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Lindy Boggs, Billy Guste and Stories from Rome

Last March I wrote a blog post about Lindy Boggs on the occasion of her 97th birthday. A life that long lived in high places is filled with stories including these from her tenure in Rome. Boggs, who died Saturday at the age of 97, served New Orleans as a member of congress and then later served the nation as ambassador to what is officially known as “The Holy See.”* No New Orleanian has ever been as close to papal power as she was.

But first I also want to acknowledge the death of former Louisiana state Attorney General Billy Guste, who died last week at 91. Guste was the longest serving attorney general (1972-1992) and was instrumental in the early days of trying to shape environmental policies. He and Boggs also shared something else in common in that they were devout Catholics. Early in his career Guste was the state Grand Knight for the Knights of Columbus. His family was prominent even without politics – they owned Antoine's – but as a politician, Guste had the extra boost of Catholic power back when that probably meant more than it does today.

As for Boggs: Serving during most of Bill Clinton's second term, the former congresswoman was in Rome during the upheaval in Bosnia. On paper the Vatican Diplomatic Corps seems like a ceremonial position, but because there are so many embassies converged in a fairly secure and stable setting, the diplomats have often served as a listening post and message center for the world's other events. Boggs, a genteel, open and friendly person became stealth on some topics about her ambassadorship saying simply that she could not talk about them.

Other incidents, however, had less impact on international politics and more to do with Boggs' specialty: being nice. Two involved American ships docked in the Naples harbor. Boggs recalled that when U.S. Navy ships arrived, 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, without any fanfare.

Then there were the boys on the bus. Boggs had made the acquaintance of members of the Swiss Guard, the protectors of the pope. The guard members, 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, just in case, 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. Here was the world’s most primitive army aboard the world’s most potent military machine. 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. He was troubled with Parkinson's disease by the time she was there. 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 teased, "why are you shaking so much?"

Some of the tales were told when Boggs was on a panel at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival in 2005. Also on the panel was journalist Steve Roberts, Boggs’ son-in-law, who describes himself as a "Jewish guy from New Jersey." He told the festival audience about once 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 recalled, "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."


*We incorrectly spelled "The Holy See" in an earlier version of this blog post. We apologize for the error.

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