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1972: Louisiana’s Most Turbulent Year on the Hill

It’s shaping up to be a strange year in American politics. But for the state of Louisiana, 1972 was a year whose tumult gives the chaos of 2017 a run for its money.

45 years ago, the Louisiana congressional delegation experienced perhaps their most turbulent year in history. Many events of 2017 – the attempted assassination of Rep. Steve Scalise, investigations into the Trump administration and major congressional showdowns, have harkened back to the monumental events of that year. In 1972, amid Watergate and Vietnam, the state saw the loss of two of the delegation’s most influential members, Allen Ellender and Hale Boggs. The tragic events of that year would shape the way we, as a state, would be represented in the U.S. Congress, and set the stage for two of the most notable political careers in Louisiana history.

On July 27, 1972, Louisiana lost one of the most powerful members ever to serve in the state’s Congressional Delegation. Sen. Allen J. Ellender, 82, President Pro-Tempore of the U.S. Senate and Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, died at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. A politically savvy Cajun from Houma, Ellender served a total of 35 years, six months and 24 days in Congress.

Sen. Ellender had spent the sweltering day campaigning in Monroe, attempting to fight off a primary challenge from J. Bennett Johnston. Johnston, then a state senator from Shreveport, was trying to unseat the incumbent by capitalizing on the name recognition and support he had garnered in a razor-thin loss to Edwin Edwards in the previous year’s race for governor. This was the first formidable threat that Ellender had faced since his initial election in 1936, and it had forced the elderly senator to take up an active campaign schedule.

While flying back to Washington D.C., Ellender complained of stomach pains and discomfort. After a check-up in the Congressional Infirmary, doctors admitted him to Bethesda Naval Hospital. Shortly afterwards, he suffered a massive heart attack. President Nixon’s personal physicians desperately attempted to save the senator, but their efforts were in vain. Ellender died at 7:15 p.m.

President Nixon, informed of the news while dining with friends at Mount Vernon, was shocked. The White House issued a statement in which the President called Ellender “a good friend, a fine Senator, and a splendid American.”Nixon went on to talk about seeking Ellender’s counsel before foreign visits, and expressed the “profound sorrow and deep sympathy”of himself and Mrs. Nixon. The President also ordered all flags at half-staff to honor the senator.

According to tapes of President Nixon’s conversations, he spoke with top aide H.R. Haldeman at length about Ellender’s funeral in an Oval Office meeting the next morning. According to the President, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield had encouraged him to attend the funeral rather than a small memorial service at the Capitol. Nixon, in classic form, went on say that the funeral “would be a good way for us to get to Louisiana,”and further his re-election efforts in the south. Haldeman offered to find an excuse for Nixon to miss the funeral, but he insisted on attending. In the meeting, the President also explicitly instructed Haldeman to invite Sen. Russell Long and Reps. Hale Boggs, F. Edward Hebert, and Otto Passman to join him aboard Air Force One for the flight to Louisiana.

7/31/1972 President Nixon and a bipartisan group of Senators and Representatives aboard Air Force One en route to funeral of Sen. Allen Ellender (D-LA)

For the next few days, Sen. Ellender’s body lay in state at the Capitol in Baton Rouge. As Speaker of the Louisiana House of Representatives, Ellender had presided over the first legislative session held in the “new” capitol in 1932. It was during that session that a group of anti-Long legislators had attempted to remove him as Speaker, but he was saved by last-minute maneuvers from Sen. Huey P. Long and his brother Earl. 40 years later, statewide elected officials, legislators, and Gov. Edwin Edwards packed the rotunda for a farewell to Ellender. Edwards, noting the Senator’s Francophilia, finished his eulogy in French as a poignant tribute. Ellender’s body was then moved to Houma in preparation for the following day’s funeral services.

On the morning of the services, July 31st, President Nixon boarded Air Force One for the flight to Belle Chase Naval Air Station. The President was joined by the First Lady, Haldeman, Press Secretary Ron Zeigler, and Treasury Secretary George Schultz. Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott (R-PA) along with Sens. John McClellan (D-AR), James O. Eastland (D-MS) were on the flight, in addition to Reps. Boggs, Passman, and Waggonner from the Louisiana delegation. Cloistering himself with staff for most of the flight, Nixon finally emerged to take a photo with the Congressional representatives on board and then met with Rep. Waggonner briefly in his office before landing.

Upon landing, the President was greeted by Rep. F. Edward Hebert and the military commanders from Belle Chasse. After exchanging pleasantries on the tarmac, Nixon boarded Marine One for the 24-minute flight to Houma. In Houma, the Nixons were met by Sen. Russell Long and Gov. Edwin Edwards before motorcading to St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church. Ellender’s pastor, Fr. John Newfield and Archbishop Phillip Hannan of New Orleans presided over the service, while the Nixons joined the senator’s son and daughter-in-law in the front pew.

Also attending the funeral services were Vice President Spiro Agnew, Sen. Ted Kennedy and the Democratic nominee for President, George McGovern. Since Nixon did not consent to any joint appearances or debates during the 1972 campaign, Ellender’s funeral marked one of the few occasions in which both major candidates were together at an event.

After the Mass, Gov. Edwards spoke briefly with the President outside the church about appointing a successor to fill the six months remaining in Ellender’s term. Nixon did not indicate a preference, but said that no major legislation would be before the Senate this close to the election. Edwards, barely 18 months into his first term as governor, had been inundated by calls while press reports were speculating that he would appoint Johnston to the seat.

The President posed for a photograph on the steps of the church with the Ellender family, before departing for Belle Chasse. On board Air Force One, he met briefly with Lindy Boggs and Rep. Passman, who presented him with a watch.

Returning to Baton Rouge after the services, Gov. Edwards floated the idea of appointing his wife, Elaine, to fill Ellender’s seat. She consented and the governor made the announcement the following day from the press room on the fourth floor of the state capitol. It was not the first time that this type of appointment had been made in Louisiana. Gov. O.K. Allen had actually appointed Huey Long’s widow, Rose, to his seat in the U.S. Senate after the Kingfish’s assassination in 1935. Coincidentally, Rose Long’s successor was Allen Ellender. As part of the arrangement, Elaine Edwards would resign the seat following the November election, so that her successor could gain seniority over the new senators that would take office in January.

Since party qualifying for the Senate race had already closed, former Governor John McKeithen jumped in as an Independent. He was actively supported by the Ellender family, who were resentful of Johnston’s challenge to the late senator. However, McKeithen failed to pick up major endorsements and his fundraising stalled. He was also dogged by constant press reports of corruption and cronyism in his administration. On October 1, McKeithen’s home in Caldwell Parish burned to the ground while the candidate was eating Sunday dinner there. Unable to stop the blaze, the family was only able to grab a few relics and escape before the fire completely consumed the house.

On October 16th, 1972, Rep. Hale Boggs, the House Majority Leader, disappeared while campaigning for a Democratic Congressional candidate in Alaska. Boggs had represented the metro New Orleans area since 1947. A master of the legislative process, he had quickly risen through the ranks in Congress. Boggs also had a reputation as smooth operator. For instance, he had sponsored legislation for the NFL-AFL merger and landed New Orleans a professional football team in the process. Boggs also had become the subject of controversy, however, when he publicly criticized FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover for tapping the phones in his office. By 1972, Boggs was attempting to build support for a bid for Speaker of the House, and had been campaigning with Democrats across the country. While flying from Anchorage to an event in Juneau, Boggs’plane disappeared without a trace. Within hours, Coast Guard search vessels were searching waterways while military planes and helicopters scanned the sky looking for any sign of the aircraft in a dense fog.

At the White House, President Nixon was briefed on the events unfolding in Alaska by Gen. Alexander Haig, his military aide. Nixon called Lindy Boggs to express his concern and condolences. A massive search party conducted by both civilians and military personnel proved fruitless. With no hard evidence, commanders abandoned the search after 40 days, speculating that Boggs had been killed in a plane crash.  Rep. Thomas Phillip “Tip”O’Neill of Boston, Boggs’deputy, assumed his duties in Congress.

The first resolution passed by the new Congress in January of 1973 declared Hale Boggs legally dead and set a special election to succeed him. A funeral for Boggs – without a casket – was held at the St. Louis Cathedral, presided over by Archbishop Hannan. President Nixon was visiting the Soviet Union at the time, so Vice President Agnew represented the White House along with former President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird. It was one of Johnson’s last public appearances, as he died three weeks later at the LBJ Ranch in Texas.

Lindy Boggs handily won the special election to succeed her late husband. She would serve in Congress until 1991. President Bill Clinton, who as a young congressional staffer had driven Hale Boggs to National Airport for his fateful trip to Alaska, later appointed her Ambassador to the Vatican. In the race to succeed Ellender, J. Bennett Johnston trounced John McKeithen, 55-23%. Johnston would serve in the Senate until 1997, including a stint as Chairman of the Energy Committee and an unsuccessful attempt to become Senate Majority Leader in 1988.

It is worth nothing that had Hale Boggs lived and successfully won the Speakership, in addition to Allen Ellender surviving and winning re-election, that by January 1973, Louisiana would have had two of itsmembers of Congress serve simultaneously as Speaker of the House and President Pro-Tem of the Senate.

It would have been one for the history books.

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