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Lindy Boggs Makes History with a Gavel: the First Woman to Chair a National Convention

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The camellias, magnolias, gardenias and night-blooming jasmine that fill the aromatic courtyard of her New Orleans home suggest the perfect setting for a Southern Gothic novel. And, fittingly, Corinne Claiborne Boggs’s life provides the bittersweet plot. She has known great cotton plantations, aristocratic ancestors, a rich stepfather, private tutors, a convent school. Then marriage to a handsome fellow student at Tulane who became one of the most powerful men in Congress but who took to drink, was brushed by scandal and finally disappeared in a small plane over the mountains of Alaska…

Now, in the Gothic tradition, there is a happy ending. Anyone with a TV set can see it on July 12 when Rep. Lindy Boggs, elected in 1973 to take her husband’s seat, bangs the gavel and makes history—the first woman ever to chair the Democratic National Convention (or to be permanent chairman of any national political convention). Mrs. Boggs must of course remain officially neutral on the possible nominees, but she appears to have strong neighborly feelings about front-runner Jimmy Carter. Of him, she says, “Governor Carter typifies the vigor and progressiveness of the new South without losing the sense of family or the reverence for continuity and tradition that Southerners hold dear.” That may not constitute flat-out endorsement, but it’s not just whistling Dixie either.

Lindy Boggs was born, says her mother, “with a silver spoon in her mouth—but it never went to her head.” (A nurse wanted to name her Rolinda, after her father, Roland; the idea was rejected but the “Lindy” stuck.) One of her ancestors was a Brewster—”the sick little boy in the middle of the picture of the Mayflower in the Capitol,” the congresswoman says. When she was 3, her father died of flu. Her mother then married a wealthy plantation owner. “One of the biggest influences on my life was Aunt Hannah Hall—my stepfather’s mammy and a great philosopher,” Mrs. Boggs says. She still remembers the midday dinners at the plantation where politics and world affairs were discussed. Her mother says, “Lindy rode horses and baited her own hook and was always a lady.” She took speech and dancing lessens and at one time thought of becoming a ballerina.

When Lindy was old enough to make her debut, the Depression had brought hard times. Rather than have an ostentatious coming-out party, she chose to use the money to finish Sophie Newcomb, the elegant girls’ division of Tulane University. She met Hale Boggs at a Beta Theta Pi fraternity party. They began to date in their senior year when he was editor of the Hullabaloo, Tulane’s student newspaper, and she was the women’s editor.

Lindy knew from their first meeting that Hale was going into politics—his nickname was “Senator.” They were married in New Roads, La. in 1938 when she was “almost 21.” (Mrs. Boggs does not list her age in the Congressional Directory, but elsewhere it is given as 60.)

Hale Boggs was elected to Congress in 1940, and shortly after they arrived in Washington Lindy suffered the first of two serious illnesses. An eye infection that nearly blinded her meant a long recuperation. She was so “frustrated at not being well” that she thinks her husband involved her in his political career just “to cheer me up.” At 29, she fell ill again, this time an attack of hepatitis after their third child died at birth. (Later they had another child.)

She remembers 33 as a kind of turning point in her life. “I loved being 33. I realized that I was old enough and young enough to do what I pleased.” She felt liberated from a doting family that by trying to make up for the loss of her father “had put an obligation on me to please them.”

For a quarter of a century in Washington Lindy Boggs raised her three children, gave innumerable parties—she did the cooking for the thousands who came each year to the Boggses’ famous spring lawn party—was active in national Democratic campaigns and became one of the most admired women in Washington.

Meanwhile, reports of her husband’s drinking grew more and more widespread. Mrs. Boggs will not talk directly on the subject, but does say: “No political marriage is ecstatically happy. Politics is a public life.” It is generally acknowledged in Washington that Lindy kept her husband—a brilliant legislator, if erratic personality—in Congress for more than 30 years by giving speeches, mending fences and generally making him as presentable as possible.

Their lives became even more difficult in the 1960s because of civil rights pressure in the South. Boggs was considered a liberal on race, and the family paid for it. “We were socially ostracized,” Lindy remembers. “We would go to a party and someone would get tight. There would be a dispute, and it would be embarrassing and we would have to leave.

“Once they burned a cross on our lawn. We were in Paris and I was worried about my aunt and grandmother, who lived next door. We called up and my grandmother said, ‘My dear, you missed all the excitement last night. I saw neighbors we haven’t seen in months.’ ”

One day in 1971 Boggs got up on the floor of the House and implied that the FBI was bugging his telephones. His colleagues and the press whispered that liquor had finally done him in. “But,” Mrs. Boggs now points out, “it was John Mitchell who said he was crazy and Hoover who denied the charges. The phones were bugged. We had the place swept by a friend. They had bugged our home and office in both Washington and New Orleans. Hale knew things were going on.”

There were further troubles. In 1971, Boggs was accused of allowing his home to be remodeled at less than cost by a contractor who was building a government garage. While that minor scandal was simmering, Boggs went to Alaska to campaign for fellow representative Nick Begich. In October 1972 their plane disappeared. A five-week search turned up no clues. Mrs. Boggs continues to be called by psychics and cranks who think her husband is still alive or was the victim of a government plot (because he was a member of the Warren commission that investigated the Kennedy assassination). She is now convinced that he is dead and that his death was a tragic accident. Two months after Boggs was lost Lindy decided to run for Congress. She explains: “I thought Hale would return, and it would make an easier transition if I had the seat.”

Now, after two terms on her own, Mrs. Boggs is modestly pleased with herself. “I like Congress very much. I am able to use my experience and limited talents where they can be somewhat effective. But it’s frustrating sometimes—legislation moves slowly.” There are at present no women in the Senate: she says she is not tempted. “I have no further political ambitions. The responsibility for making ultimate decisions and voting is difficult.” Though she objects to being thought of as a knee-jerk Southern liberal, Mrs. Boggs has sponsored bills in such progressive areas as health, energy research, housing, education and the right to privacy, co-sponsored some equal rights laws (credit and loans) and appointed a young woman to the Naval Academy. Lindy Boggs has influence in the House but uses it with great delicacy.

“I haven’t had to fight myself to get elected, but I fought alongside Hale,” she says. Her Louisiana district—the New Orleans port area—sent her to Congress by a four-to-one margin over her Republican opponent. “I feel I am continuing our work. He was in the House so long, physically he still seems to be in the building. I sometimes will turn around and almost expect to see him.

“He was a grand debater—especially at wrapping up a debate. When it gets very confusing on the House floor, I almost turn and say, ‘Why don’t you go down and clarify that for everyone?’ Sometimes I vote differently than he would have, but he would expect that. He voted differently than I wanted him to sometimes.”

Mrs. Boggs’s life, while busy, is also very comfortable. She lives in a large, white-pillared house on several acres in suburban Bethesda, Md. with her elderly mother and a housekeeper. “I can’t sell it,” she says. “I don’t have time to clean the attic.”

Most weekdays she packs her Dior bag with clothes for the evening and leaves the house at 8. She stops off for Mass (“I feel very close to the Church and personally have a spiritual need to be replenished,” she says) en route to her congressional office. While she sees scores of visiting constituents in her office, she talks to even more of them on the telephone. The instrument is always at her ear.

Three or four times a month she flies to New Orleans, where she owns a house in the French Quarter. Built in 1795, it is furnished with beautiful antiques. One estimate is that the restored home is worth as much as a quarter of a million dollars. A gallery in the back has been glassed in so that Lindy can sit in air-conditioned comfort and watch the birds in the fountain pool below—much as some dark-haired Creole beauty might have done almost 200 years ago.

Lindy has many relatives in Louisiana, but her children are scattered. The two daughters are married, one to a Princeton professor and the other to a New York Times correspondent stationed in Greece. Her son, Thomas Hale Boggs Jr., an attorney, was defeated in a race for Congress from Maryland and now works as lobbyist for Latin American sugar interests. Mrs. Boggs has eight grandchildren.

She anticipates no difficulties in running the convention. “Its rules essentially coincide with those of the House, and recently I have been presiding over the committee of the whole House to get experience.” She believes there could be a woman as Vice-President on the Democratic ticket this year, but “I’m not a likely candidate.” House leader Tip O’Neill says, “Lindy is one of the most intelligent and delightful persons I have ever known. I have seen her preside over the House, and I know she can do the job in New York.”

If it’s difficult to find anyone in Washington who will say an unkind word about Lindy Boggs, it is virtually impossible in New Orleans. “You could get diabetes from standing too close to Lindy—she’s so sweet.” Her constituents say things like that and mean them. In both cities, nearly everyone who knows her says that she seems younger and happier than she has in many years. Politics, Congress—and even widowhood—obviously agree with her.

At a recent Washington luncheon, Mrs. Boggs was the guest of honor and the talk naturally turned to the sordid sex scandals in Congress. The biggest laugh came when a speaker asked her, “Lindy, what’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”