ON THE OTHER HAND: THE MAN BEHIND CLAIBORNE PELL
Del Marbrook - When John E. Mulligan of The Providence Journal, William H. Honan of The New York Times and the late J.Y. Smith of The Washington Post wrote Senator Claiborne Pell's obituary they omitted an important facet of Rhode Island and national history, namely that an idealist of humble working class origins almost single-handedly made the aristocratic and often aloof Claiborne Pell palatable to the state's hoi poloi.
Very few savvy observers thought in 1961 when Senator Pell entered the political arena that he could defeat Dennis J. Roberts in the Democratic primary. Roberts was well known and firmly entrenched. Pell would need know-how and backroom information he simply didn't have. With considerable acumen he turned improbably to Raymond Nels Nelson, then the Warwick bureau manager of The Providence Journal's state staff. He could have turned to reporters with higher profiles, although they probably wouldn't have risked joining him. His choice of Ray Nelson was in many ways inspired, and it's not a stretch to say he probably owed his career to it.
There were a number of newsmen in the state who knew its politics as well as Ray, if not better, but none were as popular or gregarious. Ray's parents were Swedish immigrants. Ray himself never attended college. The towering, affable Nelson started at The Journal as a typist after his honorable discharge from the Navy. As a reporter he had a reputation for knowing more about Warwick and the state's Florentine politics than any man could reasonably be expected to know. He was ebullient, the sort of man to whom people from all walks of life clamored to confide things. It was hard to imagine this warmhearted giant without a telephone on his shoulder. Ray's canniness helped to make the patrician Pell understandable to Rhode Island's diverse and hectic electorate.
Ray understood the working class's attitude towards The Journal, which was key to getting Pell elected. He understood that The Journal was trusted and disliked at the same time. He steered the Newport and Westchester aristo through the Legion and VFW and union halls. He saw that the French-speaking Pell would have an advantage over opponents in the Blackstone Valley where many voters spoke French. His good humor and myriad contacts broke the ice for Pell. But few of Ray's colleagues advised him to quit his secure job and risk his future and his family's on a political unknown who seemed uncomfortable in the rough-and-tumble environment of Rhode Island's often corrupt politics.
There was about Claiborne Pell an innocence, an honesty and idealism that powerfully appealed to Ray Nelson, and against most advice he threw his lot in with the remote unknown. When Pell was elected Ray went to Washington as his administrative assistant. He knew Claiborne Pell would be a one-termer if he didn't quickly grasp how to tend his political fences back home, how to serve his constituents, how to steer clear of the usual imbroglios in a state known for its political infighting and Machiavellian politicians. He conceived of his job as keeping the senator electable and popular, but Claiborne Pell was soon pursuing his scholarly inclinations in Washington and the more secure Ray Nelson made his political base the greater the distance intellectually between the two men became.
When Ray openly declared himself a gay man, Pell, an active supporter of gay rights, relegated him to a lesser job in a windowless basement office of the Senate Rules Committee. It was a crushing blow to Ray Nelson, but he bore it with dignity and humor, as was his wont. He told me that the senator had indicated that his invaluable aide did not have the breadth of knowledge, particularly in foreign affairs, required of an AA serving a senator who was so vitally interested in world affairs and education. My response was that none of those lofty interests would do the senator much good without someone watching the home fires. Ray nodded ruefully. But by that time the senator's seat had become a sinecure.
Rhode Islanders had come to love and admire his eccentricities and integrity. The senator's death, the death of an inarguably noble man in most respects, should not be observed without mentioning that a working class idealist risked everything to get him elected and to keep him in office. It's a quintessentially American story, rich in human interest and somehow reassuring. And yet the press has succeeded in writing Ray Nelson out of the senator's history for no apparent reason other than that it was an inconvenient truth, a source of a bit of discomfort among all the encomiums.
That The Providence Journal should have omitted mention of Ray Nelson is passing strange. The cause could not have been a loss of institutional memory, however reduced in estate The Journal, like so many other papers, now finds itself, because its own library is undoubtedly full of stories mentioning Ray Nelson in connection with Claiborne Pell. This is revisionism by omission, and it's deplorable that readers should not be told of a humble man's idealism simply because the events in his life made some people a bit squeamish.
Raymond Nels Nelson, a former typist renowned for his speed on the teletypes newspapers used to use, was bludgeoned to death on June 1, 1981, by a typewriter in his apartment at 701 Quincy Street, NE, in Washington. The case is still open and there is a $25,000 reward for information. Ray was 59-years-old. I was one of his friends and colleagues who spoke at his funeral. After the service Senator Pell and I embraced and he asked me what he should have done. It was characteristic of him. He too was a humble man, however high his origins. I told him the simple truth, I didn't know.
Ray Nelson is remembered by a handful of remaining Journal colleagues as the man to call when you needed help, the man who was there when you were down, the man who always had time to listen to you, even if he did have two other people on the line.