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Thursday, December 11, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A New Challenge For Lindy Boggs, 81

Newhouse News Service

THE ARISTOCRATIC, knowledgeable, charming former congresswoman from Louisiana is leaving retirement to take a high-profile post as ambassador to the Vatican.

NEW ORLEANS - At night the 600 block of Bourbon Street pulses at the rank edge of the French Quarter's most lurid tourist zone. Its neon-lit T-shirt shops, restaurants and X-rated novelties draw gawkers strolling unaware past the block's single darkened building, a galleried townhouse shuttered against the street sounds below.

Most mornings, with the crowds gone, Lindy Boggs emerges alone and walks to early Mass at St. Louis Cathedral, three blocks away.

She has no car. She walks with a vigor that belies her 81 years and her status as a great-grandmother.

After nearly 60 years of public service, including nine terms in Congress that ended with her retirement in 1990, Boggs is both a role model for a generation of professional women and a trophy guest at an endless round of New Orleans fund-raisers.

Unprepared for phone call

And so she was unprepared, she said, for the White House inquiry when the telephone rang at her Bourbon Street home last spring:

Would Boggs serve as ambassador to the Vatican?

A new chapter in Boggs' life began last week when she headed to Rome to take up her new job. But she was not so much coming out of retirement, friends and family members say, as changing - if radically - the texture of her service.

"Momma never retired, not even close," said Boggs' daughter, Cokie Roberts, a national correspondent for ABC News and National Public Radio."It's exhausting just to be home with her on Bourbon Street, never mind to be her."

When Boggs left Washington in 1990, she knew the capital and Democratic politics as few knew it.

She had arrived in 1941 with two babies and her husband, Hale Boggs, a bright, ambitious freshman member of the House of Representatives. She was 24.

Except for four years early in his career when her husband was out of Congress, Lindy and Hale Boggs rose through postwar Democratic politics together.

By 1972 he was House majority leader, on track for the speaker's job. She was the perfect congressional spouse: his foil and sounding board, his intellectual goad and complement - and, not incidentally, a tireless Democratic hostess, volunteer and campaigner whose network of friends comprised the greater part of the Washington power structure during the last half of the century.

Widow takes over

When Hale Boggs disappeared in a flight over Alaska in 1972, his widow took over and served nine terms on her own.

In Congress, she exercised a unique political charm.

Plantation-born, college-educated, she draped her acuity in the trappings of Southern femininity, winning victories for women in gaining equal access to jobs and credit.

Manners are her art form. Her speech is an unaffected rain of "darlin's," of inquiries into a companion's comfort and expressions of gratitude for the most ordinary courtesies.

Yet beneath the charm, her congressional colleagues found a tenacity, a warm and ever-gracious refusal to take no for an answer, and a rare ability to coax solutions from the most scorched bureaucratic hearts.

"She will be the first person in the Vatican to tell the Holy Father, `Your Holiness, darlin', I think you ought to do this,' " joked her friend, retired New Orleans Archbishop Philip Hannan.

Boggs left Congress in 1990 to care for another daughter who died of cancer later that year. Returning to New Orleans, she began serving national and local nonprofit agencies.

When the call came from the White House last spring,"at first I had a difficult time feeling that it was the correct thing for me to do," said Boggs. "Then I realized I was being terribly selfish. If the president thought I could do this job at the end of the century, then it would be a privilege to say yes."

`One of the most respected'

"Her selection at first rather surprised me," said Gerald Fogarty, professor of American religious history at the University of Virginia. "But the more I thought about it, the more I thought: Of all the Democrats he could have named to this post, she's one of the most respected."

Boggs won her first election to Congress in 1973, the year of the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade ruling legalizing abortion. Boggs, an abortion foe, found herself in her party's minority wing on the issue.

Now events have made her President Clinton's messenger to the Vatican on U.S. policy on a universe of issues, including the sensitive topic of making abortion widely available in developing countries - a position the United States supports.

"My own feelings are well-known," she said. She describes her role in terms given to her in a conversation with Thomas Melady, the Bush administration's Vatican ambassador:

"As he told me, you must remember that you are there only as a representative of your government, relaying its policies to the Holy See, the government of the church, without your necessarily being in favor of them," Boggs said.

In fact, abortion is only one piece in a mosaic of U.S. policies Boggs has boned up on in recent weeks.

Even before her confirmation, the State Department arranged an intensive series of policy seminars to brief Boggs on the full spectrum of U.S. positions she would represent at the Vatican: Israel and the Middle East, African and Latin American concerns, international economic policy.

Her post is more than ceremonial. A global organization with persuasive moral weight for hundreds of millions of Catholics, the church explicitly seeks to influence world events.

Its gospel-driven agenda focuses on sometimes pointed campaigns for human rights, most famously its support for Solidarity in Poland and the ultimate subversion of Soviet communism.

The Vatican pursues nuclear disarmament and religious freedom. It seeks a voice in international economic policy, believing that developed nations have a moral obligation to assist their poorer brethren without crushing them under debt.

Thus Boggs, like any diplomat, will explain to the Vatican shifts in U.S. thinking, keep the Vatican posted on developments that threaten peace in hot spots like Iraq, and shuttle back the Vatican's likely public response to diplomatic initiatives.

Boggs will also have some substantial fence-mending to do.

Her predecessor, former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, left the office to run for governor of Massachusetts, concluding what was widely seen as a seriously flawed tenure.

A colorful neighborhood politician, Flynn sought to remake his job into that of a globe-trotting humanitarian ambassador. He chafed under State Department resistance and, according to a report in the Boston Globe that cited friends, office staff and other diplomats in Rome, lost interest in the job so completely that for long periods he stopped coming to his office.

Boggs appears to be Flynn's polar opposite: a gracious, consensus-building team player.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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