Our quirky, compelling senator

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  September 28, 2011

Any faithful reader of the Providence Journal is familiar with the talents of G. Wayne Miller — a reporter with a remarkable knack for storytelling.

He is also a prolific filmmaker and author. His new book, scheduled for publication October 11, is An Uncommon Man: The Life & Times of Senator Claiborne Pell, the first biography of Rhode Island's mercurial and talented pol.

I recently interviewed Miller, via email, about his subject. The interview is edited and condensed.

SENATOR PELL WAS KNOWN FOR HIS QUIRKY PERSONALITY. WHAT ARE A COUPLE OF YOUR FAVORITE STORIES AND WHAT DO THEY SAY ABOUT THE MAN? The quintessential quirky Pell story involves Thom McAn shoes, which in the 1970s was a brand as universally recognized as Nike is today. I heard versions of this oft-told story from many people, but the version Vice President Joe Biden told me in an interview occurred during Pell's 1972 election against John Chafee, father of our governor (Chafee lost). During a rainy campaign stop, Pell, who was afraid of ruining his shoes, asked an aide to buy galoshes while he was inside speaking to voters. The aide purchased a pair of slip-on rubbers at a Thom McAn outlet and when he brought them to the senator, Pell asked where the aide had gotten them. Thom McAn, the aide said. "Well, you thank Tom for me," the senator said.

Among many other quirky Pell stories is one in the book that I don't believe has ever been related before. In the late 1970s, Pell met a young scientist who worked at the National Institute of Mental Health and who believed in life after death — and who claimed that he himself had experienced a preview of existence beyond the grave. Pell asked this scientist to bring him along on such a trip. "Can you take me across the universe? Can you take me to God?" Pell asked. They were sitting in Pell's hideaway office in the U.S. Capitol at the time. The scientist failed to put Pell into the proper meditative state for astral travel, or whatever you would call it. Still, this launched a long period during which the senator and a staff member seriously investigated paranormal activity and the possibility of life after death. What motivated Pell —– beyond intellectual curiosity — was his desire to contact his dead father.

PELL IS BEST KNOWN FOR THE FEDERAL COLLEGE TUITION GRANTS THAT BEAR HIS NAME. IS THAT HIS GREATEST LEGACY OR IS THERE A CASE TO BE MADE FOR SOMETHING ELSE? Yes, but not far behind would be the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, which essentially were his creations, and also his many contributions to world peace — which ranked with education among his passions. He was a key player in a number of treaties and in trying to set an overall pacifist tone in Washington that was often unheralded, though his early and intensifying opposition to the Vietnam War is certainly well known.

WHERE DID PELL FAIL? Ironically, in foreign affairs. One of his longtime dreams was to chair the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and he finally was named to the post in January 1987. But Pell hated conflict. Strong-arming members of a divided committee — not just the bombastic and arch-conservative Republican Jess Helms but some in his own Democratic Party — was not in his nature, and his chairmanship ended with a dud, although he could claim some accomplishments.

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