, the Pells built a shingled ranch house, largely of Pell's design, overlooking Rhode Island Sound on Ledge Road, near Bailey's Beach in Newport. Pell spent much of the 1950s in investment banking but kept active in politics.

When he jumped into the free-for-all to succeed retiring Sen. Theodore F. Green in 1960, no less an authority than Democratic Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy called Pell the least electable man in America. Political Rhode Island tended to dismiss Pell's candicacy as a sideshow to the blood match between two hard Irish pols - former Governors Dennis J. Roberts and J. Howard McGrath - both past their prime and with a whiff of scandal about them.

The newcomer unleashed on them the first modern political campaign the state had seen, pouring his own money into television, polls and professional managers of the Democratic primary campaign. And Pell set rules for himself that became his hallmarks on and off the campaign trial:

Don't attack the other fellow. Keep a sense of humor. Do the unexpected.

When the opposition cried ``carpetbagger,'' Pell fired back with full-page newspaper ads featuring his grand-uncle Duncan Pell, Rhode Island lieutenant governor in 1865.

When one foe called him ``a creampuff,'' Pell trumpeted the endorsement of the bakers union.

When somebody sneered that little Claiborne had been raised by a nanny, Pell trotted out a very nice old lady who made a very nice impression on voters.

Pell's appeal may have been less mysterious than it appeared, based as it was on the simple tool with which Pell disarmed opponents for decades: a self-deprecating brand of honesty.

The late U.S. Sen. John H. Chafee, a failed Pell challenger who became his Senate colleague for two decades, once said, "It's very fundamental in politics to be what you are. 'To thine own self be true.' Claiborne has always been very straightforward in that regard.''