For a historian of any period, the passing of public figures almost always gives one pause to reflect on the impact that a single life can have on the course of history. That equation changes a great deal when that history is also your own history. And that is the case with the passing of Lindy Boggs, who was not only a major figure in American history, but also in my history. One can tick off the offices she held–congresswoman, ambassador, etc.–and the contributions she made to the various communities of which she was part, from New Orleans to the nation. But while I experienced that side of her, my memory is flooded by the sort of things that rarely make it into history books: late night talks, notes left for one another on staircases, gracious slips of advice when they were needed most, and the ready offering of the cure for almost everything–a hot toddy at just the right time of the evening.
But perhaps the most powerful legacy she has left, publicly and personally, was a never-flagging optimism that anything could be fixed or improved with just enough commitment, resolve, and, it must be said, good will. No one who really knew her ever mistook her almost ever-present politeness for weakness. Instead, it was maybe her greatest strength, an entire way of thinking about political engagement that has long been absent from the halls of Congress. In the end, all politics is personal, and Lindy never forgot that what we share, as Americans, is stronger than our differences. She firmly believed that our history and the principles behind it, enshrined particularly in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, gave political actors all the common ground they needed to make things better for the people. But that isn’t always easy. And it requires a clear understanding of our history to recognize its importance. By losing her, we have a stinging reminder what our political culture has lost.
That’s why Lindy is one of the major reasons I became a historian of early America–her example, her optimism, her belief in me, dozens of hours of late night talks about the founders as if they were in the next room, and, of course, a hot toddy or two. Then there is something she wrote in a book she gave to me about the Bill of Rights: she dedicated it to me “With Highest Hopes,” which I think reflected her perspective on America as much as it did upon me personally. That’s a legacy she has left for us all.