by ERROL LABORDE
As the bus made its way to Naples, one of the world’s least powerful military forces was about to visit one of its most potent weapons, and Lindy Boggs was involved.
Stories are now surfacing about some of the behind-the-scenes events during the former New Orleans congresswoman’s tenure as what is properly titled “ambassador to the Holy See,” but more commonly known as the Vatican ambassador. Serving during most of President Clinton’s second term, the congresswoman was in Rome during the upheaval in Bosnia. On paper, the ambassadorship to the Pope seems like a ceremonial position, but because there are so many embassies converged in a fairly secure and stable setting, the Holy See’s diplomatic corps has often served as a listening post and message center for the world’s other events. Boggs, a genteel, open and friendly person, becomes stealthy on some topics about her ambassadorship, saying simply that she cannot talk about them.
Other incidents, however, had less impact on international politics and more to do with a Boggs’ specialty -- being nice. Some of these tales she revealed to an audience at the past Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. Two involved American ships docked in the Naples harbor. Boggs recalled that when U.S. Navy vessels docked there, they frequently had a surplus of food items that, according to regulations, were thrown away because they were past their expiration date but were nevertheless still safe to eat. Working with Catholic church groups, Boggs helped arrange for the food to be trucked to refugees in Bosnia. The maneuver was done quietly and without fanfare.
Then there was the group on the bus to Naples. Boggs had made the acquaintance of members of the Swiss Guard, the protectors of the Pope. The Guard, a unit that has not had a good fight since defending Pope Clement VII from Spanish and German invaders during the Sack of Rome in 1527, are known for their nifty Renaissance costumes. Though they do have guns locked away somewhere, their everyday weaponry consists mostly of ceremonial lances. “They’re really boys,” Boggs recalled, and, as such, one request they had was to visit an American aircraft carrier. Boggs handled the arrangements so that a Swiss Guard unit made the trip to Naples, where they stood wide-eyed on the flight deck. The trip was so popular that another Guard unit petitioned for a similar visit.
Boggs was very fond of Pope John Paul II. She remembered him as a man of good wit. By the time she arrived in Rome, he was already troubled with Parkinson’s disease. Once she witnessed him greeting a young priest. The Pope’s arm had a slight tremble as the two prelates shook hands. “My son,” John Paul II teased, “why are you shaking so much?”
Journalist Steve Roberts, Boggs’ son-in-law, who describes himself as a “Jewish guy from New Jersey,” told the festival audience about accompanying Boggs and his wife, Cokie Roberts, to the Pope’s summer home, where they were invited to a small group Mass. “We were escorted to an outside room,” Roberts said, “then brought into the chapel, and as we walked in, John Paul was already there dressed in white and deep in prayer. It was a deeply spiritual moment.”
Less spiritual was the political mission. Recalling her time at the Vatican, Boggs joked, “Cokie told me that I had the toughest job in politics, representing Bill Clinton to the Pope.”