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Rogan's Recollections

(And Occasional Historical Observations)

Fifty Years Ago Tonight: I Meet a Political Leader on the Eve of His Disappearance

In the rebellious 1970s, teenage boys like me often wore their hair long. I suspect that the depiction of me in this photograph ended the fad single-handedly. From left: me, Assemblyman (later Congressman) John Burton, House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, Pat Rogan, Congressman Phil Burton, San Francisco, October 5, 1972. Twenty-five years later, when John Burton and I served together in the California State Assembly, he displayed this photo prominently in the legislative chamber to tease me mercilessly. (Photograph by Lindy Boggs, but disseminated heavily by John Burton.) (Author's collection)


By October 1972, polls showed that Democrat presidential nominee George McGovern's campaign appeared headed for an overwhelming defeat at the hands of President Nixon in the general election four weeks away. Anticipating the White House loss, Democrat Party leaders turned their attention to protecting their congressional majorities. Their national campaign committee scheduled all-star fundraising dinners around the country, and the San Francisco installment (at $500 per couple) came to the Fairmont Hotel on October 5.


My 12 year-old brother Pat and I slipped into the Grand Ballroom when a security guard left the entrance unattended temporarily. After entering, we had lengthy and uninterrupted time to visit with both former Vice President Hubert Humphrey (defeated recently by McGovern for the 1972 presidential nomination) and Senator Thomas F. Eagleton, McGovern's original vice presidential running mate dropped from the ticket in late July (I'll have more to say about Senator Eagleton in the next chapter). Only a few months earlier, while active candidates, both had traveled the country with an army of Secret Service agents, reporters, photographers, and cheering fans greeting them at every stop. At this event, the donor-guests paid scant notice to either of them, preferring instead to cultivate and flatter the other political leaders in attendance not branded recently by defeat. It taught me at an early age that political adulation for winners is fleeting; for losers, it's nonexistent.


I had hoped to meet one of those leaders attracting great attention that night: House Majority Leader Hale Boggs (D-LA). First elected to Congress in 1941, he had served on the Warren Commission that investigated and reported the government's official version of President Kennedy's assassination. With House Speaker Carl Albert's pending retirement, Boggs was the heavy favorite to succeed him as the next speaker of the House. Who better than to ask questions about my future congressional aspirations? Throughout the evening, each time I tried to approach him, the crowd surrounding Mr. Leader appeared impenetrable.


At the end of the formal program that evening, and as the room emptied, I saw Boggs talking privately in a corner of the room with local Congressman Phillip Burton (D-CA) and his brother, California State Assemblyman John Burton.[1] Pat and I hung back and waited for their animated conversation to end so that I could meet and talk to the future speaker.


While we lingered, a diminutive woman tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was waiting to meet Boggs. I told her yes, but I didn't want to interrupt his discussion with the Burtons. Insisting the majority leader wouldn't mind, she took my arm and pulled me toward the object of my interest. I balked and said that I didn't want to intrude—I was content to wait.


"Oh, he won't mind at all," she said with a smile as she continued tugging. "I'm Lindy Boggs—Hale's wife."


Mrs. Boggs (with Pat and me in tow) broke into the political powwow with the Burtons and introduced us to everyone. Then she took my camera and directed our group to pose together for a photograph. Boggs signed an autograph for me after his wife snapped the picture. When she told him of my interest in politics and government, he urged me to stick with it. "Maybe I'll see you back in Washington someday," he said.


• • •


Eleven days later, Majority Leader Boggs went to Alaska to campaign for Congressman Nick Begich's reelection. In Anchorage, they took off in a small twin-engine Cessna bound for Juneau. The plane disappeared somewhere in the Alaskan wilderness. Despite the lengthiest search in U.S. history, authorities to this day never have located the plane or the victims' bodies.


On January 3, 1973, the House passed a resolution declaring Boggs's seat vacant due to his death. His widow Lindy ran successfully in the special election to fill her late husband's seat. After she took office, I sent her a copy of the photograph she had taken that night at the Fairmont (which turned out to be one of the last pictures taken of her husband). In her gracious reply letter, she recalled our conversation regarding my goal of one day serving in Congress. She noted that in ten years I would be 25, which is the constitutional age for congressional eligibility.


"I'll wait for you," she wrote.


 A quarter century later, after I won a seat in Congress, I tracked down former Congresswoman Boggs' address (she had retired after serving almost 20 years in the  House) and  sent her a copy of the photo she had taken and the letter she had written me long ago. On my new congressional letterhead, I penned this message: "I am so disappointed—you didn't wait for me!" Soon thereafter, she visited me in Washington for a lovely reunion lunch. After she became U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See during the Clinton Administration, we had dinner together at the American embassy during my trip to Rome.


• • •


A couple of years later, while in the middle of President Clinton's impeachment drama, I appeared on the ABC News Sunday show This Week. I broadcast my segment from the Los Angeles affiliate station via satellite. Before airtime, I heard through my earpiece ABC News analyst and program host Cokie Roberts (in the Washington studio) thanking me for coming on her program.


While we waited to go live, I mentioned my story about her parents, Hale and Lindy Boggs. Suddenly my earpiece went dead. A few minutes later, we went on the air and she interviewed me without missing a beat.


A few weeks later, Cokie and I had lunch. I mentioned to her the curious "dead earpiece" incident from our interview. She said that my audio feed went silent because she had become emotional when I mentioned meeting her father in San Francisco, and she needed to compose herself before airtime. That event where I met her parents was the last time that she ever saw him. She added that she already knew the story of my meeting her parents because her mother had shared it with her previously, but until I had raised it, she hadn't made the connection that I was the congressman of whom her mother spoke.


Here is yet another example that this is, indeed, a small world. Maybe there's something to that "Six Degrees of Separation" theory after all.


• • •


Former Congresswoman Lindy Boggs died at age 97 of natural causes on July 27, 2013.


Reporter Cokie Roberts died at age 75 of cancer on September 17, 2019.



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