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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Lindy Boggs: a fond farewell

Posted By on Sat, Jul 27, 2013 at 5:17 PM

Graciousness is rare in a politician. Genuine kindness ranks not far behind. Most so-called public servants these days are so focused on themselves and their ambitions that they lose a great deal of their humanity. In the four decades that I’ve covered politics, I’ve known only one elected official who literally embodied the qualities of graciousness and kindness: former Congresswoman Lindy Boggs. In a profession peopled by narcissists and jerks, Lindy stood out like Mother Theresa at a biker rally.

Lindy died on Saturday, July 27, at her home in Chevy Chase, Md. She was 97.

For those who knew her and were touched by her gentle spirit, Lindy’s passing leaves a void that cannot be filled. She had few political adversaries — and no enemies — during her long career.

Those new to New Orleans or too young to have known her will likely never encounter anyone quite like her outside of a convent, which, by the way, is where she was educated before she enrolled in Tulane’s Sophie Newcomb College at age 15. It was at Tulane that she met her husband, T. Hale Boggs.

Lindy was the first woman elected to Congress from Louisiana. She served there for 18 years, retiring in 1990 to care for her daughter, Barbara Boggs Sigmund, the mayor of Princeton, N.J., who died that year of cancer. While in Congress, she leveraged her seat on the House Appropriations Committee to champion the causes of women’s rights and civil rights, as well as the Port of New Orleans and flood protection for southeast Louisiana.

After her retirement, she took a job at Tulane University and became Gambit's New Orleanian of the Year in 1991.

Over the course of her remarkable career, she had many firsts as a woman: the first to chair the Democratic National Convention in 1976; the first to manage two inaugural balls (for John F. Kennedy in 1961 and Johnson in 1965); in 1984 she was among the first women seriously mentioned as possible vice presidential candidates; and in 1997 she was named by President Bill Clinton as the first woman to become U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican. She was a devout Catholic.

She succeeded her late husband Hale in Congress in a special election in March 1973 after he disappeared in a plane crash in Alaska. Hale was first elected to Congress from Louisiana’s 2nd District in 1940 as a reformer. He lost the seat two year later, but reclaimed it in 1946. He then climbed the ranks to become the House Majority Leader, one step away from the Speaker’s chair. Throughout Hale’s tenure, Lindy was at his side, both as a political wife and as his closest political confidant.

Along with her husband, Lindy mastered the inner workings of Beltway politics and developed close relationships with leading members of both parties. Among her closest friends were Gerald Ford, who was Hale’s GOP congressional counterpart, and his wife Betty. That relationship came to represent an era when Democrats and Republicans could fight it out on the floor but still leave the Capitol for dinner or drinks as friends. Relationships mattered far more than partisanship back then, and things got done as a result.

Both Hale and Lindy were southern liberals who managed to hold the 2nd District seat during and after the Civil Rights era, even though many whites became disaffected with their voting records. In October 1972, Hale was campaigning for a fellow Democratic congressman in Alaska when his plane went down. Even though he was presumed dead, he was re-elected several weeks later. Lindy won a hard-fought campaign to succeed him, then continued to serve though 1990.

Her combination of southern charm, keen political insight and a deft sense of timing made her a force for women’s rights and civil rights. She was said to be the only member of Congress who could sidle up to the Speaker’s podium and whisper into the ear of Tip O’Neill, the legendary speaker who followed Hale Boggs in rank at the time of his death. I saw her do that, in fact, in the mid-1980s. “The answer is yes,” O’Neill said with a big grin. “Anything for you, Lindy.”

“Lindy had a basic sense of human decency, warmth and kindness that was totally genuine,” says retired Criminal Court Judge Terry Alarcon, who managed Boggs’ congressional campaigns in the late 1970s and ’80s (before he became a judge). “You can tell somebody has real class by how they treat people they don’t necessarily ‘need’ in life. No matter who you were, Lindy treated you like you were the most important person in the world when you were with her. She was always more interested in other people’s lives and problems than her own.”

I saw that first-hand as well. In the mid-1980s, a member of my family became very seriously ill. It weighed heavily on me, though I tried not to let it show. Somehow Lindy found out about it. One evening I covered a massive rally for her in eastern New Orleans, at a reception hall jammed with more than 600 supporters and campaign workers. The room burst into cheers when she entered, but she made a beeline for me, gave me a hug and asked how my relative was doing. She meant it.

One of my favorite interviews ever was one I did with her a few years later, at her beautifully appointed home on Bourbon Street. I phoned in a request for a breakfast meeting and was told to meet her at home. I assumed we’d walk over to Brennan’s, but when I got there she called down from the third floor and told me to come up. (She climbed those long steps like a 12-year-old.) I huffed and puffed to the third floor, only to find Lindy in the kitchen with a spatula in hand and an apron around her waist.

“Darling, how do you want your eggs?” she asked.

I was speechless.

“Lindy, you’re not cooking me breakfast.”

She answered more with a look than a retort, then said sweetly, “Darling, you said you wanted to meet me for breakfast. So, I’m making breakfast. I’ve got scratch biscuits in the oven and bacon in the skillet. Now, how do you want your eggs?”

That was it. No debate.

Unlike so many other politicians, that kind of charm came naturally to Lindy. There was nothing phony or insincere about her. The New York Times write-up of her death noted that she was famous in Washington for hosting garden parties for up to a thousand guests — and proudly doing the cooking herself.

Maybe it was her upbringing in rural Pointe Coupee Parish, just upriver from Baton Rouge. She grew up on a plantation but went to convent school, and probably learned there that the gravest sin of all was hurting someone else’s feelings.

“Despite her many accomplishments, she was proudest of the fact that she was a wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother,” Alarcon recalled. “Family was everything to her.” In addition to her late daughter Barbara, Lindy is the mother of ABC commentator Cokie Roberts and noted D.C. lawyer-lobbyist Tommy Boggs. She also is survived by eight grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.

Public service has been a defining trait of her family. According to the Times, her “political lineage reached back to George Washington’s time, including governors of Louisiana and Mississippi.”

Other than her first campaign to succeed her husband in 1973, Lindy faced only one tough political race for Congress. In 1983, her district was redrawn to give it a black majority. A year later, she was challenged by then-former Judge Israel M. Augustine, the first black judge at Criminal Court and a beloved figure in the black community.

Alarcon, her campaign manager, recalls that Boggs never lost her composure during that race, even though her campaign team was scared stiff at the prospect of her having to run against a popular black figure in a black-majority district. One event from that campaign, he says, remains etched in his memory as a defining moment.

“One morning a longtime supporter who ran a small and no-longer-very-significant political organization came in with this ridiculous budget for his ballot,” Alarcon says. “He wanted $5,000 — and about that time money was really tight. Herman Kohlmeyer, her treasurer, practically had a stroke. I had the unfortunate task of giving Lindy the bad news.

“Lindy, of course, said, ‘Give it to him.’ We complained to her that it wasn’t worth it, that we were running low on cash, but she just smiled and said, ‘You have to remember that there are angels everywhere. You just have to look for them.’

“That afternoon we took her to a local housing project to campaign for black votes, not knowing what kind of reception she would get. Almost as soon as we arrived, dozens of women came pouring out of their apartments, some of them clutching letters they had received years earlier from Lindy, or even Hale. Several of them said, ‘Don’t worry Miss Boggs. We remember that you were always there for us. We’re gonna be here for you now.’

“She then turned to me and said, ‘You see. There really are angels everywhere. You just have to look for them.’”

Boggs won re-election handily, capturing more than a third of the black vote.

Now that she is gone, Alarcon said through tears, “We don’t have to look too far to find this angel.”

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