The Weird Senator Behind the Pell Grant

He loved a statement vintage belt and serving his country

NEW YORK CITY - MAY 22:  Claiborne Pell attends Lindbergh Awards Dinner on May 22, 1979 at the Plaza...
Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

In a crushing blow to narcs and Larry Summers, the Biden Administration finally announced a plan on Wednesday to forgive a portion of the $1.6 trillion student loan debt burden drowning tens of millions of Americans — including $20,000 in relief to anyone who got a Pell Grant, the federal subsidy for low-income undergrads.

On the relatively short list of good American things, Pell Grants rank high. They were introduced in 1973, in an amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965, as a way to give low-income students a baseline of tuition aid that they would not have to repay. They remain “the single largest source of federal grant aid supporting postsecondary education students” — though the percentage of tuition they cover has shrunk over the past decades, as university sticker prices ballooned and federal education spending did not. (To give you a sense of the situation: this past spring, the Biden administration oversaw “the largest increase to Pell Grants in over a decade;” it was just $400 per year. But in Wednesday’s announcement, Biden pledged to “fight to double the maximum Pell Grant and make community college free,” so we’ll see.)

Pell Grants were originally called “Basic Education Opportunity Grants,” but in 1980, Congress changed the name to honor their biggest supporter in the Senate: a man named Claiborne Pell. Pell was part of a dying breed of American congressmen: a pro-union progressive, a sharp critic of nuclear armament and American intervention, a guy who thought federal arts funding was actually worthwhile, and a big fan of trains. He was also, as some have pointed out, very weird.

Nearly all of the obits published after he died in 2009 called him “quirky; ” Time Magazine named him “Senator Oddball” in 1995. Pell talked about his eclectic interests himself, in a sort of roundabout way: “Years ago,” he told the Providence Journal, “I used to be criticized for my interest in choo-choo trains and seaweed." Here are some highlights.


Pell was about as blue-blood-old-money as they come: he grew up in one of those Newport manors that have names, with a family boasting at least five Congressional alums and a fortune that literally stems from an 18th century royal land charter issued by King George III. Even still, he dressed like shit; Pell would wear his father’s old and much too large belt every day, wrapping it around his waist twice so it would fit, paired with “beat-up Bermudas or frayed dress pants and the remains of his Princeton (Class of ’40) letter sweater,” the New York Times wrote, or via the Providence Journal: “suits that most people with his wealth would have consigned to the attic years ago.” The suits weren’t just for the Senate floor; he also wore them while running, which he did often and to great distances.

An Uncommon Man

He was also so bad at driving that he fitted a roll bar onto his white Mustang. “That feature — ” the Times wrote, “plus the array of body dents and the pelican hood ornament he had borrowed from his family crest — always distinguished Pell’s car from the somber sedans at the foot of the Capitol steps.”


Pell wrote the bill that led to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, which channeled federal money into the arts and made it possible to scrape by in fields like literature, history, or philosophy. But Pell hated the avant-garde, and basically subscribed to the “my kid could do this” school of abstract art criticism. In 1996, he told an interviewer: “I don’t like abstract paintings,” which included anything “more abstract than Picasso’s Blue Period…I think that many of the grants made to artists by the endowment were mistakes. But I’ll never intrude.”


There was a lot to make fun of Pell for — rich, pretty weird, etc. — but he tended to respond with honest self-deprecation, something the Democrats could probably learn from. For example: After an opponent called him a “cream puff,” he arranged for an endorsement from a bakers’ union. When critics called him a Rhode Island “carpetbagger,” the Providence Journal noted, he bought “full-page newspaper ads featuring his grand-uncle Duncan Pell, Rhode Island lieutenant governor in 1865.”

One pundit pointed out Pell had been raised by a nanny; he brought her on the trail, “trott[ing] out a very nice old lady who made a very nice impression on voters.” In his last reelection campaign, also cited by the Journal, a debate moderator asked him how his legislative track record had helped Rhode Island constituents. He said: “I couldn’t give you a specific answer. My memory’s not as good as it should be,” then won by a two-to-one margin.


Here are two stories that don’t fit neatly into the other categories. One: He visited Fidel Castro in 1974, and upon saying goodbye, Castro lit a cigar and held it as he waved. “Senator Pell,” the Times wrote, “apparently thought the lighted cigar was a parting gift and took it from Mr. Castro’s hand, leaving his host flabbergasted.”

This is the other, via former Rhode Island Senator John Chafee, also cited by the Times:

Mr. Pell was campaigning in Providence in 1972 when it began raining hard. He sent an aide to get him a pair of rubbers for his shoes, and when the aide returned, Mr. Pell asked in his formal manner of speech, “To whom am I indebted for these fine rubbers?”
“I got them at Thom McAn, Senator,” the aide answered, referring to the shoe store chain. Mr. Pell replied, “Well, do tell Mr. McAn that I am much obliged to him.”

What a guy!


Claiborne Pell also went nuts for aliens and paranormal stuff. He went to a symposium on UFO abductions. In 1987, he brought “carnival-level spoon bender Uri Geller” to Washington, out of concern over an “extrasensory perception gap with the Soviets,” according to the Washington Post. Three years later, he even assigned a senate staffer to investigate “extrasensory perception” by playing Bush speeches about Iran backwards. Per the Post:

In doing so, Sen. Pell informed the secretary of defense, the word "Simone" had been discerned, and he described this as "a code word that would not be in the national interest to be known."
"It sounds wacky but there may be some merit to it," Sen. Pell commented. He told an interviewer later that the "Simone" issue "had not been helpful in the campaign."

RIP Claiborne Pell — you have would have loved Blink-182’s Tom DeLonge.