When 14–term Representative and House Majority Leader Hale Boggs’s airplane vanished without a trace over the vast Alaska landscape, Democratic leaders in Louisiana immediately turned to his wife, Corinne “Lindy” Boggs. After three decades of serving as her husband’s political confidante, strategist, and surrogate campaigner, Lindy Boggs possessed more political acumen than any conceivable challenger. After winning a special election to succeed her husband, Congresswoman Boggs went on to serve 18 years in the House, becoming an advocate for women’s equality, economic opportunity for minorities, and the preservation of House heritage.
Marie Corinne Morrison Claiborne was born in Pointe Coupee Roads, Louisiana, on March 13, 1916. Her father Roland Claiborne, a prominent lawyer, died when she was only two years old. She so resembled her father that she was nicknamed “Lindy,” short for Rolinde, the French feminine version of Roland. Her mother, Corinne Morrison Claiborne, remarried several years later to George Keller, a cotton plantation owner. Lindy Claiborne’s stepfather saw to it that she was educated by a series of private tutors. At age 15, Lindy Claiborne attended Newcomb College of Tulane University in New Orleans. A history and education major, she was an editor of the student newspaper, and in that capacity met her future husband, Hale Boggs, who was then the paper’s general editor. She married her college sweetheart on January 22, 1938, a short time before he graduated from law school. After their wedding, Lindy Boggs focused her energy on supporting her husband’s political career and raising three children: Barbara, Tommy, and Corinne (“Cokie”).
Hale Boggs won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1940. Lindy moved with her husband to become a member of his Washington, D.C., staff. Hale Boggs lost his 1942 re–election bid but later returned to the seat representing Jefferson Parish (including New Orleans), where he served continually from 1947 until his death. Lindy Boggs was his chief political adviser. She set up her husband’s district office in New Orleans, orchestrated his re–election campaigns, canvassed voters, arranged for her husband’s many social gatherings, and often acted as his political surrogate as demands on his time became greater the further he climbed in the House leadership.
By 1971, Hale Boggs had ascended to the House Majority Leader position and was widely expected to one day become Speaker. As the Majority Leader, he campaigned on behalf of other Democrats. On an October 1972 campaign trip in Alaska, Boggs’s plane disappeared; the wreckage was never found. Hale Boggs won the re–election three weeks later, but the House was forced to declare the seat vacant on January 3, 1973. On January 12, Lindy Boggs announced her candidacy for the March 20 special election to fill the vacancy. At the time she noted, “I know the job and am humbled by its proportions.”1 In the February 3 Democratic primary, Boggs easily out–polled her nearest competitor by a nearly 4–1 margin.2 Boggs received strong support from her late husband’s colleagues. “She’s the only widow I know who is really qualified—damn qualified—to take over,” said the cantankerous Armed Services Chairman F. Edward Hébert of Louisiana.3 In the special election, Boggs easily defeated Republican challenger Robert E. Lee, a lawyer from the New Orleans suburb of Gretna, by a count of 42,583 to 10,352 votes (an 80 percent margin).4 Boggs’s victory made her the first woman ever to represent Louisiana in the House (Rose Long and Elaine Edwards had previously served in the Senate). Shortly after the election, when asked if she ever had doubts about running for her husband’s seat, Boggs replied, “The only thing that almost stopped me was that I didn’t know how I could do it without a wife.”5
Unlike most freshman Members, Lindy Boggs came to Congress thoroughly prepared for the challenge. Not only did she know Capitol Hill, she enjoyed long–standing personal relationships with virtually every committee chairman, some of whom owed their positions to her late husband. Knowing that most of committee assignments had already been made in January, shortly after her election, she asked Speaker Carl Albert of Oklahoma, which panels still had vacancies. Albert countered, “What committees do you want to be on?” She asked for a spot on the Committee on Banking and Currency, the same panel that Hale Boggs had served on in his freshman term. The House leadership created an extra seat on the committee to accommodate her request.6 In the 94th Congress (1975–1977), Boggs also received an assignment to the Committee on House Administration. Beginning with the 95th Congress (1977–1979), she gave up both of those standing committee assignments for a seat on the Committee on Appropriations, becoming one of just a handful of women ever to serve on that powerful panel. She held that post until her retirement at the end of the 101st Congress (1989–1991). During her House career, Boggs was instrumental in creating the Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families on which she served from the 99th through the 101st Congresses (1985–1991). As part of her duties on the select committee, she chaired the Crisis Intervention Task Force, which examined social and economic issues concerning American families.7
As a former history teacher, Lindy Boggs used her educational background to great effect as a lead member of other non–standing committees. She chaired two commemorative panels: the Joint Bicentennial Arrangements Committee (94th Congress, 1975–1977) and the Commission on the Bicentenary of the U.S. House (99th through the 100th Congresses, 1985–1989). In July 1987, she presided over a congressional meeting at Independence Hall in Philadelphia in commemoration of the Great Compromise of the Federal Convention.8 Boggs’s persistence eventually led to the creation of the House Historian’s Office in the early 1980s. She also was instrumental in securing funding for the repair and upkeep of the historic Congressional Cemetery in Southeast Washington, D.C.
In 1977, Representative Boggs helped cofound the Congressional Woman’s Caucus and later served as its secretary. As she perceived it, a Caucus was necessary to concentrate Congresswomen on common issues. “If we met regularly there would be mutual concerns that would be revealed that we may not think of as compelling now,” she said.9 Unlike other colleagues, she did not view the Caucus as a mechanism for battling discriminatory institutional practices; in fact, Boggs later claimed that she had never experienced discrimination as a woman in the House.
Nevertheless, Boggs considered herself a champion of women’s issues and always maintained that the most important of these were economic rather than the more divisive and sensational social issues. “Almost all women’s issues are economic issues, a stunning idea to those persons who want to hear about ’Great Women’s Issues’ and expect us to be preoccupied with the ERA or abortion or sexual harassment,” she observed. “The major issues of importance that I’ve worked for are economic ones: equal rights for women in business, banking, and home ownership; the promotion of women in the workplace; better jobs in government contracts; and equal opportunities for higher education, especially in science and medicine. Women vote their pocketbooks…it boils down to that.”10 When the Banking and Currency Committee began to mark up the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, Boggs noted it secured people from discrimination on the basis of “race and age, and their status as veterans.” Her experience as a newly widowed woman seeking credit and managing her own finances convinced her that the words “or sex or marital status” should be added to that provision. Without informing the other Members, she inserted those words, walked to the photocopying machine, and made copies for her colleagues. “Knowing the Members composing this committee as well as I do, I’m sure it was just an oversight that we didn’t have ’sex’ or ’marital status’ included,” Boggs said after distributing the revisions. “I’ve taken care of that, and I trust it meets with the committee’s approval.” It did, passing unanimously 47–0.11 A Roman Catholic, Boggs parted company with her women colleagues in 1977 to vote for the so–called Hyde Amendment, which barred Medicaid funding for abortions; Boggs was one of six House women out of a total of 18 who voted “Aye.”12 While this position opened her to criticism from reproductive rights groups, Boggs did support family planning legislation.
In 1976, Boggs became the first woman to preside over a national political convention when she chaired the Democratic National Convention that nominated James Earl “Jimmy” Carter for the presidency. In 1984, when Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale sought a vice presidential running mate, his party encouraged him to select a woman.13 Boggs’s name was added to a high–profile list of current, former, and future Members of Congress, including Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, future Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, Representative Pat Schroeder of Colorado, and former Representative Martha Griffiths of Michigan. Mondale eventually picked Boggs’s House colleague, rising Democratic star Representative Geraldine Ferraro of New York. Observers believed that the choice of Ferraro had as much to do with her pro–abortion position (in contrast with Boggs), as it did her potential for delivering a larger electoral college state.14 “[The party’s] confidence was pleasing, but I knew that my age and my feelings regarding abortion…would preclude any serious consideration of me,” Boggs later recalled. “I stayed within the mainstream of the consideration and talked to various groups, never about myself but always about the fact that a woman could be President or Vice President. I wanted people to remain interested in the possibility.”15 The possibility passed in 1984, however, when the Mondale–Ferraro ticket was handily defeated by the Ronald Reagan–George H.W. Bush team in November.
Representative Boggs had relatively few challenges in her eight re–election bids. Only three times, in 1974, 1976, and 1982, was she even opposed in the general election, winning each with margins of 61 to 93 percent of the vote.16 The toughest challenge to Boggs’s House career came in 1984, when her district was reapportioned in response to a federal court order to create the state’s first majority–black congressional district. The redrawn district was 56 percent black and, in the primary, she faced Judge Israel M. Augustine, Jr., a longtime Boggs family friend. (In 1969, with the help of Hale Boggs, Augustine became the first African American to receive a state district judgeship in Louisiana history.) The candidates agreed on virtually every issue. Though the contest was friendly, it was animated largely by race, with Augustine framing the election as an opportunity for voters to elect the first black to Congress in state history. But the Boggs family had developed a loyal African–American constituency during its 40–year tenure in the House and, of great significance, New Orleans’ first black mayor, Ernest N. “Dutch” Morial, refused to support either candidate; political observers noted that his neutrality benefited Boggs.17 The incumbent won by a margin of 60 to 39 percent of the vote, polling more than one–third of the African–American vote. “I hope we’ve all laid to rest that the people in this city are ever divided about what’s right…or what’s good for this city,” Boggs declared.18 She was re–elected two more times in the district, defying conventional political wisdom. “She is the only white Congress Member representing a black voter majority in the United States,” one political observer noted. “And she is more popular among blacks than among whites in that district, but she’s also extremely popular among whites.”19
In July 1990, at age 74, Lindy Boggs announced that she would not be a candidate for re–election to the 102nd Congress (1991–1993). Her daughter, Barbara, mayor of Princeton, New Jersey, was dying of cancer, and Boggs hoped to spend more time with her. Barbara succumbed to the disease in October 1990. After leaving Congress in January 1991, Lindy Boggs did not retire from the political spotlight. She maintained homes in Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, and wrote her autobiography. The House named a room off the National Statuary Hall for her, the Lindy Claiborne Boggs Congressional Women’s Reading Room, in July 1991.20 In 1997, President William J. Clinton appointed the 81–year–old as U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, where she served until 2001. In July 2002, Congress honored Boggs for “her extraordinary service” to Louisiana and the country. The occasion marked the 25th anniversary of the Congressional Women’s Caucus. On July 27, 2013, Lindy Boggs passed away in Chevy Chase, Maryland, at the age of 97.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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