Skip to main content

How to Succeed In Washington Without Really Trying

ISSUE:  Spring 1996
Washington Through A Purple Veil: Memoirs of a Southern Woman. By Lindy Boggs. Harcourt Brace. $24.95

        In just twelve months our isolationist mood had
        vanished. Everything else in our lives was about to
        change as well.

        Male’s political stands had occasionally altered our
        social relationships. . . .

        Lindy Boggs

        Do you suppose [Lindy, ] you can do the job [as a
        member of Congress] without a wife?

        Lady Bird Johnson

Of course, Lindy Boggs gave her heart, soul, charm, and questing mind to the cause of furthering her husband’s career in Congress. She only made mastering Washington look easy, so captivating she was without guile or cheek. Social attainment equated with political influence. Like the long-suffering Lady Bird Johnson did, Lindy made her husband’s aspirations a conjugal priority. Following Hale Boggs’ tragic disappearance in 1972 while flying to a political rally in Alaska on behalf of a colleague, Lindy began an 18-year Congressional career of her own. (Upon Carl Albert’s retirement Hale would have been expected to be promoted from Democratic majority leader to speaker of the House [in 1977] instead of Tip O’Neill, who was Hale’s junior in seniority and rank.) In a revealing autobiography, a valuable document of political and Southern literature for its candor and insight, Lindy recalls the roles she played for 78 years as the quintessential Southern girl and woman. When young, she might have been seen as a Southern belle, so pretty and popular she was. On these grounds she could still qualify but for an overendowment of ability and sense of responsibility. Nevertheless, she possesses a rare mystique that with visceral effacement she attributes to a Southern planter heritage acquired along the lower Mississippi’s Louisiana shore. Not all Southern women are blessed with Lindy’s inborn discretion and sense of noblesse oblige. Her legendary thoughtfulness, selflessness, and competence defy belief. If Lindy’s maturation was engendered by a brilliant husband, Hale’s enthusiastic high sense of purpose was reined by Lindy’s estimable rudder—sometimes by her insistence on trimming the mainsail. Hale and Lindy would explore uncharted reefs together. Many other Congressional wives of this time, junior partners, tended to their knitting and cards.

Other women have achieved the level of Lindy’s influence in Washington. Dolly Madison, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Edith Kermit Roosevelt, Pearl Mesta, Gwen Cafritz, Kathryn Graham, and Lady Bird herself come to mind. But what other woman of Washington has enjoyed such universal popularity and respect for more than a half-century? None had ever chaired a Democratic National Convention until Lindy did in 1976.

Both Hale and Lindy surfaced in New Orleans politics as activists in the watershed reform and conservative movement in which Sam Jones captured Louisiana’s scandal-ridden statehouse from Earl Long in 1940. They reached Washington in 1941 as idealistic isolationists. Hale had defeated the incumbent veteran Congressman Paul Maloney in Louisiana’s second district. A political prodigy with uncommon oratorical and leadership skills surmounting an incisive intellect, Hale took his oath at age 26. Although two years later he lost his seat to Maloney, Hale returned in 1947 to achieve a preeminent career in the House as a loyalist protege of Speaker Sam Rayburn. He was regarded as one of a handful of members capable of giving an extemporaneous speech of highest quality and persuasion without having notice. That he became Democratic majority leader while representing a district from the lower South during a time of racial turmoil attests to his acumen and mettle.

Lindy earned her legislative credentials as Hale’s rib during his 28-year incumbency that included terms during the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, 0 Johnson, and Nixon. In addition to overseeing Hale’s office staff and later his staffs as Democratic whip and majority leader, Lindy was making her way up Washington’s distaff ladder. She never said no to an appeal for volunteers. When her time came to chair causes and events, nobody would say no to her. Lindy herself served Congressional terms during the administrations of Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush.

Although the Boggses did not fall out with House members of either party over differences about legislative matters, back home in New Orleans’ garden district old social friends from common years at Tulane University began to write the Boggses off their guest lists and to denounce Hale as a traitorous leftwinger who was squandering the nation’s patrimony on unsound domestic and foreign initiatives. At some social events in New Orleans, Hale would find himself confronted by irate fraternity brothers, and sense that his presence was causing embarrassment to their hosts. Lindy doesn’t mention it (she wouldn’t), but the elderly Sam Jones, once Hale’s political mentor and benefactor, having become a corporate attorney and a supporter of Republican causes, was heard to carp about Hale’s voting record as a loyal national Democrat. The once-successful anti-Long coalition in Louisiana had begun to splinter along ideological differences of national import. The Democratic Party was facing mutiny throughout the South—owing to the civil rights issue, McCarthyism, and the decline of laissez-faire—just when Hale was called to the bridge. As observed in “Hale and Lindy Boggs: Louisiana’s National Democrats” by Farrell and Haydel (Louisiana History, Fall, 1994), both Hale and Lindy led instead of followed public opinion in a Congressional district not ideal at the time for loyal Democrats to represent.

Hale, like Lindy a devout Catholic, would try to face critics with the other cheek. Lindy would show kindness, a smile, and a commentary that offered some complainants a degree of unwelcome understanding if little satisfaction. Voters resent facts that collide with folklore. Even more than Hale, who was sometimes defensive, Lindy possessed a sense of lightness and boundless self-confidence. She would pray for Hale’s critics as she had been taught to pray for the inconsiderate at her mother’s knee and as a student in convents.

A Phi Beta Kappa scholar at Tulane, Hale possessed a deep comprehension of domestic and foreign problems in a global economy. Once in Washington he overcame parochial notions of isolationism as well as of the political economy. When he was graduated from the Committee on Banking and Currency, on which he had mastered the nation’s housing ills, to that on Ways and Means, he gained a deserved reputation as an authority on taxation and foreign trade. All the while Lindy was taking tutorials across the breakfast table.

By the time of Male’s demise, Lindy had mastered governance, politics, oratory, and diplomacy. No member of Congress, unless John Quincy Adams after his presidency, ever entered the House as well prepared to serve and to lead. Colleagues accorded her respect both as Hale’s widow and as the lovable Lindy in her own right: an unprecedented curriculum vitae. Having been elected to her first term in 1973 by polling 75% of the vote against several opponents, she was offered her pick of committees, A special place was made for her on Banking and Currency through bipartisan accommodation. Later she was invited to go on Appropriations. Inspired by widowhood’s new awareness of pervasive discrimination by gender, Lindy earned a record as an apostle of women’s rights while hewing to a pro-life stand on abortion. The regard in which she was held in the House by the time of her retirement in 1990 gave her influence comparable to that held by chairs of committees. She took care not to abuse it by showing restraint of a kind found in the understated second epigraph set out above.

As she mentions, Lindy understands the cycle of life with a religious vision: “We humans are the stewards of God’s creation.” She lost her father Roland Claiborne to influenza when she was age two. Barbara was born in 1938, Tommy in 1940, Cokie in 1944, and Billy, who died two days after birth, in 1946. Barbara died in 1990 of cancer while mayor of Princeton, New Jersey. Premature losses of father, a son, husband, and a daughter Lindy accepted with a stoic faith given but to a few.

Hale might have given weight to his fragile home base when he decided to run for governor of Louisiana in 1951. Unable to succeed himself as governor, Earl Long was reaching the end of his first of two full four-year terms. Although Hale’s bid for the statehouse didn’t follow logic for a Congressman aspiring to the speakership, his frontrunning bid was met with enthusiasm as well as doubt that a Roman Catholic from New Orleans could go the distance in a state where bigotry flourished far ahead of its economy. Notwithstanding the active support of Senator Russell Long, who had broken with his Uncle Earl and had become close to Hale in Washington—and who possessed in common with Hale a desire to neuter the state’s counterproductive bifactionalism: Long and anti-Long, Hale was eliminated in the first primary. He ran third. The wily Earl Long and mean-spirited arch-segregationist Leander Perez saw to Hale’s defeat in what for him and Lindy was a tragic disappointment but for Louisiana political observers was an entertaining comedy, speaking of the crossfire between Earl and Perez to which Hale was subjected. Moreover, Hale would make constructive and earnest stump speeches, hiding his considerable wit and sense of humor, at rural crossroads where for a generation first Huey Long and then Earl had spoiled the locals with caustic ridicule of opponents. To exaggerate, Hale reminded of Wendell Wilkie tangling with FDR in 1940.

Although Lindy does not use this analogy or see Hale’s digression in this same light, her wrenching recollections of this campaign give a valuable resource to scholars to ponder along with contemporary accounts and the memory of others. As Hale was forgetting the humiliating experience, Lindy’s own cousin and Hale’s onetime law partner, New Orleans Mayor Chep Morrison, a Catholic from Lindy’s home community of Point Coupee Parish, began running for governor in 1955. He lost in three successive campaigns within 12 years. Lindy does not mention this instance of hubris and arrogance, although it serves to substantiate her observation that her heritage contained a virulent political bug within the extended family.

Nor does Lindy relate the indignities to which Hale was put by the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the president and publisher of which she styles as “our close friend.” The Times-Picayune did not endorse Hale for governor in 1951—1952, which came as a surprising disappointment for a man who had earned the encomium for having done so much for New Orleans far beyond the call of duty. When Hale voted the party line to enlarge the House Rules Committee in 1961 with four other members of the Louisiana delegation, his photograph and that of the four others on that newspaper’s front page of Feb. 1, 1961, carried as straight news a disparaging connotation as distinguished from that accorded the other three members of the delegation who were pictured with complimentary captions. With friends like the Times-Picayune’s president and publisher, Hale and Lindy were faced with having to make friends of former political enemies. This happens in politics. You can sense the heartache implicit in the role of statesman from a constituency that was dominated by a newspaper more attuned to Mardi Gras than to every other day of the year. Lindy could accept disappointment easier than could Hale— easier than could anybody. Lindy loves everybody, and was taught as a child that everybody loves her. Most everybody does, including a majority of the second Louisiana district’s electors, a growing segment of whom were African-Americans during her incumbency.

Lindy tells an alligator story. A trapper of fur-bearing animals called to complain that alligators, protected during an interval as an endangered species, were multiplying so fast they were devouring all the game. Although the ban was soon to be lifted, the trapper killed a gator that had swallowed one of his hogs. This incident serves to illustrate the conflict that modernity has imposed in a nation that has overrun its once-limitless frontiers—and the frustration of the citizen, all but innocent of the nation’s history, who condemns federal regulation while forgetting the fundamental necessity of meat inspection, securities regulation, and enforcement of aircraft maintenance.

Lindy also tells the purple veil story that generates the book’s title. Its mention opens and closes the book with a unifying theme that she sees as symbolic of her Washington experience. To gain access to a hearing being conducted by Hale’s committee soon after her arrival in Washington at age 24, Lindy deemed it prudent to return home and dress in her finest apparel—and to pin a purple veil to her black hat. The ploy succeeded. (So would have a message sent to Hale when she was denied admittance.)

During the next fifty years I often thought of the lesson I received from the purple veil story. I recognized that you played the Washington game with confidence and authority and graciousness, and so I was prepared to accept the challenges, triumphs, and the heartaches of life in the shadow of the Capitol dome.

Somehow the purple veil story, doubtless true and also a delightful reminiscence, seems a misused nugget more the idea of a collaborator or editor than Lindy’s. Instead of playing a Washington game Lindy would have viewed the Washington challenge not as a sport but as her mission. Her valuable retrospective convinces that she used neither veil nor mask. She might have seen Washington through a makeshift purple veil that one morning in 1941. Ever after that day Lindy saw Washington with the naked eye and a big heart full of forgiveness and hope.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading