A political spouse defies norm
Teresa Heinz Kerry's unabashed approach is a plus for some voters, a concern for others.
NEW YORK — When Teresa Heinz Kerry speaks, there's often a glint of mirth in her eyes, as if she were aware that she doesn't fit the classic template for American political wives.
Oh, she understands the game. But in this era of slick political image-making and carefully planned spin, she just rolls her eyes and refuses to play. Her easy self-confidence and exotic looks - not to mention her Portuguese lilt - make Ms. Heinz Kerry seem more a character from a European novel than a future first lady. And her startlingly straight answers to questions most would evade are enough to make any campaign handler squirm.
Botox injections? Of course. Actually, she says she may need another soon. A pre-nup with John Kerry to protect her $500 million-plus fortune? Absolutely, a must. Her husband's running mate? "I have to say that John Edwards is very beautiful," she says.
So Tuesday night, when Heinz Kerry takes the podium at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, many people across the nation will catch their first glimpse of one of the most unusual would-be first ladies in the nation's history. Born in Africa, fluent in five languages, her unruly hair a copper color more common with women half her age, she strikes a figure rarely seen in US politics. "She is absolutely her own woman," said Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill at a Monitor breakfast with reporters.
That's both good news and bad news for political staffers. Asked if the campaign is trying to control what their candidate's wife says, Ms. Cahill offered an indirect answer. "There are those things you can do, and those you can't," she said.
Today some see Heinz Kerry's sometimes blunt candor as a refreshing departure from scripted talking points. Others worry that during a time of such rancorous political divisions, such independence could only inflame the raging culture wars.
"She is definitely a change," says Myra Gutin, a professor at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., and author of "The President's Partner: The First Lady in the 20th Century." "She would be only the second foreign-born first lady we'd have. She's been very candid - some might say unguarded.... Even in her most flip moments, Hillary Clinton was never like this."
Take her name. She freely admits that her legal name is, and will remain, Teresa Heinz. The addition of "Kerry," she says, was simply a nod to the needs of the campaign. "Now, politically, it's going to be Teresa Heinz Kerry," she once told a woman's magazine. "But I don't give a [expletive], you know? There are other things to worry about."
She is far from a demure spouse. Instead of gazing lovingly at her husband while he's speaking, she can fidget and even frown. In one of their first interviews, before Senator Kerry had announced his presidential bid, she flew into a rage in front of the reporter, prompting a less-than-flattering story of the couple.
"Part of the electorate looks at the relationship between a candidate and his wife, and they wonder - not out loud - is this the kind of marriage of which I'd approve, or our circle would approve?" says James Hilty, a presidential historian at Temple University in Philadelphia. "So the Heinz-Kerry relationship is a tad odd in this time of enormous partisanship."
Then, for some, there's the issue of her "worldliness." Maria Teresa Thierstein Simoes-Ferreira was born in 1938 to Portuguese parents in colonial Mozambique. Her father, a doctor, used to take her on his calls in the African bush. Later, when she was studying Romance languages in South Africa, she marched against apartheid when it was a dangerous thing to do. She met her first husband, the ketchup heir H. John Heinz III, who would later become a Republican senator from Pennsylvania, while studying languages in Geneva.
"The worldliness that she brings to things would be a tremendous asset," says Adam Turteltaub, a close family friend. "The fact that she was raised in Africa, and has seen a great deal of the world, and has an international perspective because of that - I can't think of too many first ladies who have brought that in."
Yet "worldliness" is a quality many "red state" voters might find suspect. Her exotic appeal is for others something foreign and perhaps even un-American. Indeed, Senator Kerry has described the "fullness of her womanness," describing his wife as "very earthy, sexy, European. She knows how to speak with her eyes."
It was her late husband who first introduced Teresa to Kerry at an Earth Day event in 1990. When Senator Heinz was killed in an airplane crash in 1991, many Pennsylvania Republicans urged Teresa to take her husband's seat. But she declined, instead taking charge of the family's philanthropic empire. She married Kerry in 1995, after the two met again at an environmental summit in Brazil.
Heinz Kerry remained an active Republican until 2002. She still believes the government should harness the forces of the marketplace for the public good, and as a Catholic, she has sometimes spoken critically of abortion. She changed party affiliations, she says, not because her husband was running for president, but because of the "unscrupulous and disgusting" way Georgia Republicans attacked former Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, a veteran who had lost both legs and an arm fighting in Vietnam. Today Teresa Heinz is chairman of both the Heinz Endowments and the Heinz Family Philanthropies, a consortium of private foundations that control more than $1.3 billion in assets.
"Democratic voters in the East and in California likely will be drawn to her independent, outspoken style," says Mr. Hilty, "while the Bible Belt folks apparently prefer the Laura Bush good-mother, good-wife style."