Saturday, January 3

PASSINGS: CLAIBORNE PELL

John E. Mulligan, Providence Journal - Claiborne deBorda Pell, the quirky Newport blueblood who held the affections of blue-collar Rhode Island and championed better education of the poor during a 36-year Senate career, died shortly after midnight today at his home in Newport. He was 90 years old. . .

Pell, who served as the U.S. senator from Rhode Island from 1961 to 1997, was perhaps best known nationally for the college grant program that bears his name. . .

From his burst onto the local political scene in 1960 to his long valedictory in the mid-1990s, Pell's unlikely triumphs were the stuff of local legend. His old-school demeanor and his distracted, ungainly manner were fodder for a thousand parodies on the political circuit . . .

But as persistently as his foes razzed the manor-born son of a diplomat, or underestimated his political skills, Pell prevailed. He never lost an election and compiled an uncommon record of achievement, from college grants for poor people in the first part of his tenure to the ratification of nuclear arms treaties near the end.

Along the way, Pell worked so hard on his reputation for self-effacement that he become famous for it. "I always try to let the other fellow have my way,'' he said again and again -- one of many vintage ``Pellisms'' passed down through generations of Rhode Island reporters and politicos, along with an affectionate hoard of anecdotes that showed the senator's blithe unawareness of the popular culture that surrounded him.

Pell was, no doubt about it, one of the strangest birds in American politics.

He was an old-money millionaire who jogged into his eighth decade among the Gilded Age cottages of Bellevue Avenue, clad in beat-up Bermudas or frayed dress pants and the remains of his Princeton (Class of '40) letter sweater.

He was a champion, as a father of the National Endowment of the Arts, of federal patronage of artists -- even after the notorious subsidies to Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. But privately, Pell abominated their works and was cool toward toward the abstractions of modern art. His taste ran to 19th-century American painters as George Caleb Bingham.

He was such a terrible driver that he drove for years in a white Mustang that was fitted with a roll-bar. That feature -- plus the array of body dents and the pelican hood ornament he had borrowed from his family crest -- always distinguished Pell's car from the somber sedans at the foot of the Capitol steps. . .

Pell never outgrew a devotion to his late father that went beyond the filial.
The gaunt son wore the stout father's belt -- wrapping it around his waist several times to keep it properly cinched . . .

When he jumped into the free-for-all to succeed retiring Sen. Theodore F. Green in 1960, no less an authority than Democratic Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy called Pell the least electable man in America. . . Pell set rules for himself that became his hallmarks on and off the campaign trial:
Don't attack the other fellow. Keep a sense of humor. Do the unexpected.

When the opposition cried ``carpetbagger,'' Pell fired back with full-page newspaper ads featuring his grand-uncle Duncan Pell, Rhode Island lieutenant governor in 1865. When one foe called him ``a creampuff,'' Pell trumpeted the endorsement of the bakers union. When somebody sneered that little Claiborne had been raised by a nanny, Pell trotted out a very nice old lady who made a very nice impression on voters.

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