BAYHAM: Farewell To The Belle

On the grounds of Congressional Cemetery on Capitol Hill are a number of cenotaphs, tombstones that do not mark actual burial sites but stand as a monument honoring distinguished individuals. Some of the political giants who served in Congress buried in their home constituencies are represented by these pyramid-shaped memorials include Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Tip O’Neil.

An exception is T. Hale Boggs, the one-time Democratic Majority Leader in the House and heir apparent to Speaker. Boggs has a cenotaph but no known grave.

The New Orleans congressman and Alaska Democratic US Representative Nick Begich along with an aide and their pilot vanished in 1972 during campaign swing through The Last Frontier. The flight disappeared, no wreckage was ever found and the men were declared dead two and a half months later.

It was in the aftermath of this tragedy that Lindy Boggs would begin a distinguished career as a member of the US House of Representatives from Louisiana’s Second District.
But what truly set Lindy Boggs apart from her colleagues weren’t her legislative accomplishments but the dignified manner in which she conducted herself. She radiated class and was beloved by Democrats and Republicans alike, which was apparent by the bipartisan crowd at her funeral on Thursday.

Not far from her casket stood the two men who had faced off in the race for Louisiana’s US Senate election in 1986.

Republican Henson Moore and Democrat John Breaux had served with Lindy Boggs in the US House of Representatives in the seventies and eighties and were both on-hand to pay tribute to her. Though a staunch Democrat, Lindy Boggs was more of a “small p” kind of party animal- she enjoyed having a good time.

When the Republican National Convention was held in her congressional district in 1988, Lindy Boggs opened her French Quarter home to GOP delegates and threw a soiree for the visitors from the other side of the aisle, something unthinkable today.

When a news crew wanted to interview her about the convention, instead of using the opportunity to read off some canned attack piece about the “extreme interlopers” who invaded her city, Lindy Boggs initially requested that it be cleared first by GOP officials. When the host committee was frustrated in their search to find a Native American official to lead a convention session in prayer, Lindy Boggs used her connections to find someone.

Compare Lindy Boggs’s hospitality to Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s belligerent conduct on news programs being filmed outside of the Tampa arena when the GOP held its nominating convention in her state last year.

In one of his more agreeable decisions, President Bill Clinton appointed Lindy Boggs as Ambassador to the Vatican. It would be hard to envision a better representative to the Holy See. In addition to being a woman of grace and charm, skills that are helpful for any diplomat, Boggs was a devout Roman Catholic who often walked to Saint Louis Cathedral for daily Mass.

An indication of Lindy Boggs’s close association with the church was visible near the cathedral’s entrance after her funeral, where an elderly black lady stood holding a handmade sign that read, “Ms. Lindy is off to heaven to see her friend Archbishop Hannan”. Lindy Boggs’s Louisiana pelican flag-draped coffin was stationed only a few feet away from where the popular archbishop is buried in the cathedral.

Though Lindy Boggs was a tireless advocate for equal rights for women, particularly in consumer affairs, she was a different kind of feminist. Lindy Boggs was pro-life and admitted in her autobiography that her unmovable stance on the issue likely kept her from achieving greater prominence in her party, something that did not bother her at all.
I had the pleasure of interacting with Lindy Boggs a few times but one occasion stands out. About ten years ago, I attended a dinner that former Congressman Bob Livingston held during the annual Washington Mardi Gras Ball. When it came time to sit down, I saw the 80-something year old former congresswoman shuffling by herself and offered to share a table with her.

While making conversation I passed along a story from her husband’s contentious 1968 re-election campaign involving two rogue volunteers who shot down a large balloon emblazoned with “BOGGS” and were arrested by the police. As the story goes, the district attorney was a rival of Boggs and rather than embarrass the Republican challenger by going after his volunteers, he let the two ne’er-do-wells off the hook.

While cutting up her filet mignon, Lindy Boggs took issue with that version, saying she was familiar with the balloon incident from 34 years ago and that the campaign had been made aware about what happened but she was the one who refused to file charges against them, not wishing to wreck the young men’s lives with a conviction.

Lindy Boggs was a trailblazer who served as the first woman from Louisiana elected to the US House of Representatives and to chair a major party’s convention (1976) while remaining the traditionalist southern woman who went by Mrs. T. Hale Boggs (even in the phone book), before, during and after Congress.

Lindy Boggs will be dearly missed, both the individual and the type of leadership and genteel politics she personified.

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