A Velvet Hammer Wrapped in a Doily
Lindy Boggs combined graciousness and an iron will to blaze a trail for women in politics. She made everyone behave better just by entering the room.
As freelance assignments go, this one was as easy as it gets: interview Congresswoman Lindy Boggs about her upcoming reelection for a lifestyle magazine. No deep-in-the-weeds policy issues or budding scandals to research. No hardball questions to concoct. Just a breakfast chat with the nicest lady in American politics. If only every gig were like this.
This was back in the 1980s, before cell phones, digital tablets, and laptops ruled everyone’s life. A reporter’s most important tools were a Rolodex and a notebook that fit into a back pocket. It was a time when politicians, even some important ones, didn’t hide behind layers of flunkies and consultants. Setting up the interview was a piece of cake.
We planned to meet over breakfast during her next trip home. She lived in a beautiful townhome on Bourbon Street, behind shutters and curtains that somehow blocked the din of puking college kids and obnoxious strip club barkers. I figured we’d stroll over to Brennan’s for some eggs Benedict and political chit-chat. The story would practically write itself.
After a grueling reelection campaign in 1984 against retired Judge Israel Augustine—an iconic figure in the New Orleans African American community—Lindy was safely ensconced in her black-majority district. She and her late husband, Hale, were icons in their own right. They were southern Democrats who had championed civil rights long before that became the politically safe thing to do, and while some of New Orleans’s black political moguls might not have wanted to wait until she was ready to retire, voters black and white loved her. She also delivered handsomely for her district, thanks to her seat on the House Appropriations Committee and nearly five decades of relationships in Congress and at the Executive Office Building.
Lindy had a way with people that combined graciousness with an iron will. She used both to blaze a trail for women in politics and the workplace. “Almost all women’s issues are economic issues,” she once said, long before it became a political rallying cry. Early in her congressional career, she leveraged her seat on the House Banking and Currency Committee to give women equal access to credit. How she did it spoke volumes about her style. She added the words “sex” and “marital status” to her copy of the proposed Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 while it was pending in the committee, then passed out photocopies of her amendment to the entire committee. “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,” she said after distributing her revisions. “I’ve taken care of that, and I trust it meets with the committee’s approval.” It did, unanimously.
In a day when members of Congress regularly conducted white-knuckle negotiations (they still talked to one another back then) Lindy was a velvet hammer wrapped in a lace doily. She had a shrewd sense of timing and an uncanny ability to remember not only people’s names but also key facts about their lives and their families.
I knew that firsthand. Several years earlier, during her difficult 1984 campaign, a member of my family had become gravely ill. I remember covering a political rally for Lindy in a blue-collar New Orleans precinct, at a reception hall jammed with more than six hundred supporters and campaign workers. The room burst into cheers when she entered, but when she saw me, she made a beeline toward me, gave me a hug, and asked how my relative was doing. Lindy made everyone feel like the most important person in her life, and unlike so many other politicians there was nothing phony or insincere about the sixty-something native of New Roads, Louisiana, who attended convent school as a teenager.
Lindy racked up an impressive string of “firsts” for herself: the first woman elected to Congress from Louisiana; the first woman to chair the Democratic National Convention in 1976; the first woman to manage two inaugural balls (for John F. Kennedy in 1961 and Lyndon Johnson in 1965). In 1984 she was among the first women mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate, and in 1997 she was named by President Bill Clinton as the first woman to become U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.
One of the legends about Lindy was that she was the only member of Congress who could sidle up to the Speaker’s chair and whisper a request into the cantankerous Tip O’Neill’s ear while he presided over the House. It was no myth—I saw her do it. O’Neill, who was known to bite the heads off members who didn’t toe his line, was putty in her hands. He had been Hale Boggs’s protégé when the then–house majority leader disappeared in a plane crash in Alaska in 1972. Hale’s death accelerated O’Neill’s ascension to house speaker in 1977.
“The answer is yes,” O’Neill smiled after Boggs whispered into his ear. “Anything for you, Lindy.”
The only other difficult election Lindy had was her first, to succeed Hale in a special election in 1973. Since then, she was unassailable in the Beltway and in New Orleans, yet she carried herself with an air of humility and charm that made her all the more loved and respected. She was as comfortable in a raucous union hall as she was at a table in Commander’s Palace, her favorite restaurant, and she treated everyone like family. The thought of asking her a confrontational question was, well, out of the question. Not that she couldn’t have handled it—she knew politics and policy as well as anyone—but it would have been easier to ask my grandmother about sex. Like many grandmothers, she made everyone behave better just by entering the room.
All these images swirled in my mind as I approached the large wooden gate that opened to the nineteenth-century carriageway beside Lindy’s home. As I pressed the doorbell, I suddenly realized that my biggest challenge was going to be finding something new to write about her. I tried to think of some political angle that hadn’t been discussed already—maybe something about the port, or Reagan’s cuts in federal aid to cities. Maybe she would bail me out with some new tidbit. This assignment seemed not so easy after all. She buzzed me in.
At the end of the carriageway, just before a lush courtyard, I opened the French doors to a first-floor parlor and called out, “Lindy, are you ready for some breakfast?”
“Come on up! I’m in the kitchen,” she answered from the third floor. Walking up two flights of stairs in an old French Quarter home is no easy task at 7:45 a.m. By the time I got to her cramped kitchen, I was huffing. She turned from a small stove, wearing an apron over a Sunday-go-to-church dress. She held a spatula in one hand and a black skillet in the other.
“Darling, how do you want your eggs?”
I stood frozen at the sight of a senior member of Congress asking me, with a straight face, if I wanted scrambled, sunny side up, or over easy.
“Lindy, you’re not cooking me breakfast.”
“Darling, you said you wanted to meet me for breakfast,” she said sweetly, but her look and tone let me know this was not open to debate. “So, I’m making breakfast for us. I’ve got scratch biscuits in the oven and bacon in the skillet. Now . . . how do you want your eggs?”
I had just been clubbed with the velvet hammer. “Scrambled,” I said, realizing that arguing was pointless and, besides, I now had the lead to my story. We sat at the small table in her kitchen and talked for two hours.
Almost three decades later, I still run into people who remember that anecdote. Even I don’t remember the other 800 words or so that I penned about Beltway issues and local politics, but as the years wear on I realize just how rare Lindy Boggs was among American politicians. When she died at the age of 97 in late July 2013, I wrote, “In a profession peopled by narcissists and jerks, Lindy stood out like Mother Teresa at a biker rally.”
I should have added that she made the bikers behave. Since her retirement in 1991, Congress has missed that velvet hammer on the website https://www.casinoelarab.com/سلوتس.