Lindy Boggs, congresswoman and Democratic leader, dies at 97

Lindy Boggs, a Democratic Party doyenne from Louisiana whose charm and political acumen helped her husband rise to U.S. House majority leader and who launched her own congressional and diplomatic career after his disappearance in an airplane crash, died July 27 at her home in Chevy Chase. She was 97.

The death was confirmed by a daughter, broadcast journalist Cokie Roberts, who said the cause of death was not immediately known.

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Politics was central to Lindy Boggs’s life long before she won a special election in 1973 to succeed her husband, Thomas Hale Boggs Sr., better known as Hale Boggs. Her family, the Claibornes, traced its roots to colonial Jamestown and was one of the country’s early political dynasties.

She arrived in Washington in 1941, the 24-year-old wife of the youngest freshman in the House of Representatives; she quickly delved into the politics and strategies of the Capitol, acting as a Democratic hostess, campaign manager and adviser to her husband and scores of other politicians.

Her children followed her into public life. Her son, Thomas Hale Boggs Jr., known as Tommy, is one of the marquee partners of the law firm and lobbyist group Patton Boggs; her younger daughter, Roberts, has worked for National Public Radio and ABC-TV; her elder daughter, the late Barbara Boggs Sigmund, was mayor of Princeton, N.J.

With her Southern graciousness, Mrs. Boggs was said to charm, flatter and persuade even the most curmudgeonly of her male counterparts in Congress. As a representative for nine terms, she used those skills to support civil rights — eventually becoming the only white member of Congress elected from a majority-black district — and to promote legislation that helped women and children.

As a member of the Appropriations Committee, she helped shape an amendment to the 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act, legislation that made it illegal for creditors to discriminate against applicants based on race and other factors. Mrs. Boggs hand-wrote “sex or marital status” into the text and then passed out new copies of the bill with the phrase included.

She suggested sweetly that the omission “must have been an oversight.” The amendment passed.

“Different politicians have different techniques, but not many could get away with Lindy’s technique,” former congressman Bob Livingston (R-La.), who served with Mrs. Boggs on the House Appropriations Committee, told the New York Times in 2000. “It was ‘Dahlin’ this’ and ‘Sweetie that.’ And she usually walked out with what she came in to get and never mentioned it again.”

She continued working with philanthropic, civic and cultural institutions after she retired from Congress in 1990. She was Catholic, and in 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed her U.S. ambassador to the Holy See at the Vatican, where she served until 2001.

Mrs. Boggs, Clinton joked, was “maybe the only person on Earth who could convince the pope I am worth dealing with.”

Throughout her career, Mrs. Boggs insisted, she truly liked almost everyone she met, including presidents Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy, journalists, lobbyists and campaign workers. She was well liked in return — no common praise in Washington.

“She wasn’t a force, she was a presence,” said Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker, who was a consultant to the House Democratic Caucus in 1982-83. At a time when men of the U.S. House were feeling “threatened” by congresswomen such as Barbara A. Mikulski and Geraldine Ferraro, Democrats known for their forthright style, Baker said, Mrs. Boggs remained “a breath of the genteel past.”

Service and social grace

Marie Corinne Morrison Claiborne was born March 13, 1916, on the Brunswick Plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, La. The nickname “Lindy” came from “Rolinde,” the French feminine version of her father’s name, Roland. She was 2 when her father died of influenza.

Three years later, her mother, Corinne Claiborne, married planter George Keller, who owned the 5,000-acre cotton plantation where young Lindy would grow up.

“Being reared on a plantation makes you very conscious of service to the community,” Mrs. Boggs told The Washington Post soon after she entered Congress. “It’s really a self-contained operation. We always talked politics and world affairs because work was over by the middle of the day, and we’d have dinner, our biggest meal, at 1 p.m.”

Mrs. Boggs, an only child, was first tutored at home and then attended a convent school. At 15, instead of having an ostentatious coming-out party, she used the money to attend Sophie Newcomb College, the women’s division of Tulane University in New Orleans.

She met Hale Boggs at a fraternity party, and they began to date his senior year, when he was editor of the student newspaper and she was women’s editor. They graduated in 1935 and married three years later.

After her husband was elected to the U.S. House as a Democrat from Louisiana, the young political wife learned quickly the ways of maneuvering through the Capitol. Her story of trying to gain access to a congressional hearing room in 1941 became a central anecdote in her 1994 memoir, “Washington Through a Purple Veil.”

After Hale Boggs telephoned to tell her to come to the Capitol because he was about to give a speech, “I threw a jacket over my sweater and skirt,” she wrote, “and made up my face, brushed my hair and put on high heels.”

She arrived amid a crowd of people and told a guard that she was the wife of a member of the Banking and Currency Committee.

“ ‘Oh, sure honey,’ he said, looking away,” she wrote. “He totally disbelieved me.” She said she then remembered a New Orleans socialite who had told her that the “most sophisticated and becoming thing a woman could wear was a purple veil.”

So she went home, put on her best suit and kid gloves and stopped by the Palais Royal department store to have her hat draped in purple. The same guard was on duty when she returned to the Capitol.

“I took off one glove, and then the other with as much authority as I could muster,” she wrote. “In my sweetest Southern accent, I said, ‘I’m Mrs. Boggs. I’d like to be seated, please.’ The guard said, ‘Oh yes, ma’am. Come right in.’ ”

Washington, she said, could be won with confidence, authority and graciousness. She gave hundreds of garden parties and even more speeches. She was president of the Congressional Wives Club and worked on first lady Lady Bird Johnson’s beautification program.

She and her husband tried to keep in balance pressures from his Southern constituency and the national Democratic Party. As civil rights supporters, the Boggses welcomed activists into their Bourbon Street home, which alienated them from many of their Louisiana contemporaries. A cross was burned on their lawn, causing Mrs. Boggs concern for her aunt and grandmother, who lived next door.

The missing plane

In October 1972, Hale Boggs flew to Alaska to campaign for U.S. Rep. Nicholas J. Begich (D). On the morning of Oct. 16, the two boarded a plane that was supposed to take them from Anchorage to Juneau, but the plane disappeared amid turbulent conditions. The last communication from the plane was at 9:12 a.m. — less than 15 minutes after it took off. Then nothing.

Mrs. Boggs and her family traveled to Alaska to monitor the search effort. After 39 days, rescue workers gave up the search. The plane and the bodies were never discovered. Later that year, an Alaskan court declared both congressmen dead.

Mrs. Boggs said she never doubted whether she should succeed her husband and moved into campaign mode. She won the special election easily and moved into her first term with the clout of a far more experienced legislator.

The toughest political challenge of her career came in 1984, after Louisiana redrew its congressional boundaries to create a majority-black district in most of New Orleans. Mrs. Boggs defeated Israel M. Augustine Jr., an African American former state judge, in a contest remarkable for its politeness and civility.

After she won, Mrs. Boggs said the election was “a victory of the diversity of cultures and loving vibrancy of this grand old city.”

In July 1990, she announced that she would not run again for Congress. Although she did not say so at the time, she wanted to spend time with her elder daughter, Sigmund, who was battling cancer while serving as mayor of Princeton, N.J. Sigmund died that October at 51.

Survivors include two children, Thomas Hale Boggs Jr. of Chevy Chase and Cokie Roberts of Bethesda; eight grandchildren; and 18 great-grandchildren.

After retiring from Congress, Mrs. Boggs took an office at Tulane and worked on a national jazz preservation commission, which worked with the Library of Congress, and scores of other projects. A hospital in New Orleans was named in her honor in 2004, and she received the Congressional Distinguished Service Award in 2006.

When New Orleans was deluged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Mrs. Boggs’s home on Bourbon Street was severely damaged, and she lived for months in a nearby hotel before settling in Chevy Chase.

After her diplomatic appointment by Clinton, Mrs. Boggs spent more than three years at the Vatican, prompting the retired archbishop of New Orleans, the Rev. Philip Hannan, to speculate that she “will be the first person in the Vatican to tell the Holy Father, ‘Your Holiness, darlin’, I think you ought to do this.’ ” 

Stephanie Hanes is a freelance writer.

 
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