Hearing the news this morning of the passing of former congresswoman Lindy Boggs, I went back and re-read the 1974 interview of the then-interim representative. At the time, she was still an appointee filling the office held by her husband, though she would win the office in her own name later that year--and continue to do so for seven more terms, a woman representing a notably male-dominated city, a caucasian chosen as voice for a majority African American district.
How could such a thing be? Certainly that first electoral victory can be credited to public sympathy for the loss of her husband, Rep. Hale Boggs, in a plane crash. But she kept being re-elected over and over again, with 80 percent of the vote and more.
The answer can be found in the two words you will hear most often in the news stories marking her passing: "champion" and "gracious."
Like her husband, Rep. Boggs understood that the issue of equal rights--for minorities, for women--was the central concern of American politics in the 20th century and, like him, she never faltered in her efforts to secure those rights.
Unlike many who fought to give voice to the voiceless, she remained ever-aware that political progress requires a respect for the feelings of those who disagree. While standing firmly against the ideas that powered the careers of other Southern pols like John Stennis, she was unfailingly polite with those she opposed politically, always respectful and effusive in praise when they budged, even infinitesimally, in the direction of progress.
Looking back at her career through the lens of today's hyperbolic rantstorms, such comity in the midst of struggle seems almost mythical and patently impossible to reproduce.
But it was only through such courtesy and respect that Congress was able to pass such measures as the Voting Rights Act, which her husband had first opposed then later (it is widely believed, at his wife's insistence), passionately advocated.
Today, such rapprochement across the aisle is simply not possible, due to the intransigence of a Balkanized, hyper-gerrymandered Congress (and, no, I am not in any way suggesting this a result of "both sides doing it").
I don't know if we shall ever return to an era such as hers, where passion in advocacy is matched by courtesy in speech and action. Current trends do not offer much hope.
But I believe the congresswoman would be pleased if the event of her passing could at least remind her peers that such an environment once existed in Washington and that, far from being quaint and staid, that milieu enabled profound change and welcome progress in our long, stumbling march to the country promised in our lofty and idealistic founding documents.
Rest in peace, ma'am. Much respect.