At an election night victory party last week in Providence's Sheraton-Biltmore Hotel, the crowd's attention turned suddenly from merrymaking to the grand entrance of a large, elder-statesman kind of gentleman. He was Herbert Claiborne Pell, former Ambassador to Portugal and Hungary, who had just arrived from London with his wife to see their son, Claiborne. After upsetting two veterans in the Rhode Island Democratic primary, Claiborne Pell was celebrating a 2-to-1 landslide win over his Republican opponent for the U.S. Senate.
Towering a half-foot above his tall son, Herbert Pell was rushed by reporters and commentators before he was able to greet the Senator-elect. "I have run for public office and have handled campaigns," said the former political manager for Al Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt, "but no campaign in which I was interested has given me anything like the pleasure and happiness I have now." A reporter wanted to know whether the Ambassador helped out his son's campaign. "I certainly did," Pell snapped back. His newly-elected son and the party campaign managers, who were mindful that the old man had been out of the country all fall, cringed, and the senior Pell added, "I stayed away."
The situation for Ambassador Pell is much the same as that of Joseph P. Kennedy, who stayed away from his son's campaigning perhaps less by choice than did Pell. Each will now be known as "the father of ..."; each differs in varying degrees from his son's political philosophy; but both are extremely proud of their young sons' rise from the family of a politician to political prominence. "Claiborne will make a strong senator," says Herbert Pell, who served as Democratic Representative from New York's Fifth Avenue district in 1919-21. "He's more conservative than I am, but that's not saying much."
Pell, who paid a short visit to the University this week, would just as well watch politics from the sidelines now. With typical candor and objectivity, he said, "The political philosophy of my generation is outmoded. We can't deal with the issues of today." Herbert Pell is heroically unequivocal--especially for a politician--and is delightfully quick-witted in his vignettes of "the old days" or "when I was a boy" or "when FDR was in"--frequent Pell terms. A life-long Democrat, the ambassador decries straight party voting as "unintelligent."
The 76-year old diplomat goes on to say somewhat seriously, "I don't know about lowering the voting age to 18, but at least we should prohibit voting over 60. If a man can't influence a thousand voters at that age, he doesn't deserve a vote for himself."
Such objective and unmistakable observations on the state of affairs were tossed out when Pell met with a Dunster House discussion group. The ambassador was as well the guest of his classmate (Harvard-1906), Arthur N. Holcombe, Eaton Professor of the Science of Government, Emeritus, at the latter's seminar on the American Executive. He impressed the students there as the true diplomat--distinguished white hair, pince-nez, well-filled vest, and a distinct, erudite speech with a slight European accent.
He is Bernard Baruch, Bobby Kennedy and H. L. Mencken rolled into one, and his willingness to have his say and to stand by it is refreshing. During his comments in the seminar several Pellisms appeared in a series of pet peeves:
Prohibition: "I was always against it. I was one of the leaders for Repeal and faced the best political maneuverer I have ever dealt with, Wayne B. Wheeler, of the Anti-Saloon League. He produced an absolute miracle."
Nixon: "All he knows is hatchet politics. He couldn't be 'titular head' of anything."
Unrealistic approach to politics: "The party manager runs things, and he must give the people what they want."
The business world: "Stupid, stupid, stupid. Businessmen got ahold of the country in the twenties and look what happened. It's simple, if you're at the low end of the academic ladder in college, you go into business."
Combining political savvy and a quick sense of humor, Herbert Claiborne Pell, retired states-man and party manager, is a master at the aside--in a stage whisper. To sit next to him is the only way to catch the whole show. His asides presented a description of the political fever that is apparently catching in the Pell family.
Asked at the end of the meeting whether he could fit into a Volkswagen, the tall, heavy man replied, "Surely." Then, for the benefit of only those nearby, he quipped, "I probably can't get out, however."