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POLITICS AS USUAL (By JIm Baron) 'Uncommon Man' a good read for political junkies

December 11, 2011

I’ll never forget the time, this was in the late 1980s, when an editor came up to me in the old Pawtucket Times newsroom and said, “Senator Pell just came in and asked if we wanted to interview him. You want to talk to him?”
I was still a young reporter then (sigh), and was absolutely flabbergasted that the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee just dropped by The Times, unannounced and virtually alone (he had one aide with him), and wondered if we wanted to chat about anything.
I managed to not blurt out “What are you doing here?” which was the only question that had formed in my mind at that point, but did start out asking the state’s senior senator what had brought him to our newsroom.
He said he had just been walking around downtown Pawtucket, meeting people and stopping in at a few businesses, and wanted to make himself available to the local newspaper. He had no agenda for the interview and just wanted to answer any questions that we might have.
I couldn’t tell you what else we talked about or what my story said the next day, but the shock of that spontaneous, out-of-the-blue availability stuck with me. I didn’t know until then that Pell made a habit of those unplanned and unstructured walks around various communities in the state whenever he was home from Washington.
Politicians still do walks around various cities and towns nowadays, but you get press releases from them days in advance giving you their full itinerary, listing friendly local business owners who have agreed in advance to host them. They are inevitably accompanied by a small platoon of aides, with at least one shooting video for future campaigning purposes, and the entourage has at least two or three reporters in tow. These events are always pegged to some issue or bill the pol wants to highlight.
Pell just took informal walks around, seemingly on a whim, talking with whoever he might bump into about whatever was on their minds and wandering into whichever shops he might pass.
This little walk down memory lane is by way of introducing a new biography — it has been on the shelves for a month or so — “An Uncommon Man — The Life & Times of Senator Claiborne Pell” by local newspaperman G. Wayne Miller. It would make a nice gift for the politics junkie on your Christmas list.
Miller is nothing if not thorough, especially in chronicling Pell’s early years and his relationship with his father, which the author postulates had a large impact on the senator throughout his long life, motivating many of Pell’s later interests and activities.
Miller’s journalistic attention to detail can sometimes slow down the narrative, but also serves to shed some light on a politician who his friend, President John F. Kennedy, once chided as “the least electable man in America.”
The book paints Pell as a man of contradictions — a blueblood Newport millionaire who genuinely had the common touch with Rhode Island’s blue-collar voters; a self-effacing, unabashedly quirky fellow who nonetheless managed to win six elections by big margins, effectively knocking five of six of his opponents out of politics for good after he defeated them — only former Gov. John H. Chafee managed to go on after his loss and ultimately joined Pell in the U.S. Senate; the man with the manners and gentility of an earlier era who also exhibited an earnest interest in futuristic and otherworldly subjects such as ESP and other possibilities of human potential, UFOs and life after death.
Miller’s book demonstrates that Pell lived 90 years as a man in full, enjoying a rich, meaningful and successful life and living it very much his own way. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “He was a man, take him for all in all, we shall never look upon his like again.”
If I have a bone to pick with the book, it is that it is an authorized biography and very much so, it sometimes borders on hagiography. You can’t spend 36 years in the United States Senate without having somebody willing to call you an s.o.b. or bearing some sort of grudge, but Miller never seemed to find that person.
On the other hand, if you want to find out how the Pell Grants that came to become an institution but are now under attack came to be, the book gives you an excellent legislative blow-by-blow.
Parkinson’s disease finally forced Pell to the sidelines, as Miller notes, but his retirement probably came at just the right time; the genteel, gentlemanly Pell who quietly “let the other fellow have my way” would find no place for himself in the partisan and cutthroat place the U.S. Senate has become today.
“An Uncommon Man” is a good read for anybody interested in Rhode Island politics in the last half century.

Johnston stinks
You can always find someone, angry about their taxes or some action their local officials have taken, who will say: “My town stinks!”
In Johnston, they mean it literally these days.
A terrible reek from the state landfill covers much of the town and spreads out to other areas. There have been reports of people in Attleboro complaining about the smell. Woonsocket residents who had to put up with the old NETCO are sure to empathize. If a stench stretches from Johnston to Attleboro, some kind of emergency action is necessary immediately.
Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena — inadvertently demonstrating how few weapons his town has in this fight, which has alredy been going on for months now — has threatened to sue the company whose job it is to deal with the foul-smelling gasses that emanate from the landmark Rhode Islanders call Mount Trashmore.
Is he kidding? Courts measure time with calendars, not clocks, and any legal action is going to take at least months, but more likely years. That’s fine for recovering reparations after the fact, but it isn’t going to be helpful in getting effective action to stop the stink RIGHT NOW, which is what residents of the town reasonably demand. Can you imagine that for 24 hours a day and seven days a week, including Thanksgiving and it is beginning to look a lot like Christmas as well, that there is an unbearable stink of rotting garbage and whatever else is decaying in that dump all around your home and neighborhood?
Polisena understandably threw a fit when the company told him a solution could come in six to 10 weeks. The problem is that nobody has a good idea about how to fix it in a shorter time than that. Shake your fist and curse the smell all you like, but what else are you going to do about it?
The mayor has threatened to have Johnston Police at the landfill, inspecting every truck that comes in and writing them up for every violation that is found. That might be satisfying revenge, but it probably isn’t going to make the odor go away anytime soon. Polisena hopes this will prod people to get the problem solved, but bureaucratic or corporate inaction probably isn’t the difficulty here. This is a vexing problem and it is probably going to take more time than anybody likes.
So if you see someone from Johnston today, be nice to them, they could use it.

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