January 6, 2009

Floor Statement of Sheldon Whitehouse, “A Tribute to U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell”

As Prepared for Delivery

Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Mr./Madam President, just this morning in this Chamber, we saw bright and promising Senate careers begin, with all that joy and hope. Yesterday, Rhode Island saw the sun set on an era, with the funeral of our friend, Senator Claiborne Pell.

Many in this body served with him and knew him well. Rhode Island is grateful to Majority Leader Reid, Majority Whip Durbin, Claiborne Pell’s dear friends Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden, and Senators Pat Leahy, Dick Lugar, Orrin Hatch, Chris Dodd, Jeff Bingaman, John Kerry, and Joe Lieberman for honoring Senator Pell by attending the funeral.

To me and to many in the Ocean State, Claiborne Pell was a mentor and example, a leader whose vision, grace, and authentic kindness left an indelible imprint.

Claiborne Pell, born in New York City in 1918, first came to the Senate in 1961 after a colorful primary battle that pitted him as an unknown against two renowned and powerful former Democratic governors, Dennis J. Roberts and J. Howard McGrath, contending for the seat being vacated by Theodore Francis Green.

It did not look good. Pell was the ultimate outsider – so much the underdog that John F. Kennedy, running for the presidency, called him the least electable man in America. At his funeral yesterday, I saw Pell buttons for that race on mourners’ lapels.

The Providence Journal described the race that ensued as “the first modern political campaign the state had seen.” Senator Pell invested his own money in television ads and polling, and won the Democratic primary – the first unendorsed candidate ever to do so in Rhode Island.

He went on to win the general election by the largest margin ever at that time in the state’s history. More Rhode Islanders – 69 percent – voted for Claiborne Pell, the “least electable man in America,” than for John Kennedy (a point Claiborne was only too pleased to gently remind the President of whenever the occasion presented itself).

And Rhode Island got its first look at the one-of-a-kind political temperament that was to define Senator Pell for the rest of his life: courteous, innovative, and quietly humorous.

In an interview with the New York Times, Senator Pell looked back on the heady days of 1960.

“I remember my first campaign,” he said. “My opponent called me a cream puff. That’s what he said. Well I rushed out and got the baker’s union to endorse me. Frankly,” he continued, “I think a little bit of humor is sorely lacking now.”

Claiborne Pell believed, as he once told the Providence Journal, “that government – and the federal government in particular – can, should and does make a positive impact on the lives of most Americans.”

Certainly Senator Pell’s positive impact on the lives of the people he served will be remembered for generations.

Two years after taking office, Senator Pell sponsored legislation that became the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant, which has come to be known, in honor of its champion, as the “Pell Grant.”

The nation’s colleges wanted to receive federal aid directly. But Senator Pell believed the help should go directly to students.

Senator Pell had enlisted in the Coast Guard four months before Pearl Harbor, serving in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and he used a GI Bill scholarship to earn a master’s degree from Columbia University. The GI bill showed him the transformative power of a college education, and Claiborne Pell resolved that all young Americans should have the same opportunity he, and millions of veterans, had.

Every year in September, a new group of students goes off to college, and we see anew the work of Senator Pell enlivening millions of young Americans who use Pell Grants to pursue their dreams. In 2008, the Pell Grant program was nearly 5.6 million grants worth $16.4 billion – all from his idea.

I remember in Rhode Island a few years ago I was at an event with a number of Senators, including our colleague and Interior Secretary-designate, Senator Ken Salazar of Colorado. Senator Pell came to the event in his wheelchair, and I went over to greet him.

Senator Salazar also came over to Senator Pell, took his hand, and told him: Senator, I went to college because of the Pell Grant program. Now, I am standing here before you today, a United States Senator, thanks to the vision and foresight you showed years ago, your vision that every American should be able to get a college education.

It was an unforgettable moment. It happened because Senator Pell understood the difference that higher education could make in the lives of America’s young people – from a young Ken Salazar in rural Colorado to toddlers now around the country who will seize the opportunities of America in the decades to come.

Senator Pell knew that the arts, too, could transform lives. He authored the landmark legislation that gave rise to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, institutions that secured a place for culture and the arts in the public life of this nation, and over the years, have helped bring poetry, drama, dance, painting, sculpture, song, literature, and history to millions of Americans.

We New Englanders are also indebted to Senator Pell for his passion for public transportation, and in particular for his long fight to develop for the Northeast Corridor a transit system that could support the cities of today and tomorrow.

As we face the challenges of rising energy costs, economic recession, and urban stresses on our congested highways, Americans will rely more than ever on public transit systems like Amtrak. Senator Pell’s foresight again served us well.

Here in the Senate, Senator Pell is remembered for his big ideas. In Rhode Island, we remember him also for his gentle and generous spirit.

He had lived all over the world and was honored with medals from at least eighteen different nations. But Newport, Rhode Island was always home, and in both his personal and political life, he was a constant model of civility and kindness to his fellow Rhode Islanders – even, sometimes, at his own expense.

In his final bid for reelection in 1990, Senator Pell reportedly insisted on warning Congresswoman Claudine Schneider, his Republican opponent, when he was about to air television ads. He nixed a self-promoting press release prepared by his campaign staff, chiding, “No, no, we never boast.”

And in a debate, when he was asked to name a bill he’d sponsored that specifically helped Rhode Islanders, he famously replied: “I couldn’t give you a specific answer. My memory’s not as good as it should be.” You’d think it would be lethal – but people loved it.

For his authenticity and gentleness of spirit, Claiborne Pell was beloved by all of us in the Ocean State who were privileged to know him, or work with him, or learn from his example.

We will all miss him deeply, and to his wife Nuala, his children Toby and Dallas, and their families, and the families of his departed children Bertie and Julie, I know I join all in this body and all of America in holding them in my thoughts and prayers.

As his family reminded us last week, Senator Pell summarized his role as a United States Senator in seven words: “Translate ideas into actions and help people.” Would that all of us could have ideas as big as Claiborne Pell’s, and the strength, grace, and courage to translate them into action.

I thank the chair, and yield the floor.


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