Lindy Boggs Needs No Veil

George F. Will

December 06, 1990|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON — Washington.

FIFTY YEARS ago, in early 1941, when Lindy Boggs was 24 and her husband, Hale, 26, was a freshman congressman from New Orleans, he telephoned to their Washington home, urging her to come to the Capitol to see the historic hearings on lend-lease. She --ed to the Hill, told the guard at the door of the hearing room that she was a congressman's wife and was turned away as an imposter (''Oh, sure, honey''). Too young.

She remembered the words of a Louisiana grand dame: ''My darling, the most sophisticated thing a woman can wear in Washington is a purple veil.'' Ms. Boggs --ed back home, donned her best black suit and gloves, bought a purple veil on Pennsylvania Avenue, and entered the hearing without hindrance. The Washington of veils vanished long ago. Hale Boggs, who would have become speaker, died in an Alaskan plane crash in 1972. She succeeded him and became one of the most liked and respected members.

In 1940, when Hale Boggs was elected, the nation was isolationist and FDR had just won a third term promising no Americans would fight in foreign wars. In 1941, Washington's crucial ''400'' were the restaurants' waiters. They were held to that number by their union to avoid a surge of unemployment when the city went to sleep in high summer. The fiscal year ended on June 30 and Congress adjourned shortly thereafter. Since then two modern devices -- jet aircraft and air conditioning -- have caused Congress to stay in session longer, but also to become less collegial, more peripatetic and frequently dispersed.

Then, as now, there were 435 House members. But House business has expanded exponentially, as has travel to and from districts. Television coverage of proceedings on the floor now enables members to follow developments there while doing work in their offices. But that, too, lessens the institution's vigor.

Lindy Boggs is one of nature's democrats -- small 'd' -- who thrives on such chores as hearing, this year, 1,069 outside witnesses (plain citizens, with no connection with the government) before the Energy and Water Resources subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee. Most such witnesses pay their own way, prepare their own testimony.

Her austere disapproval -- she purses her lips and steeples her fingers, which is about as demonstrative as she gets -- of the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction mechanism is this: It distorts and supplants such deliberations as occur in subcommittees, and thus debilitates popular democracy.

People who are angry about the uncompetitiveness of most congressional races, and who want to limit the number of terms members can serve, also tend to be fiercely opposed to recent congressional pay increases. (For 37 of the 44 House freshmen arriving in January, the congressional salary -- $125,100 -- will be more than they earned in 1990. Indeed, the freshmen will increase their earnings an average of 60 percent. Sixty-five xTC percent will double their earnings.)

But Lindy Boggs believes that increased pay, combined with the advance of women in the professions, will produce more competitive candidates.

And she, standing against the current of opinion, emphasizes how much turnover there is in the House membership, and the cost of that turnover on institutional memory. If the most frequently mentioned term limit -- six terms -- had been law in 1978, everyone serving then would now be gone. But even without the law, 269 of them are gone.

Last summer, when she announced her decision to retire, there seemed to be a nice symmetry to her time here -- from lend-lease to European unity. Since then there has developed a less pleasant symmetry -- from Pearl Harbor to Desert Shield, the recurring thunderheads of war.

Hers is now a December story, the closing of a career that has been half of one of the fine partnerships in American political history. She and Hale began as reformers, in insurrection against Louisiana corruption after Huey Long's assassination. They facilitated the transformation of the state by the civil-rights movement.

Come January, the best cup of coffee of Capitol Hill -- tangy with chicory, and inky-strong enough to put in a fountain pen -- may be served in some other Louisianan's office. But no other office will have quite the scope of memory. This year, Lindy Boggs was 80th in House seniority but the other 79 members did not really outrank her.

The most senior member is Mississippi's Jamie Whitten, who was elected a month before Pearl Harbor and who in January 1992, will break Carl Vinson's record of 50-years-and-two-months' House service. Lindy Boggs remembers welcoming the Whittens to their Washington neighborhood.

4 Now she is leaving. There goes the neighborhood.

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