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Boggs, Lindyfree

(13 March 1916–27 July 2013)
  • Pamela Tyler

Boggs, Lindy (13 March 1916–27 July 2013), political wife and member of the U.S. House of Representatives, was born to privilege as Marie Corinne Morrison Claiborne, on Brunswick Plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. Her parents were Roland Philemon Claiborne, a prominent young attorney in practice with his father in the town of New Roads, and Corinne Morrison. Initially educated at home, Lindy (a childhood nickname) later attended a convent school and then Sophie Newcomb College of Tulane University in New Orleans, graduating in 1935. At college she met her future husband, Hale Boggs, and worked closely with him on the school newspaper, the Hullabaloo. After marrying in 1938 they lived in New Orleans, where her husband joined a law practice. They had four children between 1939 and 1946; the fourth died shortly after birth.

Lindy expected to be a conventional wife and mother, but her early life had prepared her to be the ultimate in political spouses. An only child, she had benefited from spending time with the large gregarious Claiborne and Morrison clans, whose circle of kin and friends included many state and local officeholders. While she learned that men held office, she also observed strong women of character and competence all around her, both the family members who adeptly organized complex households, and the nuns and women professors who educated her. As a young wife she participated in a vigorous reform movement in Louisiana, joining confident women who canvassed in an effort to oust remnants of the Huey Long regime from state politics. From that she learned about grassroots, precinct-level politics and about the practical element of patronage.

In 1940 twenty-six-year-old Hale Boggs won election to the U.S. House of Representatives as its youngest member but failed to be reelected. After an interlude in a military staff position, Boggs ran successfully for his old seat in 1946, beginning a twenty-six-year congressional career. As he ascended in the Democratic hierarchy of the lower chamber, finally reaching the post of majority leader, Lindy Boggs by all accounts played a larger and larger role in his successes. She skillfully orchestrated his campaigns, offered sage advice on legislative matters, excelled at forming personal connections with political figures at every level, often stood in for the congressman in his home district, mended hurt feelings caused by her sometimes blunt husband, and planned and executed numerous social functions. Among the latter occasions was the Boggses’ annual garden party at their Bethesda, Maryland home, whose guest list typically numbered fifteen hundred names, including lawmakers from both parties, Supreme Court justices, cabinet secretaries, White House connections, and officials from bygone eras. By the 1960s Lindy Boggs knew Capitol Hill, and Capitol Hill knew and liked her.

In October 1972 Democratic majority leader Hale Boggs disappeared in a plane crash while campaigning for a fellow Democrat in Alaska. Louisiana politicos strongly encouraged his widow to run for his seat when it was declared vacant. In March 1973 Lindy Boggs polled over 80 percent of the votes cast in the special election and ascended to Congress. When asked if she had doubts about being able to dispatch her duties, she replied, facetiously but tellingly, that she wondered if she could do it without a wife.

When she arrived, after the regular session of Congress had already commenced, Speaker Carl Albert obligingly created an extra seat for her on Banking and Currency, the committee of her choice. In this post she made a notable contribution early on when she unilaterally altered the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974. Observing that it banned discrimination on the basis of race and age, she quickly added “sex or marital status” to the bill and made photocopies for the committee. She explained sweetly that she was sure the omission was only an oversight and noted that she had rectified the matter. No one objected; the vote was unanimous in favor.

Boggs’s arrival in Congress coincided with the high-water mark of second wave feminism. Congress had passed the Equal Rights Amendment only a year before; by the end of 1973 thirty states had ratified it. Never an assertive feminist like her congressional peers Bella Abzug and Pat Schroeder, Boggs nevertheless reliably championed women’s issues, although her usual approach to solutions was economic. She supported fairness for women on credit, housing, government contracts, and equal pay, and she co-founded the Women’s Congressional Caucus.

Boggs’s reverence for history led to her service as chair of the Joint Bicentennial Arrangements Committee (1975–1977) and chair of the Commission of the Bicentenary of the U.S. House (1985–1989). She was instrumental in creating the House Historian’s Office and in securing adequate appropriations for upkeep of the Congressional Cemetery in Washington. In 1976 she chaired the Democratic National Convention.

Boggs was repeatedly reelected with ease until 1984, when a court-ordered reapportionment rendered her district 56 percent African American. Even then she defeated her black challenger, Judge Israel Augustin, by taking 60 percent of the vote. She was reelected twice more and held the distinction of being the only white member representing a majority black district. Her personal warmth and constituent relations kept her popularity high with both races.

In 1990 Boggs announced that she would not seek reelection, citing her desire to spend time with her daughter Barbara Boggs Sigmund, the mayor of Princeton, New Jersey, who was battling cancer. (Her other children also had public careers: Thomas Hale Boggs Jr. as a Washington lobbyist, and Cokie Boggs Roberts as a broadcaster on ABC and NPR.) President Bill Clinton’s appointment of Boggs as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican allowed her to serve four years in Rome (1997–2001), a meaningful last assignment for one whose Roman Catholicism was central to her identity. She died in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Unlike many congressional widows who served merely as placeholders in Congress until the powers of their states determined which men should replace their dead husbands, Lindy Claiborne Boggs had had the equivalent of over two decades of political apprenticeship before she took her seat. Superbly qualified by life experience and temperament to work in politics, she enjoyed a productive tenure in Congress and earned bipartisan respect for her genteel effectiveness.

Bibliography

Lindy Boggs donated her congressional papers to Tulane University; they are housed on campus in the Louisiana Research Collection. Early in her retirement Boggs wrote, with Katharine Hatch, a lively autobiography, Washington Through a Purple Veil: Memoirs of a Southern Woman (1994), which, while typically avoiding criticism of associates, contains a wealth of insights and anecdotes about politics. Also pertinent is an article by Thomas H. and Judith Haydel, “Hale and Lindy Boggs: Louisiana’s National Democrats,” Louisiana History 35 (Fall 1994): 389–402. Press coverage of her campaigns and positions in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, New York Times, and Washington Post is useful. See also Pamela Tyler, Silk Stockings and Ballot Boxes: Women and Politics in New Orleans, 1920–1963 (2009). An obituary appeared in the New York Times on 27 July 2013.