WASHINGTON -- Former Rep. Lindy Boggs, a plantation-born Louisianan who used her soft-spoken grace to fight for civil rights during nearly 18 years in Congress after succeeding her late husband in the House, died yesterday. She was 97.
Boggs, who later served three years as ambassador to the Vatican during the Clinton administration, died of natural causes at her home in Chevy Chase, Md., according to her daughter, ABC News journalist Cokie Roberts.
Boggs' years in Congress started with a special election in 1973 to finish the term of her husband, Thomas Hale Boggs Sr., whose plane disappeared over Alaska. Between them, they served their New Orleans-area district a half-century in the House.
"It didn't occur to us that anybody else would do it," Roberts said in explaining why her mother was the natural pick for the congressional seat. Her parents were "political partners for decades," she said, with Lindy Boggs running her husband's political campaigns and becoming a player on the Washington political scene.
Roberts called her mother "a trailblazer for women and the disadvantaged." When Boggs announced her retirement in 1990, she was the only white representing a black-majority district in Congress. "I am proud to have played a small role in opening doors for blacks and women," she said.
Hale Boggs was first elected to Congress in 1940. Lindy Boggs, product of a privileged upbringing, was more than the typical congressional wife. She ran several of her husband's political campaigns and helped him in his Washington and New Orleans offices.
"Early on, Hale established with politicians at home that I was his direct representative and that they could say anything to me that they could say to him. Whatever decisions I made, they would be his final decisions," she said in 1976.
Breaking with most Southern whites, Lindy Boggs saw civil rights as an inseparable part of the political reform movement of the 1940s and '50s. She worked for the Civil Rights Acts of 1965 and 1968, Head Start and other programs to help minorities, the poor and women.
Boggs used her seat on the House Appropriations Committee to steer money back home. On a banking panel, she used typical steely grace to include women in the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974.
"I ran into a room where there was a copying machine, wrote in 'sex and marital status' on the bill, and made 47 copies," she said. "When I took it back into the subcommittee meeting, I told them I was sure it was just an oversight on their part."