Feb. 14, 2016

Claiborne Pell: Story of an Uncommon Senator

Quirky. Odd. Dilettante. 

Those are some of the words used to describe the late Claiborne Pell, who came to the Senate in 1961 and stayed until 1996.

Biographer G. Wayne Miller confirms all of those epithets in “An Uncommon Man: The Life & Times of Senator Claiborne Pell,” while making clear that across nearly four decades in the Senate, Pell was an uncommonly effective legislator.

“Quirky” was the word employed by Vice President Joseph Biden in a eulogy for Pell in 2009, and it certainly fit.

But calling Pell “quirky” or “eccentric” was not necessarily intended as a slight. Biden, certainly, had the utmost respect for Pell. After Biden’s first wife and young daughter were killed in a car accident in 1972, the year Biden was first elected to the Senate, Pell was among those who took the young man from Delaware under his wing.

He also played a key role in the establishment of one of Biden’s favorite federal agencies: Amtrak.

Miller, a Providence Journal writer since 1981, admits in the book’s acknowledgements that he never planned to write a full-length biography of Pell.

That changed after the Senator’s widow, Nuala, called Miller in the summer after her husband’s death to inquire about his interest in writing a biography, with access to her records.

The result is a 356-page examination of one of the more eclectic Senators of the 20th century.

A liberal Democrat, Pell epitomized the New England patrician politician of another era, more Henry Cabot Lodge than Pawtucket pol.

Born in New York, he was a regular in Newport, where his wealthy family (his father served one term in the House) had
summered for a century.

His wife was heiress to the A&P fortune.

They used the family wealth to spend astronomical sums on advertising for his first primary and general election campaigns in 1960, Miller writes, including paying for a 12-page supplement to a September edition of the Journal, the largest newspaper in the state.

Despite his patrician mien — or maybe because of it — Rhode Island’s blue-collar Democrats re-elected Pell time and again. 

Never a natural campaigner, Pell might not have had much of a connection with the state’s ethnic voters, Politics in America noted in 1990, but he could communicate with them in the languages of their fathers: He spoke Portuguese, Italian and French.

Miller quotes a local union leader at the time of Pell’s first Senate election saying his members supported Pell because “There is something in this aristocrat, something in his heart, that our people know by intuition.”

Certainly, by most definitions, Pell was anything but just another rich white guy.

The book explores his interest in the possibility of life on other planets and his employment of an investigator of
paranormal activity.

“Pell was not averse to psychic possibilities,” Miller writes. “There might be government use for such powers, he believed — and even if not, inquiry into unconventional possibilities of the human mind appealed to his intellectual curiosity and to the longing he still felt for his father,” who died in 1961.

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