Scott MacKay Commentary: Rhode Island Needs More People Like The Pells

Apr 18, 2014

Rhode Island pays its final respects this morning to Nuala Pell, widow of  Sen. Claiborne Pell at services in Newport. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay on why the passing of Mrs. Pell signals the end of an era.

Nuala Pell in her Newport home.
Credit Flo Jonic / RIPR

Sen. Claiborne Pell represented Rhode Island for 36 years in the United States Senate. Few senators have ever better served a state.

This morning, Rhode Islanders bid farewell to Nuala Pell, the senator’s spouse, political partner and a force in her own right in our state’s political, educational and philanthropic   communities. The memorial service for Mrs. Pell, who died last week at age 89, will be held at Trinity Church in her beloved home city.

As we celebrate her remarkable life, we will also be saying goodbye to an era in both Rhode Island’s and our nation’s civic culture and its politics. The values that the Pells and the politicians of their generation lived by and promoted are too often AWOL these days.

There was a time when everyone –even the well-born and wealthy – believed in the promise, even the dream, of America. They were patriots, in war and peace. This may seem trite, even corny, to today’s best-educated young, who too often flock to Wall Street the day after they earn their college degrees. But this older generation of Americans had what now seems like a quaint attitude: that those who reaped society’s benefits should give something back.

The prime example of this may have been that those who received the best their country offered believed they had the duty to share in its defense. Thus, Kennedys, Pells, Roosevelts, Chafees and Bushes volunteered for combat in World War II and Korea.  These experiences exposed the prepped and pedigreed to men who hailed from far less fortunate backgrounds. And it bred a `we’re all in this together’ spirit.

These people defeated Fascism, came home and got involved. They jumped into the rough world of electoral politics and enacted legislation to extend civil rights, to make lives better for those in the dawn of life and those in their twilight years. Senator Pell’s signature accomplishment was the Pell Grant program, which helped finance college educations for those who couldn’t afford it on their own.

The politicians of the Pell era disagreed, sometimes sharply,  on the path America should take, both at home and abroad. Yet they treated each other with respect and dignity. In six campaigns for Senate, Claiborne Pell never ran a negative television ad. ``Never respond to an adversary in ad hominem terms,’’ was his motto.

Pell and his wife treated everyone they encountered with respect, dignity and affection. After his death in 2009, Mrs. Pell carried on his work in support of educational opportunity for those who did not grow up with her advantages. She also supported environmental and cultural causes.

Republican John Chafee, father of our governor, ran unsuccessfully against Claiborne Pell in 1972. It was a tough race; Chafee started out way ahead in polls but lost to Democrat Pell. Four years later, Chafee won a Senate seat. The two carried no grudges; they worked together well in Washington in the best interests of Rhode Island.

Thy understood the need for bipartisanship and compromise. ``Sometimes half a loaf can serve an army,’’ Senator Pell said. His best friend in the Senate was a Republican – Sen. Jacob Javits of New York.

The parties were different then. Both Senate Democratic and Republican caucuses were big tents. Democrats had staunch liberals like Ted Kennedy, George McGovern and Pell, as well as conservatives like John Stennis, Jim Eastland and Richard Russell. Republican moderates like John Chafee and Javits served with fellow Republican and arch conservative Barry Goldwater.

These senators knew that compromise was needed to get anything done. In stark contrast to today’s Democrats and Republicans, who are more prisoners to ideology than pragmatic public servants. Nowadays it seems that politicians spend more time playing to the peanut gallery of cable t.v. shouters than doing the nation’s business.

This isn’t to say that the Pell’s generation built a perfect society. They didn’t. Our nation and all others have always reflected Charles Dickens’ description of Revolutionary France; It was the best of times and the worst. Every generation discovers that society is both wonderful and going down the drain - all at once.

``Comity and civility, transcending differences of party and ideology, have always been crucial elements in making government an effective and constructive instrument of the public will,’’ said Claiborne Pell in his farewell speech from the Senate.

As we bid his remarkable wife Godspeed, wouldn’t it be great if some of our current politicians followed the road taken by the Pells?

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35 and on all Things Considered at 5:50. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at the `On Politics’ blog at