Former R.I. Senator Claiborne Pell, 90; Sponsored Grant Program

Sen. Claiborne Pell in September of 1995.
Sen. Claiborne Pell in September of 1995. (Bill Powers - Reuters)
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By J.Y. Smith
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 2, 2009

Claiborne Pell, 90, a six-term Rhode Island Democrat who rose to be chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, died Jan. 1 at his Newport, R.I., home. He had had Parkinson's disease since 1994.

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

He was committed to maritime and foreign affairs issues, strongly in favor of 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, Sen. 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 went on to win reelection by a margin of almost 2 to 1.

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

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid yesterday called him "a great American and a giant of the Senate. Any student who has ever received federal aid has Senator Pell to thank for his or her education. The Pell Grants he created revolutionized our education system for generations of Americans who might not otherwise be able to pursue higher education."

But his unwillingness to impose his agenda on others 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 to U.S. policies in Vietnam during the 1960s under the forceful guidance of Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark). In the mid-1980s, under Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R.-Ind.), the committee faced down White House opposition to important initiatives involving South Africa and the return of democracy to the Philippines.

But Sen. 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 of nuclear disarmament, the United Nations and human rights.

In 1991, Mr. Pell engaged in a process that critics described as carrying out a coup against himself: a reorganization of the committee that gave much of its work to subcommittees and much of Sen. Pell's power to subcommittee chairmen. For the first time, subcommittees of the Foreign Relations Committee were allowed to have independent funding and staffing.

The committee became marginalized even in respect to such basic functions as the 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 H.W. 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.

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