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Tribute to Lindy Boggs

by Rex Buffington

Lindy Boggs’ life of public service leadership is proof that power and grace are not always mutually exclusive in American politics.  Instead of demonizing her opponents, Lindy treated political opponents with respect and kindness.   She won many important battles without resorting to angry confrontation, and often made friends of her enemies in the process.   Lindy made politics look good.

When she died on July 27, 2013 at age 97, Lindy closed the book on a remarkable life that earned the personal admiration and affection of every U.S. President since Franklin D. Roosevelt who was in office when she moved to Washington as the wife of Congressman Hale Boggs in 1941.  She once told of rushing in late for her first reception at the White House, breathlessly apologizing to Eleanor Roosevelt that she had been delayed by a minor crisis with her baby who was cutting a tooth.  The First Lady immediately grabbed her arm and introduced her to others attending the reception as “one person in Washington who has her priorities right.”

Lindy always had her priorities right.  She knew winning people over was more effective than running over people as she sought to make policy changes that extended rights to all Americans.  She was passionate in her legislative pursuits, but showed patience, rather than wrath, to those less compassionate.  She believed they would eventually come around, and they often did.

As a woman who saw herself as being in the right place at the right time to remove barriers to credit for American women, Lindy worked hard to encourage more women to seek public office.  She spearheaded an effort at the Stennis Center for Public Service that targeted 14 Southern states in attracting more women to public service at the local, state and federal levels and helping those already in public office to continue to climb the leadership ladder.

Like many organizations, the Stennis Center benefited greatly from Lindy’s leadership after she retired from Congress.  As vice chair of the Stennis Center’s Board of Trustees, she not only helped develop the groundbreaking program on women in public service, but also helped develop a highly effective ongoing program to send former Members of Congress to college campuses in bipartisan pairs to help young people better understand the challenges and rewards of public service.  Lindy was always eager to open doors of opportunity for young people and was never too busy to lend her considerable influence to a helpful cause.

In fact, Lindy was helpful to good causes and to individuals who needed a helping hand.  A visit to her office at Tulane University a few months after she left Congress found her sitting among unpacked boxes and unhung pictures and plaques constantly answering the phone to respond to the needs of her former constituents who were still seeking her help with problems large and small.  They might no longer be her constituents, but they were still friends.

Walking with her through the streets of her beloved hometown of New Orleans, or down the Halls of Congress where she was honored by being the first woman in history to have a meeting room in the Capitol named for her, was a remarkable experience.  She stopped every few steps to speak to someone filled with gratitude for something she had done for him or her.

Lindy always had close ties to Mississippi through her late husband, Hale Boggs, who was Majority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives when he lost his life in a plane crash over Alaska in 1972.  Hale was born in Long Beach and had extended family in the state.  Lindy also maintained close personal and professional relationships with members of the Mississippi Congressional Delegation including Senator John Stennis and his wife, Coy; Congressman Jamie Whitten and his wife, Rebecca; and Congressman G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery.

When she was tapped at age 81 by President Bill Clinton to represent the United States as the first woman to serve as Ambassador to the Vatican, she added Pope John Paul II to her list of admirers and friends.  Lindy’s warm friendship was cherished equally by all who were blessed to know her – from the Pope to her neighbors in the French Quarter in New Orleans to workers in the Capitol.

In keeping her priorities right, Lindy raised three outstanding children:  Cokie Roberts, National Public Radio and ABC News reporter and commentator; Tommy Boggs, a highly successful Washington lobbyist; and Barbara Sigmund, former Mayor of Princeton, New Jersey, who succumbed to cancer in 1990, the year her mother left Congress.  Her grandchildren and great-grandchildren were also high on her list of priorities, and she made sure they always knew it.

As we mark the closing of the incredible life of Lindy Boggs, we should pause to salute her achievements, and her values as well.  While we know we will never see another like her, we can all learn from her example of graceful and effective public service.