Friday, October 16, 2015

#CollisionWithFame: Hale Boggs And Nick Begich, October 16, 1972

In Alaska, flying is easier than driving.  This is especially the case for the campaigning politician, who has to cover vast distances to get to population centers and voters.  Alaska also has its share of airplane disappearances, leading some conspiracy buffs to argue for the existence of an “Alaska Triangle.”  It is into this alleged triangle that US Reps. Hale Boggs and Nick Begich flew on October 16, 1972, in a Cessna 310C with registration number N1812H.
Boggs, the US House majority leader, was campaigning for Begich, a freshman lawmaker who confronted a tough reelection challenge.  They were traveling from Anchorage to Juneau, an almost 600-mile, all-day trip by car but just over two hours in a Cessna.  The flight disappeared over the Chugach Mountains, a 300-mile-long range of towering, rocky peaks along the Copper River.   

The flight is mainly remembered for the presence of Hale Boggs. Boggs had climbed the ladder of power in Texas Speaker Sam Rayburn’s House of Representatives.  Born in Mississippi, he was elected to Congress in 1940 at just 26, then after losing renomination in 1942, enlisted in the Navy.  He then returned to Congress in 1946, and was reelected.  He was one of a select group of young lawmakers including future Speakers of the House Tip O’Neill, Carl Albert, and Jim Wright who emerged to dominate the leadership of the US House from the late 1960s until the late 1980s.  Boggs followed the classic pattern, making his way onto the Democratic Steering Committee, then becoming majority whip and majority leader; he was Carl Albert’s presumptive successor as Speaker.  He had been an exceptional southern Democrat; in the 1950s he had signed the Southern Manifesto protesting the Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended formal segregation, and had also voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  However, by 1965 Boggs had changed his mind on civil rights, supporting the 1965 Voting Rights Act and subsequent legislation.  As House majority whip, Boggs and floor leader Carl Albert were the principle strategists who shepherded LBJ’s Great Society legislation through the House. 

Coming just weeks before the general election, the crash could have had electoral repercussions.  Both missing members were reelected (the second and third deceased persons ever elected to Congress), and the search for their plane continued until November 14.  The US House passed a resolution on the opening day of session in 1973, recognizing the presumed death of the members and vacating their seats. Begich’s seat was won by his Republican opponent from the previous fall, Republican Don Young, while Bogg’s seat was won by his widow, longtime Democratic party activist and organizer Lindy Boggs.  If not for this event, Hale Boggs certainly would have become Speaker of the House after Carl Albert’s retirement.

The unfortunate crash had one long-term positive consequences for civil aviation in the United States.  Begich and Bogg’s plane was never located.  Subsequent to their disappearance and presumed death, Congress passed legislation requiring the placement of emergency location transmitters (often known as transponders or emergency position-indicating rescue beacons) on all civilian aircraft.    

Some conspiracy theorists are attracted to the crash because of Boggs’ habit of taking on seemingly corrupt icons. Hale had a history of opposing corrupt elements in Louisiana politics, including both the Long Political Machine and the “boss” control of Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parishes in south Louisiana by ballot-fixing Judge Leander Perez.  In Washington, he railed in the early 1970s against FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, alleging on the floor that Hoover was actively engaged in electronic surveillance of opponents of the Nixon Administration in advance of the Watergate scandal.  As an insider in the Washington establishment, he had climbed early to positions of influence and trust, including membership on the Warren Commission that investigated the Kennedy assassination. This tie alone is sufficient to feed conspiracy buffs.  The Boggs children, including prominent DC lobbyist Tommy Boggs and NPR journalist Cokie Boggs Roberts, do not support conspiracy theories of the crash.

Nick Begich’s son, Mike Begich, was elected to the United States Senate from Alaska in 2008.  His victory over long-time Republican incumbent Ted Stevens was one of the closest results ever in modern electoral history.