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Lindy Boggs’ Old-World Path to Congress Blazed a Trail for the New

Upon her death on July 27 at age 97, Lindy Boggs had been gone from the Capitol for more than 22 years, longer than her time as the Democratic congresswoman from New Orleans. But the tributes pouring forth indicate a political force still quite close to the present. They also suggest congressional ways of doing business that have almost disappeared altogether.

The speed with which President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton offered their mini-eulogies suggested that Boggs had remained indispensable to the end at the center of the capital’s power culture.

In reality, since her tour as ambassador to the Vatican ended in 2001, her influence had mainly been as matriarch of one of the most plugged-in of all Beltway families — her son Tommy is in the pantheon of K Street players and her daughter Cokie Roberts is in the top tier of capital pundits.

To recall Boggs’ contributions to the legislative and institutional life of the Capitol, though, is to conjure up not only a sense of nostalgia for some aspects of life on the Hill in the 1970s and 1980s, but also several head-scratching reminders of how things look to have changed for the better.

Both Obama and Clinton described Boggs as a champion of civil rights and a trailblazer for women. But the ways in which that was so are pretty far afield from the norms of their party’s politics today.

She was opposed to capital punishment, ahead of her time in promoting gay rights and at the forefront on civil service pay equity, combating domestic violence and easing credit access for women. But she also had an almost-perfect House voting record in the eyes of abortion opponents.

It’s an ideological complexity that’s almost impossible to thrive on, especially for a woman, in the current Democratic Caucus. (The stalled career of the longest-serving woman in the caucus, Ohio’s Marcy Kaptur, is solid evidence of that.)

Boggs was such an ardent advocate for the poor, and so genuinely enthusiastic about the advancement of African-Americans, that during her final three terms she was the only white representative in a black-majority district.

At the same time, when Ronald Reagan was president, she voted three out of every eight times the way he wanted, about 50 percent more often than the typical House Democrats of the time but an unthinkable amount of cooperation these days for a member from the president’s opposition party.

Although she was the first woman to chair a national political convention, when the Democrats nominated Jimmy Carter in New York in 1976, she was rarely a public face of her party. She preferred instead to use her seat on Appropriations to turn on her legendary charm behind the scenes in the routinely successful pursuit of her parochial priorities.

“She dearly loved her earmarks,” Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski , now the longest-serving woman in congressional history, said of Boggs. She “showed by practicing civility and encouraging mutual respect, you could get a lot done.”

That concept, of course, seems as quaintly anachronistic as what the congresswoman asked to be called in news stories: “Lindy (Mrs. Hale) Boggs.”

That style seems almost inconceivable at a time when more and more women in politics are adding hyphens to connect their names at birth to the names of their husbands, or dropping those married names from their professional lives altogether.

But the choice reflected, with characteristic old-school courtliness, the central fact of Boggs’ political story: She got to Congress entirely because her predecessor was her husband, who was House majority leader when he disappeared after an Alaska plane crash in 1972. (The other congressional passenger was freshman Democratic Rep. Nick Begich of Alaska, whose son Mark is now the state’s junior senator.)

Altogether, 38 women have come to the House (and eight more to the Senate) as beneficiaries of the “widow’s mandate.” For decades, these were virtually the only women in Congress, and almost all of them relinquished their seats in short order. Elected or appointed to finish a term, they’d be expected to yield to the male hegemony once the party bosses back home chose a more “suitable” successor.

That was starting to change by the time Boggs retired in 1990. She was among only 27 women in Congress then; one-sixth of them had been first elected to replace their late husbands, but all had been able to hold their seats on their own for several terms.

Today, there are 96 women in Congress and just two of them, California Democrats Lois Capps and

and Doris Matsui, hold seats previously occupied by their spouses. And Matsui, the most recent beneficiary of the widow’s mandate, is emblematic of how women with résumés like Lindy Boggs’ may not be seen in Congress ever again.

A schoolteacher before marriage, Boggs had no qualifications for the House beyond her intimate familiarity with the place as a member’s spouse for three decades. Matsui, by contrast, spent six years as a senior aide in the Clinton White House and five more as a prominent lobbyist before her husband, Robert Matsui, died just days before his 14th term was to begin in 2005.

The women’s empowerment that Boggs represented, and advocated for, would surely countenance this newer model for political advancement ahead of her own.