The first thing you notice is the eye patch.
There are patches to match every mood, every outfit. Right now, it's raspberry pink, fastened with a thin lavender ribbon and tied in a bow behind champagne blond hair. Shades of Grace Kelly and Lee Remick. Star of her own Washington political dynasty. Stunning.
"Thank you darling," drawls 43-year-old Barbara Boggs Sigmund, "you should have seen me when I had two eyes."
Eldest daughter of the late House majority leader Hale Boggs and Rep. Corinne (Lindy) Boggs (D-La.), Sigmund is running for the New Jersey Senate seat vacated by Harrison Williams after he was convicted in the Abscam investigation. Sigmund lost her left eye to cancer six weeks ago. "I must say, I never thought that passage in the Bible--'If thy eye offends thee pluck it out'--would ever apply literally," she says. "I always thought it was some excuse for the Spanish Inquisition."
Less than two hours after leaving the hospital, her face still swollen from the operation, Sigmund slipped on a red silk dress, a pair of red high heels and a heart-shaped patch, and appeared at a political fund-raiser in her home town of Princeton. Supporters were crying. Sigmund was not. "You're a sight for a sore eye," she quipped.
If she wins the Democratic primary on June 8, Sigmund will face the winner of the Republican runoff, probably 72-year-old Rep. Millicent Fenwick.
Fenwick is thrilled at the prospect. "If she survives the primary and I do, we'll have a good, high-level, no-mud-slinging campaign. I think it would be great." Fenwick calls Sigmund "a gallant spirit" and already, political pundits have dubbed the possible fight "The Patch vs. The Pipe." One local columnist says it makes sense, pitting "one quirky, eccentric woman against another."
If Sigmund wins, she will take her place in history as a member of the first mother-daughter team in Congress. The female Goldwaters. The Boggsy Twins.
Sigmund has never lost an election.
"The first election I ever won was as the little Virgin Mary," she says, sinking into the sofa in the comfortably lived-in living room of her Princeton home and kicking off her size-8 1/2 brown leather heels. The contest was held in the third grade at The Rosary school in New Orleans. Sigmund breaks into a singsong.
"The Lit-ttle Virgin Marrrry/Was only 3 years old/When to her uh something mother/A secret sweet she told/To go up to the Tem-Ple/And serve her God alone . . ."
She guffaws, a throaty Phyllis Diller laugh filling the room. "It's been downhill electorally ever since. I think I'll tell them that in Elizabeth tonight," she says to her secretary, hovering in the doorway. "They'll love it. They're mostly Catholic."
Born in Louisiana, Sigmund was 15 months old when her father beat the powerful political machine of Huey Long to win his first term in Congress. "She was totally immersed in politics from the moment she was born," says Lindy Boggs in her soft Louisiana lilt. "It was as natural as breathing."
She sat at the knee of Sam Rayburn, at the age of 7 witnessed President Harry Truman deliver the Truman Doctrine on the House floor, adored Adlai Stevenson, ran through the marble halls of the Capitol in her Mary Janes, was crowned Washington's Cherry Blossom princess, reigned as queen of the Mardi Gras Ball (escorted by then-vice president Richard Nixon), worked in John F. Kennedy's White House, became engaged for a year to former New York congressman and political organizer Allard Lowenstein and danced with the president of the United States--Lyndon Johnson--at her Washington wedding.
After her marriage to Paul Sigmund, Princeton University professor of politics, Barbara had three children, taught at a private girls' school, then decided it wasn't enough. In 1972, she was elected to the Princeton Borough Council. Four years later she won a seat on the Mercer County Board of Freeholders (county commissioners). In 1979, she was elected president of the board and last year served as president of the New Jersey Association of Counties. She has also been a delegate to the last two Democratic national conventions.
Meanwhile, her mother had been elected to fill her late father's congressional seat. Her brother, Tommy Boggs, had become an influential Washington lawyer and lobbyist, and her younger sister, Cokie Roberts, was covering Congress for National Public Radio. Washington was calling.
"I sometimes feel she has had a tiny bit of longing to be with all of us," says her mother. "That she felt maybe a little bit left out."
It makes sense that Sigmund would seek a place on Capitol Hill. She is, say friends and family, the ghost of Hale Boggs, whose plane disappeared without a trace over Alaska 10 years ago. Her personality is closer to Hale's than to Lindy's, they say. She has his droll sense of humor, his speaking ability, his sense of commitment.
"And she also doesn't like to take a lot of guff," says Cokie Roberts. "Which he didn't either."
"She's bright, attractive, able, tough," says her brother, Tommy Boggs.
"She's outgoing, a tireless worker, an advocate. I guess that makes her like Hale," says Gary Hymel, executive vice president of Gray & Co. and Hale Boggs' former administrative assistant. "She's also smart as hell."
"I think all of us feel that Hale sort of went off into the wild blue yonder and we have an obligation to carry on and finish so many things he wished to do," says Lindy Boggs, her steel-blue eyes moist with tears.
Did Lindy push her eldest child into politics? "Are you kidding?" the congresswoman cries. "I've had a hard time keeping up with her." The D.C. Connections
The phones are ringing in the Sigmund-for-Senate headquarters on Nassau Street in Princeton. It used to be a gourmet food store. The tiny flowered wedgewood blue wallpaper is still on the walls. On the front table is a wicker basket with 75-cent packets of herb seeds tied with lavender ribbons selling for $1 with the tag, "Barbara Sigmund . . . Home Grown Candidate." The press secretary is behind a metal desk.
"I'm here to see Barbara Sigmund."
"Who? Oh yeah, well, weren't you supposed to come on Monday?"
"Today is Monday."
"Oh God, you're right. Well, Barbara's not here."
"Where is she?"
"Well, I'm not sure. She canceled her 2 o'clock so she should be coming back from a luncheon."
Forty-five minutes later, Sigmund arrives home. But you can't go over yet, her secretary explains. Barbara has to vacuum the carpet.
She's been up since dawn, campaigning, attending meetings, with an afternoon staff meeting scheduled, a fund-raiser at 6 p.m. and a "Candidate's Night" in Elizabeth at 8. Friends say the loss of her eye and the resulting distorted vision has brought on a constant feeling of nausea. She never mentions it.
"I never had the notion that God was up for deals," says Sigmund, curling her stockinged feet up on the living room sofa. " 'If I behave this way, you're not going to get me, you're not going to punish me.' Which is the way most people think about religion. I always knew He was much more subtle than that. He was much more suspectible to charm, shall we say."
She adjusts her eye patch. "I always thought He was a cross between a Jewish mother and a Christian gentleman, to tell the truth."
As a child, Sigmund spent six months a year in Washington and the other six months in New Orleans. She attended private Catholic girls' schools, The Rosary in New Orleans and Stone Ridge Country Day School in Bethesda. In the fifth grade, she was president of her class. At both schools. Simultaneously.
"When the Reverend Mother learned I would be gone from New Orleans after Christmas, I said, 'Well, in a democracy that's the purpose of a vice presidency, Reverend Mother. We have a perfectly capable vice president.' She loved it."
There was no cachet in having a congressman for a father. "The only way specialness played any role whatsoever is that obligatory sense of specialness. You've been lucky to be where you are, who you are . . . your socioeconomic status in life. Because of that, we owed. We were blessed. From whom much has been given, much is expected. That kind of thing."
She graduated from Stone Ridge , majored in politics at Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart, landed a job in the White House writing messages ("I would imitate Ted Sorensen imitating John Kennedy") worked with the National Student Association in forming a domestic peace corps and got into politics in Mercer County.
"I really enjoy the local level of government," she says, slipping on her shoes. "I'd have to be blind in both eyes not to recognize that a lot of the connections that I've had in Washington have been useful . . . because I've known how to operate intergovernmentally. My experience is basically how to operate in Washington. I know it because I've been there all my life."
Sigmund originally declared her candidacy for Congress several months ago. Then, after Democratic Party leaders looked over the list of Senate hopefuls, they urged Sigmund to switch. She--a Princeton housewife with family connections--seemed to be their only hope.
She acknowledges that one reason for their decision was the media attention she would attract. "But I'd also like to think it's because I was a good candidate. I've worked very, very hard," she says. "I have a very good reputation as a public official."
She walks out to the porch of her ramshackle house ("seedy grandeur" is how Sigmund describes it) for a picture-taking session. "Good God, did I show you my needlepoint patch?" She goes in the house and returns with a red-and-white oval. The patch says, "Vote Sigmund."
"Look, isn't it great?" She puts it on at the request of the photographer, just as her father must have mugged in a Mardi Grad headdress 30 years ago.
She walks to the car. As for the real reason for the switch to the Senate race, she says in an aside, "What am I supposed to say? People thought everybody else was dull and I was bright? I can't say that." A Vote From Mom
Lindy Boggs is home in her Washington penthouse after a long day on the Hill. It is a dramatic contrast to her daughter's living room: pastels, orientals, silks and gleaming mirrors. She wears a lavender chiffon dress with a corsage of fake violets pinned to her left bosom, sips white wine and chooses her words carefully.
"It would be lovely for me to have Barbara in Washington. I think that I would simply glory in her service. She would make such a good senator."
Which places Lindy Boggs in the precarious position of opposing Millicent Fenwick, a friend and fellow female legislator.
"I love Millicent Fenwick very much," Boggs says. "Yesterday I had the opportunity to tell her so in person. I had written her a little note because I admire her and respect her and have a very affectionate regard for her . . . I said, 'I hope you know that my love and respect for you has not diminished in any way because of this situation.' She said, 'You know, I had the interesting question posed to me. How would it be if you and Barbara Sigmund were pitted against each other in the general election?' And I said, 'Wouldn't the state of New Jersey prosper as a result. For once the issues would be intelligently debated and there would be no name-calling.' "
Boggs smooths her chiffon skirt. "We've been very fortunate to have Millicent all these years as a voice. I also think that Barbara's is a voice that should be heard . . . We have to recognize there is a new day, a brighter song." (Millicent Fenwick politely disagrees. "There's a lot to be said for brighter songs and there's a lot to be said for experience.")
Sigmund's cancer came as a cruel blow. As a younger woman, Lindy Boggs had trouble with her own left eye. Pain. Loss of vision. She says it was a false glaucoma.
"When she called and told me, that was the first thing I said, 'Oh Barbara, it's so unfair. You had to be such a good little girl on so many occasions so Mommy could rest and wouldn't lose her left eye.' "
Cokie Roberts jokes that Fenwick with her pipe and Sigmund with her patch make up the whole Hathaway shirt man.
Lindy Boggs looks aghast.
"I think either of them is twice as good as the Hathaway shirt man, don't you?" Pumping the Paw
Barbara Boggs Sigmund is late. Her staffers are calling. She climbs into the car headed for her headquarters. The seat-belt warning buzzer sounds. "I called up the Department of Education and that's the sound I got all day long," she says. "I knew Reagan wanted to do it in, but I thought he'd be a little more subtle than that. Nobody was there. Just that sound. That's what the Department of Education has turned into."
She sits in the car a moment in front of her headquarters. Another long night ahead. Pressing the flesh. Smiling for the cameras. Joking about her eye. Living up to the Boggs' heritage. A black-and-white dog is sitting on the pavement, tied to a lamppost. She gets out of the car and approaches the animal, ready to shake its paw. Then she turns and laughs, too many campaign trails behind her.
"Kiss the dog," she says to herself. "Kiss the dog."