Monday, January 5, 2009

Memories of Claiborne Pell, Nov. 22, 1918 – Jan. 1, 2009

The life of U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell was remembered and honored this morning at Trinity Episcopal Church in Newport, Rhode Island. Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, Ted Kennedy, and others eulogized this man's exceptional life.

Senator Pell was one of the greatest men I have ever had the honor of knowing. I first met the Senator through my mother who was his scheduler for the better part of her career on Capitol Hill. Every evening at dinner, through my mother's story telling, my family would learn about the way the Senator would handle gracefully the dramas and stresses of American politics. Over the years, Senator Pell took the place in my mind of a hero, a rare thing for Americans to have--even rarer for the hero to be in politics.

But that is one of the things that made Senator Pell so unique. It was his humility that set him apart from the rest. Rhode Island being my home state, I imagined Senator Pell gently showing the world why our state was "the biggest little state in the union." He did so by speaking softly while accomplishing great deeds: He was Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; he advocated for the UN Law of the Sea; and he established the Pell Grants, which helped millions of students.

When I applied to attend the graduate program at Johns Hopkins SAIS, one of the requirements was to write an essay about a hero. That was easy for me. I wrote about Senator Pell's style of politics, building consensus across party lines. Senator Pell conducted politics with the mind that policy is the art of the possible. His leadership stood out particularly in contrast with so many others on the Hill who thought politics was a blood sport. I am happy that Senator Pell got to see Barack Obama elected as President as Obama seems to approach politics the way Senator Pell did--with integrity and respect for his fellow people.

During my first semester at SAIS (fall 1997), Senator Pell needed someone to watch over his home in Washington, D.C. while he traveled or was in Newport. I was more than happy to help. So while I worked at the library and attended classes in Dupont Circle, I would ride my bicycle back to the Senator's stately mansion in Georgetown every night to be greeted by the suits of armor on the staircase on my way up to my room. As a student with few resources, I felt I was living a double life and that somehow the Senator's wisdom about international treaties or law of the sea would seep into my head when it was exam time.

During the weekends that semester when I was not in at the SAIS library, I would read the hundreds of textbooks from Carl von Clausewitz to Paul Krugman, in Senator Pell's grand red living room, which housed the Senator's favorite red leather chair. Sometimes the Senator would visit the home and to my embarrassment, he would walk by while I was in his chair. I would leap up to offer the chair. But he would only wave, perhaps make a joke, and say, "Great choice (in chairs)."

As Pres. Clinton said this morning, Senator Pell was right to the end and there was something magical about him. Senator Pell even left us magically, passing away a few minutes after midnight on New Year's Day. The ripples from his life will continue on forever.

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