Hale Boggs was a legend in Louisiana and in Washington. Not only was he Majority Leader of the House who tragically disappeared in a plane crash, but he was a very respected man who, on key issues, defined courage well ahead of his time. Boggs died tragically in 1972. But appropriately, his name lives on. Not only did his wife “Lindy” succeed him and become one of the most beloved members in her own right,but his daughter is none other than Cokie Roberts. And yet another daughter, Barbara Boggs Sigmond served as Mayor of Princeton, New Jersey and unsuccessfully sought her party’s Gubernatorial nomination. She died of cancer at 51 in 1990. Another son ran for Congress.
By 1960, Boggs had represented a New Orleans anchored Congressional district for most of the previous 20 years, breaking only to go off to war. Before that, he had been a lawyer who gained fame by attempting to break Huey Long’s sranglehold on government, an endeavor that wasn’t entirely unsuccessful. Boggs was Majority Leader John McCormack’s choice to be Majority Whip after the election of 1960 (the Whip’s were selected by the leader in those days). But Sam Rayburn wanted Carl Albert of Oklahoma, a protege (his district is right next to mine, Rayburn would say). Albert got the job but Boggs became deputy whip. But Rayburn died later that year, and Albert and Boggs both moved up a notch. Boggs was a tireless promoter of LBJ’s agenda. But it was Civil Rights that would prove his defining moment.
In 1965, Louisiana’s 2nd district was almost as conservative as the rest of the state and Boggs’ opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 reflected that. But he had previously voted to suspend literacy tests and to federally criminalize illegal voter disqualification. But by the time the Voting Rights Act was brought up, things were different. Selma had since taken place and civil rights was unstoppable.
But Boggs rose to the moment. Boggs not only backed the Voting Rights Act butr spoke in favor of it on the House floor. He said, “I wish I could stand here as a man who loves my State, born and reared in the South, who has spent every year of his life in Louisiana since he was 5 years old, and say there has not been discrimination. But unfortunately it is not so.” The chamber was hushed. After, Boggs was applauded and Judiciary Chair Emanuel Celler said his words would “go ringing through the ages.”
Later, Boggs would sit on the Warren Commission. But he disputed the harmoniousness of the committee’s ultimate findings. “It is a myth,” he said, “that the Warren Commission was united in its conclusion that a lone assassin killed President John F. Kennedy.” He accused J. Edgar Hoover of “lying his eyes out.” Lindy would say ‘Hale felt very, very torn during his work [on the Commission] … he wished he had never been on it and wished he’d never signed it.”
When McCormack retired as Speaker in 1970, Boggs ran for Majority Leader. He faced Mo Udall. Boggs wasn’t entirely trusted by anyone (southerners, liberals, etc), but he did win and would devote boundless energy to helping his colleagues. Uktimately and tragically, that would prove fatal.
Boggs had been elected to the House from Louisiana but left to serve in the war. He attempted a political comeback only to have an opponent question his membership in a group, the American Student Union. That was enough to finish Boggs. He placed third. He made a comeback for his House seat. In 1968, George Wallace’s coattails very nearly cost Boggs his seat (52-48% over future Governor David Treen), but he hung on. Ironically, both sides suspected Wallace voters backed Boggs. The 1972 remap made his district safer. Nixon would win 60% there in 1972, but Humphrey would actually have edged out Wallace in the new district, even as Wallace was winning statewide.
In 1972, Boggs was traveling to Alaska to campaign for Nick Begich. Begich, a former Alaska Senate Whip, was a force in his own right there. He didn’t have much of a race but Tip O’Neill suspected in his book, Man of the House that Begich was trying to raise his own profile for a statewide race. Boggs in fact had asked O’Neill to make the trip instead but he turned him down. The plane went down somewhere, igniting a search of more than 100 planes. No sign of the wreckage was ever found. Meanwhile, both Boggs and Begich were re-elected, and the House, upon Boggs being declared legally dead, ultimately declared their seats vacant.
Boggs’ widow Corrine (known affectionately as “Lindy”) ran in the special election to succeed him and became a major force in her own right. She served as an Appropriations cardinal and Her retirement in 1990, made it the first time since 1943 that a Boggs would not represent the New Orleans centered district. But her service was not over by any means. President Clinton appointed her Ambassador to the Vatican. At 97, she is doing very well today.
Don Young, who had lost to Begich in ’72 even as his fate was unknown, would win Begich’s seat. He still holds it today. And of course their son Mark ousted Ted Stevens in 2008 and is now Alaska’s junior Senator. He will be seeking a second term next year.
And the twin peaks of the mountain where the plane supposedly went down was renamed, Mount Boggs and Mount Begich.