Part 2: Moving Past Tragedy
Moving past tragedy, Boggs, Begich families remained linked by politics
Monday, August 16, 2010
ANCHORAGE -- Second of two parts. Part 1 here.
In December 1978, Alaska's three-man congressional delegation received a scare when a Learjet carrying Sen. Ted Stevens crashed during a landing at Anchorage International Airport. Stevens survived, but his wife, Ann, 49, did not. Not long after, Tom Begich, a teenage musician being interviewed at the local radio station, ran into Stevens outside the studio and asked how he was holding up. He could claim some authority on the matter.
Only six years earlier, Tom's father, freshman Rep. Nicholas Begich (D-Alaska), had vanished along with House Majority Leader Hale Boggs in a plane somewhere near the glacier-carved mountains and lakes around Portage Pass.
Their disappearance dealt a blow to Washington's body politic and caused a 40-year shift in Alaska's balance of power. In the intervening decades, the incident itself largely faded from public memory, only to resurface as an earlier piece of Alaska's haunted aviation history when Stevens was killed last week in another small-engine plane crash near Lake Aleknagik.
For the Boggs and Begich families, the Stevens tragedy is an eerie reminder of a mystery that has defined and bound two of the nation's most politically prominent, and different, clans for decades.
"Horrible," said Pegge Begich, Nicholas Begich's widow and mother of Mark Begich, who in 2008 defeated Stevens to win the Senate seat he had held since 1968.
She recalled receiving words of support from Stevens the day her husband disappeared, and expressed sympathy with the five children Stevens had with his first wife. "To have lost both your parents in a plane crash. Horrible," she said.
Not long after Stevens and Tom Begich's friendly meeting at the radio station, the senator had recovered from the serious head, neck and arm injuries he sustained in the crash. His political career continued, and he went on to lead a powerful Republican triumvirate in Washington.
Joining Stevens in the Senate in 1981 was Frank Murkowski, whom Nicholas Begich had originally beaten to become congressman. Amassing power on key natural resource committees in the House was Don Young, who had lost an election to Begich while the search was still on for the missing plane, but who subsequently prevailed in a special election when Begich was declared dead.
As the three Republicans molded Alaska with billions of dollars in government funds, the Boggs family set about conquering the three dimensions of official Washington life. Hale's wife, Lindy, became a respected congresswoman in her own right and then the Clinton administration's ambassador to the Holy See. One of the couple's daughters, Cokie Roberts, became one of the city's, and the nation's, most prominent journalists. Their son, Tommy Boggs, became one of the capital's most influential lobbyists at the helm of his law firm, Patton Boggs. Another daughter, Barbara Boggs Sigmund, became mayor of Princeton, N.J., before dying of cancer in 1990.
Alaska, though, never completely escaped Lindy Boggs's thoughts. Into the 1980s, she gave financial support to search parties, some of dubious reputation, to find traces of the missing plane and her husband's remains.
"She was hoodwinked by a couple of thieves," said Tommy Boggs. Boggs even commiserated with Jimmy Hoffa Jr., whose father, the fabled union leader, went missing in 1975. The two sons compared notes and found that the same psychics who offered to find the senior Hoffa sought to convince Lindy Boggs that they could find her husband. When one man in a canoe drowned in a vain attempt to find the wreckage, she decided it was time to let go.