The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A plane carrying Cokie Roberts’s father disappeared over Alaska. He was never found.

In 1972, House Majority Leader Hale Boggs boarded a flight from Anchorage to Juneau to campaign for a fellow Democrat

Then-House Speaker John McCormack (D-Mass.), left, and Rep. Hale Boggs (D-La.) lead fellow congressmen in "Auld Lang Syne" at a January 1969 reception honoring President Lyndon B. Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson. (AP)
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Rain fell, clouds hung low in the sky and the air was choppy when Cokie Roberts’s father boarded a plane in 1972 to campaign in Alaska for the reelection of a fellow congressman.

Roberts’s father, then-House Majority Leader Hale Boggs (D-La.), met Alaska Rep. Nicholas Begich (D) at Anchorage International Airport on Oct. 16 to board a chartered Cessna 310 for a 550-mile flight to Juneau, The Washington Post reported. Both congressmen’s wives had considered joining the trip, but decided they had too much to do in D.C.

The plane took off at 9 a.m. in low visibility, flew along the Portage Pass and neared the snow-capped Chugach Mountains. The control tower last heard from the pilot at 9:12 a.m.

When the phone rang a few hours later at the Begich household in McLean, Va., Alaska Gov. Bill Egan (D) was on the line. Begich’s wife, Pegge, immediately knew something was wrong.

“I just had an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach,” she told The Washington Post.

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As authorities searched for the missing plane, Boggs’s wife, Lindy, invited the Begiches to their home in Bethesda, Md., the next day for a private Mass celebrated by Boggs’s brother Robert, a Catholic priest. The families received various reports that potential debris had been discovered, but none of it turned out to be the congressmen’s plane.

At Pegge Begich’s urging, the Boggs family decided to go to Alaska while the search continued. Roberts, who died Tuesday at the age of 75, was reluctant. Then 28, she had two young children and a TV news job in California.

“If you were missing in Alaska,” Lindy Boggs told Roberts, “Daddy would go looking for you.”

Over the next 39 days, the Boggs family got regular briefings and photos from spy planes based at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage. Hunters, boats and more than 70 airplanes joined in the search, which was the largest in Alaska’s history at that time. They found another plane that had been missing for 17 years, but they never recovered the congressmen’s aircraft.

The conspiracy theories surrounding the disappearance mounted: Maybe a bomb had exploded on board, or perhaps Boggs’s role in the Warren Commission — charged with investigating the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy — had something to do with the disappearance. Boggs had expressed doubts about the commission’s majority opinion that Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally were struck by a single bullet and therefore there was just one assassin.

In a note forwarded to Pegge Begich from her husband’s office, scraps of newsprint from the Detroit Free Press spelled out another theory about the politicians’ disappearance: His Croatian heritage and his support of Croatian nationalism might have gotten him assassinated by Serbians, the note said. Both ethnic groups were common in Yugoslavia at the time, and tensions ran high.

Boggs and Begich were reelected the November after their disappearance, although they had not been found. On Jan. 3, 1973, however, the House of Representatives recognized the congressmen’s deaths.

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Lindy Boggs and Pegge Begich competed in a special election to fill their husbands’ seats. Lindy Boggs won and went on to serve for nine terms. President Bill Clinton (D) later appointed her the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.

The missing congressmen, meanwhile, eventually got a cenotaph at Congressional Cemetery in Southeast Washington.

Roberts told The Post in 2010 that her mother wanted them to have a monument: “She thought that would be a good idea for Daddy and Nick Begich, because they were never found and couldn’t be buried. Daddy’s plaque is on one side of it, and Nick Begich’s is on the other side. So it’s like they are together for eternity.”

In a 1991 opinion piece for the New York Times, Roberts wrote that she empathized with the families of missing Vietnam War soldiers because of her father’s disappearance.

“I know my father is not alive. I know that the most massive search ever conducted in this country would have found that plane had it not sunk to the bottom of the sea,” she wrote. “But still, I catch myself hesitating before changing the kitchen wallpaper, fearing that he will come home and think strangers are in the house. ... So the uncertainty will always nag at the back of my brain. But at least I have the satisfaction of knowing that my country did everything it could.”

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