In 1972, while he was still Majority Leader, the twin engine airplane in which Boggs was traveling disappeared over a remote section of Alaska. The airplane presumably crashed and was never found. Congressman Nick Begich, of Alaska, was also presumed killed in the same accident.
Born in Long Beach in Harrison County on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Boggs was educated at Tulane University where he received a bachelor's degree in journalism in 1934 and a law degree in 1937. He first practiced law in New Orleans but soon became a leader in the movement to break the power of the political machine of U.S. Senator Huey Pierce Long, Jr., who was assassinated in 1935. Long had previously broken the power of New Orleans politicians in 1929.
A Democrat, Boggs was elected to the U.S. House for the Second District and served from 1941 to 1943. At the time he was elected he was, at twenty-six, the youngest member of Congress. After an unsuccessful re-election bid in 1942, Boggs joined the United States Navy as an ensign. He served the remainder of World War II.
After the war, Boggs began his political comeback. He was again elected to Congress in 1946 and was then re-elected thirteen times, once just after he disappeared, but before he was presumed dead. In 1951, Boggs launched an ill-fated campaign for governor of Louisiana. Leading in the polls early in the campaign, he was soon put on the defensive when another candidate, Lucille May Grace, at the urging of long-time Louisiana political boss Leander Perez , questioned Boggs' membership in the American Student Union in the 1930s. By 1951, the ASU was thought to be a Communist front. Boggs avoided the question and attacked both Grace and Perez for conducting a smear campaign against him. In his book, The Big Lie, author Garry Boulard suggests strongly that Boggs was a member of the ASU but tried to cover up that fact in the different political climate of the early 1950s.
Boggs finished third in the balloting for governor early in 1952. The Boggs candidate for lieutenant governor, C.E. "Cap" Barham of Ruston, prevailed in a runoff election against future Governor John McKeithen. The Boggs choice for register of state lands, Ellen Bryan Moore of Baton Rouge, won the office vacated by Lucille May Grace. Moore defeated Mary Evelyn Dickerson, future state treasurer in the second McKeithen administration. Two other Boggs candidates were defeated, including State Senator Chester J. Coco of Marksville for attorney general, who lost to Fred S. LeBlanc, the former mayor of Baton Rouge, and Douglas Fowler of Coushatta, defeated by Allison Kolb of Baton Rouge, who later switched to Republican affiliation.
Boggs won the gubernatorial endorsement of the Shreveport Times, which hailed the representative for having stopped the Truman administration from "altering oil-depletion allowances in federal taxation, thus blocking... efforts to tie a millstone around the neck of the petroleum industry of Louisiana."The Times, in a dig at Miss Grace, also cited Boggs' fight in Congress as early as 1941 against communism and subversion in government. Other newspapers supporting Boggs were the since defunct Monroe Morning World and the functioning Monroe News-Star.
Senator Russell B. Long endorsed Boggs, but many in the Long faction had preferred Judge Carlos Spaht of Baton Rouge, who ultimately lost the runoff election to another judge, Robert F. Kennon of Minden, whom Russell Long had narrowly defeated in the special Senate election in 1948.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune endorsed not Boggs for governor but instead the fourth-place primary candidate, James M. McLemore, a wealthy cattleman and auction barn owner from Alexandria. Lionel Ott, a member of the New Orleans City Council, was the McLemore choice for lieutenant governor; Kennon's preference for lieutenant governor was Elmer David Conner (1905-1965) of Jennings, who in 1952 became the new administration's director of commerce and industry. Both Ott and Conner were eliminated in the primary.
The Boggs Act of 1952, sponsored by Hale Boggs, set mandatory sentences for drug-related offenses. A first-offense conviction for marijuana possession carried a minimum sentence of 2 to 10 years with a fine of up to $20,000.
In 1960, the Republican Elliot Ross Buckley, a cousin of William F. Buckley Jr., challenged Boggs but got only 22,818 votes (22 percent) to the incumbent's 81,034 ballots (78 percent). The Kennedy-Johnson ticket easily won in Louisiana that year.
In 1962, 1964, and 1968, David C. Treen, a Metairie lawyer who became the first Louisiana Republican governor in 1980, challenged Boggs for reelection. Treen built on Buckley’s efforts in the first contest, and Goldwater's momentum in Louisiana helped in the second race. It was in the 1968 election, however, that Treen fared the best: 77,633 votes (48.8 percent) to Boggs's 81,537 ballots (51.2 percent). Treen attributed Boggs's victory to the supporters of former Alabama Governor George C. Wallace Jr., who ran for president on the American Independent Party ticket. Treen said that Wallace supporters "became very cool to my candidacy. We couldn’t really believe they would support Boggs, but several Democratic organizations did come out for Wallace and Boggs, and he received just enough Wallace votes to give him the election.”"Republican officials seemed convinced that fraudulent votes in some Orleans Parish precincts benefited Boggs and that Treen may have actually won the election. There were rumors of election officials who cast votes for people who did not show up at the polls and signed for them in the precinct registers.
During his tenure in Congress, Boggs was an influential player in the government. After Brown v. Board of Education, he signed the Southern Manifesto condemning desegregation in the 1950s and opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Unlike most other Southern Representatives, however, he supported the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Open Housing Act of 1968. He was instrumental in passage of the interstate highway program in 1956.
Boggs was the youngest member of the Warren Commission that investigated the assassination of John F. Kennedy from 1963 to 1964. In a 1966 appearance on Face the Nation, Boggs defended the Commission's findings and stated that he did not doubt that Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy. He said that all the evidence indicated that Kennedy was shot from behind and that the argument that one bullet hit both Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally was "very persuasive." Boggs took issue with the assertions of Warren Commission critics and stated that it was "human nature" that "many people would prefer to believe there was a conspiracy."
He served as Majority Whip from 1962 to 1971 and as majority leader from January 1971 to his disappearance. As the whip, he ushered much of President Johnson's Great Society legislation through Congress.
On August 22, 1968, while Secretary of State Dean Rusk was testifying in a hearing concerning the Vietnam War, Boggs interrupted the session to announce the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the troops of the Soviet Union, after hearing of a recent Radio Prague broadcast telling the Czechoslovaks not to take any action against the occupying forces. That caused Secretary Rusk, who was previously unaware of the situation, to excuse himself immediately, mid-testimony, to attend to the issue of the invasion.) (Source: Walter Cronkite: The Way It Was: The 1960s)
In April 1971, he made a speech on the floor of the House in which he strongly attacked FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and the whole of the FBI.
That led to a conversation on April 6, 1971 between President Richard M. Nixon and the Republican minority leader, Gerald R. Ford, Jr.. Nixon said that he could no longer take counsel from Boggs as a senior member of Congress. In the recording of this call, Nixon asked Ford to arrange for the House delegation to include an alternative to Boggs. Ford speculated that Boggs is on pills as well as alcohol.
Later that month, Boggs went even further: "Over the postwar years, we have granted to the elite and secret police within our system vast new powers over the lives and liberties of the people. At the request of the trusted and respected heads of those forces, and their appeal to the necessities of national security, we have exempted those grants of power from due accounting and strict surveillance."
As Majority Leader, Boggs often campaigned for others. It was also in his interest to cultivate support from those Congressmen who'd voted against him for Majority Leader, as Representative Nick Begich of Alaska had done in 1970. On October 16, 1972, Boggs was aboard a twin engine Cessna 310 with Representative Begich, who was facing a possible tight race in the November 1972 general election against the Republican candidate, Don Young, when it disappeared during a flight from Anchorage to Juneau. Also on board were Begich's aide, Russell Brown, and the pilot, Don Jonz; the four were heading to a campaign fundraiser for Begich.
Coast Guard, Navy, and Air Force planes searched for the party. On November 24, 1972, the search was abandoned after 39 days. Neither the wreckage of the plane nor the pilot's and passengers' remains were ever found. The accident prompted Congress to pass a law mandating Emergency Locator Transmitters in all US civil aircraft.
After Boggs and Begich were re-elected posthumously that November, House Resolution 1 of January 3, 1973 officially recognized Boggs's presumed death and opened the way for a special election. The same was done for Begich.
The events surrounding Boggs's death have been the subject of much speculation, suspicion, and numerous conspiracy theories. The theories often center on his membership on the Warren Commission. Boggs dissented from the Warren Commission's majority who supported the single bullet theory. Regarding the single-bullet theory, Boggs commented, "I had strong doubts about it." In the 1979 novel The Matarese Circle, author Robert Ludlum portrayed Boggs as having been killed to stop his investigation of the Kennedy assassination.
In 1973, Boggs’s wife since 1938, Lindy Boggs, was elected as a Democrat to the 93rd Congress, by special election, to the second district seat left vacant by her husband's death. She was reelected to the eight succeeding Congresses (March 20, 1973 – January 3, 1991) and retired after the 1990 election. In 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed Lindy Boggs U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See. She served until 2001.
Hale and Lindy Boggs had four children: U.S. TV and public radio journalist Cokie Roberts, born December 27, 1943, and the wife of journalist Steven V. Roberts; Thomas Hale Boggs, Jr., a prominent Washington, D.C.,-based attorney and lobbyist; Barbara Boggs Sigmund, who served as mayor of Princeton, New Jersey; and William Robertson Boggs, who died as an infant on December 28, 1946. In 1982 Mrs. Sigmund lost a bid for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate to Frank Lautenberg.
Boggs was a practicing Catholic.
The Hale Boggs Memorial Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River in St. Charles Parish, is named in memory of the former congressman. The visitor center at Portage Glacier in Southcentral Alaska (located within Chugach National Forest) is named the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center. The Hale Boggs Federal Building, at 500 Poydras Street in New Orleans, is also named after him.
In 1993, Boggs was among thirteen politicians, past and present, inducted into the first class of the new Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame in Winnfield.