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Lindy Boggs Quits Congress to Close Ranks with Her Two Remarkable Daughters, One Gravely Ill with Cancer

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When Lindy Boggs announced she would not seek reelection to her seat in Congress this year, it sent shock waves across Capitol Hill. After all, a Boggs has represented the people of New Orleans for nearly 50 years. Lindy, who succeeded her husband, Hale, in March 1973, five months after a small plane in which he was riding vanished over Alaska, said she was stepping down because of “family considerations. ” Yet no one tried harder to dissuade her than her two remarkable daughters: Barbara Sigmund, 51, Mayor of the Borough of Princeton, N.J., since 1984, and Cokie Roberts, 46, an influential congressional reporter for National Public Radio and political commentator for ABC-TV. (Their brother, Thomas Hale Boggs Jr., 49, a powerful Washington lobbyist, also opposed the move. “Are you sure you’ll be happy not being there?” he asked his mother.)

Lately Lindy’s priorities, shaped once again by a family tragedy, have returned to her kin. In 1982, Barbara lost an eye to cancer. With characteristic pluck and style, she took to wearing eye patches color-coordinated with her outfits. Then last year she discovered that the disease had returned and spread. Neither Barbara nor her doctors expect a remission this time. For Boggs, grandmother of eight, great-grandmother of one, there was no choice other than to retire. “She feels strongly that for everything there is a season, “says Barbara.

For 17 years Lindy was one of Washington’s most effective politicians. “I never wanted to run for anything, “she says. Yet she was a lot more than a sentimental favorite when her husband, then 58, disappeared. Hale first went to Washington, D.C., in 1940 as a freshman in Congress. Beginning in 1948, Lindy, a onetime schoolteacher, ran all 12 of his subsequent campaigns, managed his Capitol Hill office and chaired numerous organizations—including John F. Kennedy’s and Lyndon Johnson’s inaugural ball committees. “I went from being president of everything to being a mere member of Congress,” she says.

Tenacious in pursuit of a broad legislative agenda, Boggs disarmed opponents with southern charm acquired during her upbringing on two plantations in Pointe Coupee Parish, La. “You could get diabetes standing next to Lindy—she ‘s that sweet, “a colleague once remarked. But she also spearheaded legislation on issues ranging from civil rights to credit access and civil service pay equity for women. Her greatest pride, she says, was helping to establish the Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families, which assesses the conditions of the nation’s families and children.

Recently Lindy and her two daughters talked with national correspondent Garry Clifford, not about their successful careers or their families (Barbara, married to Princeton University political science professor Paul Sigmund, 61, has three sons, while Cokie and her husband, U.S. News & World Report senior writer Steven Roberts, 47, have a son and a daughter), but about their roles in a sorority that has become legendary in American politics—the Boggs women.

Barbara: Mother cannot accept the fact that I may die before she does—it’s not in the natural order of things. When I lost my eye in 1982, we felt it was a case of, “If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out,” and that that was the end of it. So learning that the cancer had spread was traumatic. The worst part was telling Mother. She said, “I wish I could rock you and make it all better.” Such a Mama thing to say.

Unfortunately there is nothing much I can do except take two pills a day, run the Borough of Princeton and write poems. That’s the way I distill my emotions. In 1987 I wrote a poem to my great-grandchildren. I suppose it was some unconscious knowledge that something was going to happen again. I wanted them to know I had existed and had been real.

Cokie: Barbara sets the tone. If she’s going to be cheery, you’re going to be cheery. But her openness allows us to vent our anger about this happening.

Barbara: During this illness, Cokie has been spectacular. She leaves important assignments all over the country to be with me. She calls up and is her dear, funny self.

You could spend 24 hours a day having cancer. Almost immediately these self-help books began to arrive. I heard from a lot of people who wanted to give me cures outside the cancer establishment. One told me that the heart of the remedy was an enema every four hours. I was so astonished I said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t even floss.”

Lindy: I have a problem discussing [Barbara’s illness] and my reasons for retirement. My decision was a difficult one. I thought about it for months. But my family considerations are very important, and the opportunity to be able to spend quality time with my daughter is very precious to me. I go up to Princeton almost every weekend. I have a good time. Barbara is one of the most entertaining and attractive personalities I know.

Cokie: When we are together, my mother, my sister, my daughter, Becca [age 19], and Tommy’s daughter, Elizabeth [age 27], and I, we all laugh a lot and we all laugh exactly alike. We genuinely like each other. That’s not to say we don’t have intellectual disagreements.

Barbara: We are all united in our personal beliefs about abortion, but whereas the rest of the family thinks that in the civil realm you have to allow people choice, Mama always votes against abortion. She’s also anti-death penalty and pro-gay rights. She is the only person I know who is truly pro-life rather than pro-punishment.

Cokie: Barbara took Becca to a pro-choice rally in New Jersey last fall. When Becca noticed that all the speakers were either male or past childbearing age, she thought she ought to speak up. I’m told it was the most rousing speech.

Barbara: Becca’s probably going to be our first woman President. All our children are political science majors. There’s a government gene there. We keep trying to slap it down, but it keeps popping up again.

Cokie: Politics is our “family business.” Growing up, our expectation was to do what our mother did. We thought we would graduate from college, have an interesting job for a year or two, get married, have babies and contribute to the community. It never occurred to us that we would have careers. But it is no accident that we are doing what we do. Throughout our lives at home, we talked and analyzed and synthesized.

Lindy: The world changed. Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement. Everyone became activated.

Barbara: Rather than protecting us from campaigns and political realities, my parents thought we would never be a family unless we were all part of it. So we went to school half of the time in New Orleans and half of the time in Washington. Our school calendar was dictated by the congressional calendar.

Lots of my memories involve traveling the highway between Washington and New Orleans. We had our own direct experience with the foolishness of segregation on those trips back and forth. Oftentimes, the woman who helped raise us, Emma Cyprian, who was black, traveled with us. One night, when I was about 7 years old, we were driving around southern Virginia looking for a hotel. It was getting later and later, but Daddy kept coming out of every place we tried saying, “No soap.” He meant no hotel would accept Emma. Finally around 1 o’clock in the morning, when he came out and announced there was no soap again, I asked him, “Daddy, why can’t we bring in our own soap?” I don’t recall where we slept that night. So this was a system that benefited no one as far as we could make out.

Cokie: I remember the night before the debate on the 1965 Voting Rights Bill, and we were all giving Daddy a hard time, and he said, “I’m voting for it, leave me alone.” We said we don’t want you just to vote for it, we want you to talk as well. He said we were asking too much from somebody from the Deep South. But the next day he heard one of his colleagues saying there was no discrimination in Louisiana. He couldn’t stand it, and he got up and gave the most phenomenal speech of his career.

Lindy: In 1971 Hale was elected Majority Leader. It was widely assumed he would become Speaker of the House, but then his plane disappeared with Hale and three other men aboard. Carl Albert, who was Speaker of the House, called to tell me the plane was eight hours late. He didn’t want me to hear it on the news. My first reaction was terrible shock and disbelief.

The formal search went on until Thanksgiving. There were 55 investigations of sightings made during that time. I heard from a number of psychics all convinced that they were receiving information that needed to be investigated. The plane was never found. But even when I was finally persuaded to run for his seat, I’m not sure it was because I really accepted the fact he was gone. I figured that if anybody was willing to give up the seat to him if he came back, it would be me.

Barbara: There was no finality about my father’s disappearance. For a burial, a body is essential, and that’s true for a psychological burial as well as a physical one. Our parents were the rock upon which we built our own adult lives. What used to give me a great feeling of warmth and stability was hearing Mama kind of giggle at whatever Daddy was telling her in bed at night.

Cokie: Mama gave us the role model of someone who knew how to juggle. She was always there, and yet she was always working. We thought she was the most beautiful woman alive. I was shocked to discover that other people didn’t think their mothers were beautiful. When we got bigger, the most striking thing was that she was the most reliable woman around. My friends and I would be in school until 10 at night putting out the school paper, and it was Mama who would come and get us even though she had worked all day.

When my son was small, I’d pull Mama off the House floor and cry that it was 9 in the evening and I wasn’t home with my child. Mama would look at me and say, “He’s fine.” The mothers of many of the women of my generation were the great guilt inculcators; my mother was the great guilt remover.

Barbara: But it wasn’t until she was widowed that Mama became radicalized in the feminist sense. She herself had trouble getting credit to buy a condominium, and as a result she’s very feisty about all those issues that tend to hold women back in society.

People have called me Hale Boggs in ruffles, but the truth of the matter is, politically at least, I would rather be my mother’s daughter. Her style still works best in a male-dominated profession. Whenever I want to do something directly, I think of what Daddy would have done. And whenever I want to accomplish something indirectly, I try to emulate what Mama would do.

Lindy: I go about getting things done in a natural way. But that doesn’t mean I’m not persistent. I think it was Sen. Bennett Johnson who said dealing with me was like a Chinese water torture…drip, drip, drip.

Cokie: I’ve had a chance to see what an impact Mama has had on the House, and I was against her leaving it. She is also leaving people who care about her at a time when she needs to be surrounded by caring people.

Barbara: I think it’s going to be difficult for her to find a job that matches her talent and energy. You have a 40-year-old woman trapped in a 74-year-old body.

Lindy: None of my children was in favor of my retiring now. I think they are apprehensive because I’ve been associated with the institution for so many years and are afraid I will be lonely without it. Of course I will miss it and my friends. But I don’t think I will be lonely. I always said that being a Congresswoman was an interruption in my regular life. I can’t hug Barbara from here.