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Senator Claiborne Pell, at 90; served R.I., helped students go to college

Senator Pell, in his home in Washington, D.C. Senator Pell, in his home in Washington, D.C. (new york times/file1996)
By J.Y. Smith
Special To The Washington Post / January 2, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Claiborne Pell, a six-term Rhode Island Democrat who rose to be chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, died yesterday at his Newport, R.I., home. He had Parkinson's disease since 1994. He was 90.

A Yankee Brahmin and former Foreign Service officer who was virtually unbeatable at the polls in a largely Catholic, blue-collar state, Mr. Pell was best-known for his sponsorship of the 1972 program that has helped 54 million low-income and moderate-income students attend college. He also sponsored the legislation that founded the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities.

He also was committed to maritime and foreign affairs issues and was strongly pro-choice on abortion rights, a consistent vote for labor, and an ardent advocate of arms control and the rule of law in international affairs.

First elected to the Senate in 1960, Mr. Pell was aloof, diffident, courteous, and self-effacing. Unfailingly polite, he also had quirks, such as jogging in a tweed coat. One of his favorite sayings was, "I always let the other fellow have my way." Eccentric and occasionally absent-minded, he was asked during a 1990 election-year debate what legislation he had sponsored that specifically benefited Rhode Island.

"I couldn't give you a specific answer," he averred in a famous reply. "My memory's not as good as it should be."

He won reelection by a ratio of almost 2 to 1.

The qualities that endeared Mr. Pell to the voters of Rhode Island also endeared him to colleagues on Capitol Hill.

"Claiborne was a giant in the Senate and beloved by the Kennedy family. He was a close, personal friend of President Kennedy, and all of our family has been proud to call him our friend since that time," Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts said in a statement last night. "He believed strongly that a good education could open infinite doors of opportunity, and he has transformed the lives of millions of young people who have been able to go to college because of the grant that rightly bears his name."

Mr. Pell's unwillingness to impose his own agenda on others, however, served him poorly, some thought, when he became chairman of the prestigious Senate Foreign Relations Committee when the Democrats regained control of the Senate in 1987.

The committee had been a forum for opposition for the US policies in Vietnam during the 1960s, under the forceful guidance of Senator J. William Fulbright, a Democrat from Arkansas. In the mid-1980s, under Senator Richard Lugar, a Republican of Indiana, the committee faced down White House opposition to important initiatives involving South Africa and the return of democracy to the Philippines.

But Mr. Pell refused to lead drives for the issues he cared about, such as opposition to the use of military force under many circumstances and passionate support for nuclear disarmament, the United Nations, and human rights.

In 1991, Mr. Pell reorganized the committee, giving much of its work to subcommittees and much of his power to subcommittee chairmen. For the first time, subcommittees of the Foreign Relations Committee were allowed to have independent funding and staffing. Some criticized the reorganization and accused the senator of carrying out a coup against himself.

The committee became marginalized even in such basic matters as State Department and foreign aid authorization bills, which were taken over by the Senate Appropriations Committee, and questions of war and peace. When President George Bush asked for authorization for the Persian Gulf War, the Senate leadership formed a special committee to deal with it. Except in World War II, it was the only time the Foreign Relations Committee was bypassed on a question involving war.

"I would have preferred that we have first crack at it," Mr. Pell commented an interview with the New Republic, "but I didn't make an issue of it."

In 1993, amid debate over the nomination of Roberta Achtenberg, a lesbian, to be an assistant secretary in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Mr. Pell impressed colleagues when he took the Senate floor to announce that one of his daughters, Julia, was a lesbian.

"I would not want to see her barred from a government job because of her orientation," he said.

Claiborne DeBorda Pell was born in New York City on Nov. 22, 1918. The family had lived in New York since colonial times and its holdings once embraced much of Westchester County and The Bronx. Five of his forebears, including his father, Herbert Claiborne Pell, served in Congress. His father later was minister to Portugal and then Hungary during the presidency of his friend President Franklin D. Roosevelt. When Claiborne Pell was 9, the family moved to Rhode Island and settled in Newport.

Mr. Pell graduated from Princeton University and took a master's degree in history at Columbia University in 1946. During World War II, he served in the Coast Guard. After the war, he joined the Foreign Service and was assigned to Genoa, Italy. His foreign languages included French, Italian, and Portuguese.

In the 1950s, he went into investment banking in Rhode Island. He also became registration chairman of the Democratic National Committee. When he decided to run for the Senate in 1960, he demonstrated his prowess on the hustings by defeating two former governors for the Democratic nomination. He was helped in the general election by his strong ties to John F. Kennedy.

He was one of the principal figures in creating the government financing program originally known as Basic Educational Opportunity Grants. The awards, renamed Pell grants in his honor in 1980, are the federal government's largest need-based grants to college students.

His interest in extrasensory perception was such that he assigned a Senate staffer to this subject. During the 1990 election campaign, the aide played speeches by President Bush and other high officials on the topic of Iran backward. In doing so, Mr. Pell informed the secretary of defense, the word "Simone" had been discerned, and he described this as "a code word that would not be in the national interest to be known."

"It sounds wacky but there may be some merit to it," Mr. Pell commented. He told an interviewer later that the "Simone" issue "had not been helpful in the campaign."

At the time of his retirement in 1995, Time magazine dubbed him "Senator Oddball," rehashing a 1987 incident when, fearing an extrasensory perception gap with the Soviets, he invited carnival-level spoon bender Uri Geller to Washington to demonstrate his skills. Mr. Pell also attended a symposium on UFO abductions.

His daughter Julia died in 2006. Mr. Pell leaves his wife of 64 years, Nuala O'Donnell Pell, of Newport, and three other children, Herbert Claiborne III, Christopher, and Nuala Dallas Yates.

J.Y. Smith, the Washington Post's former obituaries editor, died in 2006. Staff writer Patricia Sullivan contributed to this obituary.

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