Family, friends gather to remember Lindy Boggs

John Breaux recalled hitting a roadblock as a young member of the U.S. House in the 1970s. For more than a year he tried to win funding for a particular project in his district, but to no avail. So he went to his Louisiana colleague Lindy Boggs.

Breaux said she approached Speaker Tip O’Neill on the House floor, whispered in his ear for all of two minutes and came back. “John, it’s done,” Breaux remembered her telling him.

“I said, ‘Lindy, what in the world did you tell him?’ ” Breaux said.

She responded, “I can’t tell you, dear, that’s our little secret.”

As family, friends and a whole galaxy of the political elite gathered in St. Louis Cathedral on Thursday to celebrate the life of Louisiana’s first congresswoman, no theme came across more strongly than the powerful mix of Southern gentility and political agility that made Boggs a revered figure over decades in public life.

Boggs died at her Chevy Chase, Md., home on Saturday of natural causes. She was 97.

Mourners described a “righteous lady” who used her nine terms in the House to push equal rights for African-Americans and women, as well as a wife and mother who lived as the “embodiment of Southern grace and charm.”

They remembered a woman who seemed a perfect fit for her job as ambassador to the Vatican — someone who “spoke Catholic” — and a party-goer who could stay up on Bourbon Street past 2 a.m.

“She was tough, she was smart, she was shrewd, she was persistent,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said. “But she was also gracious, she was also loving, she was kind and she was patient. She served, and she did it in a way that dignified every human being that she ever met in her life.”

The list of notables who came to memorialize Boggs testified to a storied and impactful career. Attendees included everyone from civil-rights hero John Lewis and the daughters of President Lyndon Johnson to Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Mayor Marc Morial and members of the New Orleans City Council.

Archbishop Gregory Aymond presided over the Mass at St. Louis Cathedral — where Boggs once worshiped weekly when she lived on Bourbon Street — and gave the homily.

Leah Chase offered a rendition of “Amazing Grace” — and the mayor himself sang “Ave Maria.”

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi described Boggs as a mentor, someone who drew on the experience of her late husband, longtime U.S. Rep. Hale Boggs, to counsel restraint amid contentious debates, but also assertiveness in an era when women in politics were vastly outnumbered by their male colleagues — all of it, of course, delivered with a signature touch.

Pelosi remembered Boggs beckoning her after a particularly angry exchange in the House and saying, “Darlin’, Hale used to always tell me, don’t fight every fight as if it is your last fight. We’re all friends here. We’re going to have to come together on one thing or another.”

On another occasion, Pelosi said, when the Democratic Party was choosing a site for the party’s 1984 convention, Boggs visited her in San Francisco and asked how she was doing. Pelosi told her she was feeling “a little embarrassed,” serving as the chairwoman of the California Democratic party, chairwoman of the delegate’s election committee and, potentially, chairwoman of the host committee.

“I think I have too much, I should give one of those titles up,” Pelosi remembered saying, to which Boggs shot back, “Darlin’, no man would ever make that statement.”

It was Boggs’ granddaughters — Elizabeth Boggs Davidsen and Rebecca Boggs Roberts — who brought the most-intimate portrait of her legacy as both a family member and a pioneer for women’s rights.

“We are the one’s standing here because the other six grandchildren are, well, men,” Roberts said. “We felt that as her granddaughters we had a special role, a special responsibility to live up to her legacy.”

She acknowledged that some of the examples their grandmother set have just been too hard to match. “I don’t think any of us can be unfailingly kind to absolutely everybody — even irredeemable jerks,” she said. “I don’t usually have my handbag match my shoes.”

But other lessons, they said, have continued to prove valuable. Davidsen noted that Boggs never had an unlisted telephone number, fielding a constant stream of calls from constituents.

When they named a hospital for Boggs in New Orleans, she said, her grandmother started getting calls from people looking for medical attention. Rather than turn them away, Davidsen said, Boggs “became kind of a candy striper.” She would consult with the patient and look up phone numbers for the right department at the hospital.

When they asked her why she didn’t tell anyone they had the wrong number, she said, Boggs told them, “When people call the hospital, they’re scared and anxious. And I can help.”