Lindy Boggs, a Democratic Party doyenne from Louisiana whose magnolia charm and political acumen helped her husband rise to U.S. House majority leader, and who launched her own congressional and diplomatic career after his disappearance in an airplane crash, died Saturday at home in Chevy Chase, Md. She was 97.
In 1976, Mrs. Boggs became the first woman to preside over a Democratic National Convention. Three years earlier, she had become the first woman from Louisiana elected to the House.
Her victory came in a special election in which she campaigned to succeed her husband, Thomas Hale Boggs Sr., a powerful member of the House who had served there 28 years, the last two as majority leader. He was presumed dead when a plane in which he was a passenger disappeared while he was campaigning with Rep. Nick Begich in Alaska in 1972. The bodies were never found.
Mrs. Boggs gained her husband’s seat in no small part on the strength of his name. The special election was held in March 1973; her husband had been re-elected the previous November, even though he was presumed dead.
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Politics had been central to Lindy Boggs’ life long before she won the special election. Her family, the Claibornes, traced its roots to colonial Jamestown and became one of the country’s early political dynasties.
She arrived in Washington in 1941, the 24-year-old wife of the youngest freshman in the House; she quickly delved into the campaigns, politics and strategies of the Capitol, acting as a Democratic hostess, campaign manager and adviser to her husband, who was known as Hale, and scores of other politicians.
Her children followed in her footsteps. Her son, Tommy Boggs, is one of the marquee partners of the law firm and lobbyist group Patton Boggs; her younger daughter, Cokie Roberts, is a journalist who has worked for National Public Radio and ABC-TV; her older daughter, the late Barbara Boggs Sigmund, was mayor of Princeton, N.J.
With the Southern graciousness of her plantation upbringing, Mrs. Boggs was said to charm, flatter and persuade even the most curmudgeonly lawmaker. As a representative for nine terms, she used those skills to support civil rights, eventually becoming the only white lawmaker elected from a majority-black district, and to pass legislation that helped women and children.
As a member of the Appropriations Committee, she helped shape an amendment to the 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which made it illegal for creditors to discriminate against applicants based on race and other factors. Mrs. Boggs hand-wrote “sex or marital status” into the text and then passed out new copies of the bill with the phrase included.
She suggested sweetly that the omission “must have been an oversight.” The amendment passed.
She used her membership on the Appropriations Committee to push for other women’s economic advances, such as equal pay for government jobs and equal access to government business contracts.
She also championed racial justice when doing so invited the resentment, if not hostility, of most Southern whites. She saw the growing civil-rights movement as necessary to the political reform movement of the 1940s and ’50s.
Marie Corinne Morrison Claiborne was born March 13, 1916, on the Brunswick Plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, La. She came to be known as Lindy, according to Roberts, because a nurse thought she looked like her father, Roland Claiborne, and called her “Rolindy.”
She met Hale Boggs at a college fraternity party, and they began to date his senior year, when he was editor of the student newspaper and she was women’s editor. They graduated in 1935 and married three years later. In addition to her children, she is survived by eight grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.
Mrs. Boggs left Congress in 1990 to help her daughter Barbara, the Princeton mayor, deal with eye cancer, an ocular melanoma, which had spread to other parts of her body. Sigmund died that year at 51.
In 1991, a room that had been used as the House speaker’s office in the 19th century was named the Lindy Claiborne Boggs Congressional Women’s Reading Room.
She was Roman Catholic, and in 1997, President Clinton appointed her U.S. ambassador to the Holy See at the Vatican, a position she held until 2001. The post was known for its decorum, but Mrs. Boggs would have none of that. At one point, she exchanged three phone calls in one day with an Italian archbishop on a minor piece of Vatican diplomacy. Picking up the receiver for the last time, she said, “Dahlin’, does this mean we’re going steady?”