Senator Reed's Remarks on Senator Claiborne Pell
Mr. President, next week will mark what would have been the 100th birthday of my predecessor, Senator Claiborne de Borda Pell, who was born on November 22, 1918. This year, appropriately enough, the date falls on Thanksgiving. We lost Senator Pell nearly 9 years ago after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease, which robbed him of his mobility but not his spirit. He was sustained by the love of his wonderful family, especially his beloved wife, the late Nuala Pell.
A person who dedicated his life to selfless service to Rhode Island and the Nation, Senator Pell would not want a showy commemoration of his centenary. He was not one to seek the limelight. Moreover, for him, his birthday—November 22—became a somber day for remembrance and mourning the loss of his dear friend, President John F. Kennedy. But at a time when differences seem more striking than our common cause and when there is a question of whether America’s role in the world community should be guided solely by narrowly defined self-interest or by our democratic ideals, it is helpful for us to recall the example and standard Senator Pell set—both his accomplishments and the civility he maintained throughout his career. He was born into a family of great wealth and privilege, yet Claiborne Pell never exhibited a sense of entitlement. At a defining moment in the history of our country and a defining moment in his life, Claiborne Pell demonstrated that privilege and wealth was not a way to avoid the rigors of life. Rather, for him, they offered the opportunity and responsibility to meet the challenges of the times with vigor and wisdom and optimism. As World War II approached, Claiborne Pell, with family connections, poor eyesight, and a high draft number, could have easily secured a sinecure, a safe posting to ride out the war. Instead, before Pearl Harbor, he decided on his own to enlist in the Coast Guard and eventually sailed the dangerous North Atlantic convoy runs. Significantly, Claiborne chose to enlist not as an officer but as a seaman so that he could get a chance at sea duty.
The complete lack of regard for status or pretense, which he showed in his World War II service, would continue to mark his public service and endear him to generations of Rhode Islanders. For 36 years, Claiborne Pell did not simply represent Rhode Island in the U.S. Senate; he represented the ideal of what a public servant should be. He said that his motto or statement of purpose was to ‘‘translate ideas into action and help people.’’ And that is what he did. One hundred years after his birth and 58 years after his first election to the Senate, millions of Americans continued to be helped by his ideas translated into action. He believed that government had a critical role in providing opportunity, particularly the opportunity for a good education for every American, and he knew that there were unbounded horizons for the initiative, invention, and innovation of these well-educated sons and daughters of America. Truly, they would continue and enhance the great endeavor that is America. He authored the legislation that established the Basic Education Opportunity grant, now known as the Pell grant. Today, roughly 7.5 million students rely on Pell grants to help pay for college. He wrote the legislation that created the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. To this day, these agencies support artistic, educational, and cultural programming in communities large and small across the Nation, fulfilling Senator Pell’s commitment to strengthening and preserving our national cultural heritage for all Americans. He led the effort to establish the Institute of Museum and Library Services, helping libraries and museums across the Nation transform their communities through access to information and opportunities for lifelong learning. According to the Institute, people visited libraries over 1.3 billion times in 2015, and 55 million student groups visit museums each year. The vision he articulated in the early 1960s for high-quality passenger rail service connecting the major population centers on the east coast into a megalopolis led to the creation of Amtrak and the Northeast Corridor. Decades later, it is interesting to see not only how much of his vision has been achieved but also how much of his vision is now reflected in ideas like Elon Musk’s ‘‘hyperloop.’’ Touched by the death of two members of his staff who were killed by drunk drivers, Senator Pell authored the first Federal anti-drunk driving bill in 1976—4 years before the founding of advocacy group MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Senator Pell’s legislation became the model for Federal policy efforts to combat impaired driving by giving the States strong incentives to toughen their laws. Senator Pell was also deeply committed to America’s role in securing world peace. His notion of a powerful America leading the world—not standing apart from it—and his notion that our values, our system, and our commitment to human decency would prevail in the face of totalitarianism were wisdom of the ages. In his service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he espoused those views, seeking to remind us that our destiny would take us far beyond what simply a military operation or our economic power might because of our ideals and commitment to creating a world community.
Senator Pell’s approach to legislating was unfailingly kind and civil. In his farewell speech to the Senate, he laid out his guiding rules. In his words: ‘‘First, never respond to an adversary in ad hominem terms.’’ In his six campaigns for the U.S. Senate, Claiborne Pell never ran a negative ad or attacked his opponent personally. Rhode Islanders rewarded him with an average vote of more than 60 percent for each of his elections. ‘‘Second, always let the other fellow have your way.’’ For Senator Pell, winning an ally to achieve a legislative victory was more valuable than getting exclusive credit. ‘‘Third, sometimes half a loaf can feed an army.’’ He lived by those rules, but he feared that our politics and our media were pulling us in the opposite direction. That is why he used his farewell speech to urge us to stay true to a practice of politics worthy of our Democratic tradition, saying: Those words ring very true and relevant today as they did when he gave them in his farewell address. Following in Senator Pell’s footsteps, I am one who is in awe of his presence and accomplishments and feel a deep responsibility to continuing his legacy. He forged an enduring bond with the people of Rhode Island. He put ideas into action to help people. He was always civil and ready to find common ground. As we celebrate Senator Pell’s 100th birthday, let’s take inspiration from his spirit of service and collegiality. Let’s translate ideas into action and help people. Mr. President, I know my colleague Senator Whitehouse is here. Mr. Whitehouse is someone who knew Senator Pell well, and he continues in the image and spirit of Senator Pell by being someone who brings his great talents and skills to serve the people of Rhode Island and the Nation with dignity, civility, and great energy. With that, Mr. President, I would like to yield to my colleague Senator Whitehouse.