By Ray Smock
I had no political connections nor was I the slightest part of Washington society when I got the job as House Historian. I knew nothing of how the institution of the House worked from the inside. I knew about Congress from the news and from textbooks. Lindy opened up that world to me from the inside. She knew I needed this to complete my education if I was to be able to do my job to its fullest extent.
She was chairwoman of the House Bicentenary Commission, a special committee appointed by Speaker Tip O’Neill to oversee the 200th anniversary of Congress. My job was to plan for that bicentennial and report to the committee, one of the few in Congress to have an equal number of Democrats and Republicans.
Lindy told me that to understand members of the House that I needed to realize they were all just ordinary Americans but ones who had a very extraordinary and difficult job to do. Some would be better at it than others. She kept her House colleagues in a human perspective; she didn’t have to agree with them on major issues to appreciate them as people. She had strong views on many issues, especially those related to the rights of women and people with less resources and opportunities than others. But her passion was tempered with compassion for those who disagreed with her. This is a quality sorely lacking in the current Congress.
Sometimes I got exasperated with her when she was so reasonable, so calm, and so genteel in the manner of a plantation-born southern belle. But I saw her style triumph time and again on issues large and small. She was in Congress to make friends and to respect the institution and build it up, not to make enemies or to always get her way. She understood human nature and accepted the greatness and the weaknesses that we humans have in varying proportions.
When Lindy’s husband Hale Boggs, the Majority Leader of the House, was lost in a plane crash while campaigning in Alaska in 1972, Lindy replaced him in his House seat. This was no ordinary case of the widow of a former member ceremoniously taking her late husband’s seat. Lindy had run Hale’s congressional office for years. She had more than 30 years of experience in Washington when she was elected in her own right. And then she served in the House for another twenty years before retiring at age 74. President Bill Clinton appointed her to be Ambassador of the Holy See in 1997, a position she held for three years during the papacy of John Paul II.
During my years as House Historian I kept a rather detailed private journal of what was going on in the House from my perspective. Lindy Boggs looms large in my journal, with hardly a day going by that I don’t refer to her. Lindy saw to it that my wife Phyllis and I were invited to some very interesting social events over the years and this continued even after she left Congress and during her ambassadorship. I once told her, “Lindy, I wouldn’t have a social life if it wasn’t for you.” She just laughed and faked a punch at my jaw.
Despite the rancor that dominates the current Congress, I still love the House and Senate and that was perhaps Lindy’s greatest gift to me. She showed me that Congress was a very human institution, a distillation of all the greatness and all the weakness of the country as a whole. She kept her eye on the best intentions and the better angels of her colleagues even when it was not easy to do. She believed in public service for the greater good, not for narrow purposes or partisan gain. I will miss her great humanity, her southern charm, her easy laughter, and her devotion public life.
Note: What follows is my journal entry for July 23, 1990, when Lindy called me with an unusual request. It was just before I learned she was retiring from Congress. The very serious illness of her daughter Barbara Boggs Sigmund, the mayor of Princeton, NJ, was weighing heavily on her at the time, but she was still dealing with the business of Congress and the Constitution.
Last Tuesday I got a call in midafternoon from Lindy Boggs. She wanted to pick my brain about the balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, then being debated on the floor of the House. It was an unusual call. The Historian’s Office does not engage in partisan politics and we don’t write speeches or take positions on political issues for Members. We do, of course, provide Members with information of a historical or biographical nature but in all cases the information is nonpartisan. What Members do with the information once they get it is their business, and I suppose there are instances when our historical background information found its way into partisan debate.
As I have written in this journal elsewhere, even the most harmless data can find political ramifications. Still, Lindy’s call was a different breed of cat. Nothing could be more current or partisan than the debate underway on an amendment to the Constitution.
Lindy began by asking what I thought of the balanced budget amendment from the standpoint of history, i.e., would such an amendment be a reflection of the intentions of the Founders? I began by saying that I had not followed the course of this resolution through the House with great detail and all I knew of the subject was the broad outlines of the resolution and a little of the tortured history of the balanced budget amendment as a campaign issue.
She said “But what do you think of it personally? I replied that if I was voting I would vote against it as unnecessary tampering with the Constitution. I thought it weakened Congress’s powers by transferring too much of the responsibility for the budget to the White House. She said: “What would you say if you were going to defend your vote to the citizens of Louisiana?” She wanted me to give her some arguments that she thought would make sense to her constituents. I assumed she had already made up her mind to vote against it, although she never said so in so many words. She was looking for additional bolstering.
She asked me for the names of other constitutional experts that she might call at the last minute, people whose opinions I thought would be sound. I gave her the names of Dick Howard at the University of Virginia Law School and Bob Peck, formerly with the ABA. I don’t know if she ever called them. The vote was coming up before 6:30 and it was already 4:30. After we chatted for about 15 minutes I volunteered to write a one or two page justification for voting against the amendment if she thought such a document would be of use to her. She said it would be most helpful. I told her I would work as quickly as possible.
I chatted with Bruce Ragsdale [Associate Historian of the House and later Chief Historian of the Federal Judicial Center] who called a friend of his who knew the Confederation period well. I looked through a couple of sources on the Constitution and asked the Legislative Council to send over a copy of the actual resolution.
In the meantime I started at once to write based on some of the things I had said to Lindy on the phone. At 5:30 I had a draft, which Bruce read. He found a couple of sentences that did not ring true and he made another suggested change based on his conversation with his friend the Confederation expert. At 5:40 I faxed the statement to Lindy’s office. Then I called over to the Democratic Cloak Room and asked if they could locate Lindy on the floor. She came to the phone and I told her I had faxed the statement to her office. I said I would be glad to get a copy directly to her if she wanted it instantly.
She asked me to read it to her over the phone. When I had finished she said: “That’s beautiful, it’s just what I wanted, thank you darlin.’”
She said, “You know, Jan [Jan Schoonmaker, Lindy’s Chief of Staff] did not want me to call you. He said the Historian should not be mixing in partisan matters. I told Jan the Constitution was not a partisan issue,” she added with a chuckle. I replied: “Lindy, Jan is right, I have no business engaging in such matters.” I paused and then added: “But what are friends for?”
I don’t know for sure if she ever used the statement in a press release in New Orleans. What I did not know then was that on Friday of that same week she would announce that she is retiring from Congress and would not seek reelection. I got wind of it on Wednesday last week when a reporter from the New Orleans Times-Picayune called to get some information on her career. He told me the word on the street was she would announce her retirement on Friday at Tulane University. Jan Schoonmaker called me the day before the announcement and confirmed the reporter’s hunch.
Lindy has been such a friend and mentor to me and this office that news of her departure leaves a big vacuum when it comes to a champion for history in the House. She has been our biggest backer and our constant ally. But in some ways her retirement came as no surprise. Lindy has been preoccupied with her daughter’s illness. Lindy herself, while apparently in good health, is 74 years old. She keeps up a blistering professional and social pace that would leave many a younger person in the dust. I think she wants to spend more time with her family, especially Barbara. [Barbara Boggs Sigmund died, less than three months later on Oct. 10, 1990].
When I talked to her last Tuesday evening I said: “Lindy, if you want me to stay and work some more on the statement I will. I was about to leave for a family birthday party in Baltimore, but I will be glad to stay if you want me to.”
Lindy said: “You go to the birthday party, darlin’ and be with your family. You have done enough, and there is no need to stay longer.” I said: “But it’s only a birthday party for God’s sake, it would be no imposition for me to stay.” “No,” she insisted, “you go on, family is so important, and I’ve already imposed on you more than I should have.”