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Claiborne Pell: Story of an Uncommon Senator

As a legislator, Pell is best remembered for his stint as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1987 to 1995 and for his work in establishing direct aid to college students, which became known as Pell Grants.

Miller is particularly adept at illustrating Pell’s role in foreign policy, beginning with the young Senator’s initiation to U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Pell accompanied Democratic leader Mike Mansfield on the 1962 trip to the country that led to the Montanan’s famous refusal to express confidence in the South Vietnamese government.

“Pell initially had supported [the Kennedy] White House policy,” Miller writes. “He initially believed, as did Mansfield and most other Congressmen of the time before so many troops were on the ground and losses had mounted, that the United States had strategic interests in Southeast Asia.”

Pell became more engaged in the issue as the years progressed and the war intensified, including a secret 1967 meeting with Mai Van Bo, a North Vietnamese official, in Paris. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs William Bundy and others in the Johnson administration opposed the meeting.

Nonetheless, Pell later briefed President Lyndon Johnson on the conversation.

The Paris trip revealed another aspect of Pell’s personality: For all of his wealth, he was tremendously frugal, and he expressed regret that the unofficial nature of the meeting barred him from expensing the trip.

Beyond foreign policy, the book’s discussion of Pell’s legislative achievements is often less colorful than its treatment of political accomplishments and personal anecdotes, but it is a valuable resource for understanding the markers that define Pell’s career.

While Pell spent much of his time engaged in foreign policy debates, his name has come down to the current generation for making it easier for students with far less money than himself to go to college.

As Miller tells the story, Pell’s
namesake achievement almost never made it into law. 

The idea of the college grant program had popular support. But the legislation became mired in an unrelated fight about race relations.

House Members attached a rider to Pell’s higher education bill in 1972 to bar federal funding of forced busing to achieve desegregation. 

Miller details the intricate deal-making of the House-Senate conference committee and the eventual compromise on the busing language that would delay enforcement of court orders until 1974, thus freeing Pell’s legislation.

Pell went on to be re-elected five times and to serve as Foreign Relations chairman, where he clashed repeatedly with North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms.

During his last term in office, Pell was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, news that became public in April 1995. He opted to retire.

Miller writes that in announcing his retirement, Pell said that while he felt “strong, healthy and sharp,” that “there is a natural time for all life’s adventures to come to an end.”

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