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

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.

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

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

"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 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. Among his ancestors was the founder of the Lorillard Tobacco Co. Five of his forebears, including his father, Herbert Claiborne Pell, served in Congress. His father went on to be U.S. 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.

Sen. Pell graduated from Princeton University and received a master's degree in history from Columbia University in 1946. During World War II, he served in the Coast Guard in the Atlantic. After the war, he joined the Foreign Service. His positions abroad included a period in Genoa, Italy, where he was a consular officer. His foreign languages included French, Italian and Portuguese.

He participated in the 1945 San Francisco conference that drafted the United Nations charter and was a staunch defender of the institution throughout his life, often carrying a copy of the charter in his pocket.

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-financed college grants 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 had a Senate staffer assigned to the subject. During the 1990 campaign, the aide played speeches by Bush and other high officials on the topic of Iran backward. In doing so, Sen. 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," Sen. 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. Sen. Pell also attended a symposium on UFO abductions.

His daughter Julia Pell died in 2006. His son Herbert Claiborne Pell III died in 1999.

Survivors include his wife of 64 years, Nuala O'Donnell Pell, a descendant of the founders of the A&P supermarket chain, of Newport; and two children, Christopher T. Pell and Nuala Dallas Yates.

J.Y. Smith, The Washington Post's former obituaries editor and principal writer of this report, died in 2006. Staff writer Patricia Sullivan contributed to this report.

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